Charting a New Course in Micronesia

By R. Val Johnson

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    He lies in the bottom of his canoe, feeling for the subtle motions of the waves. Each wave carries a message—which island it has bounced off most recently, which other waves it has encountered. From training and experience, he knows the waves, knows what they tell him about where he is. And once he knows where he is, he knows where home is.

    Nowadays, not many islanders remember how to use the sea to navigate. Micronesia has been caught for too long in changing cultural currents far stronger and more confusing than any that collide with the island shores.

    “I, the Lord your God, … remember those who are upon the isles of the sea” (2 Ne. 29:7)

    Micronesia covers more than 11,649,000 square kilometers of the central Pacific (larger than all of Europe combined), but has a combined land area of only 3,227 square kilometers (about the size of Luxembourg). Of the 2,200 small islands and atolls, only about 125 are inhabited. The islands are grouped into seven political units: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (consisting mostly of the Caroline Islands), the Republic of Palau, the (United States) Territory of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, the Republic of Nauru, and the Republic of Kiribati (formerly known as the Gilbert Islands). Several other islands, like those in the Wake and Johnston atolls, are United States possessions.

    For millennia, life in Micronesia was much the same. Temperatures varied little, and there was plenty of fish in the lagoons to supplement the fruit, vegetables, and roots cultivated on land. Though some archipelagos experienced periods of drought, most received enough rain to remain verdant year-round.

    Illness and death from disease and the dangers of the sea was not uncommon, but the people had strong family and community ties, with a tradition of helping one another. The women held title to the land, and chiefs were chosen from among the men. Skills in carpentry, fishing, agriculture, and medicine were valued, and neighboring islands traded crafts. Each person belonged to a family and clan; each knew his or her place in the world.

    Today, change is sweeping over Micronesia like giant waves. Although many people on islands distant from the political and commercial centers live much as their ancestors did, those in the urban areas are struggling against strong new social currents. Centuries of occupation by one nation after another has left the ancient culture battered. In recent years, welfare handouts have seriously undermined the islanders’ self-sufficiency; traditional skills are losing ground to government-sponsored consumerism. Diets that increasingly include imported foods have made diabetes a major health concern. Alcohol and tobacco are destroying lives. On some islands, suicide is the major cause of death among young men who, with little to do and no place to go, find themselves adrift on an unfamiliar ocean.

    Not all the changes are negative, of course. Though still not widely available, modern medicine has lengthened life and decreased suffering. Opportunities for education are available. The family unit remains strong, and community solidarity is still a way of life.

    Of even greater significance, however, is the message that missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been bringing to the islands for several decades: The Lord cherishes these isles of the sea, and his church charts a safe course through these turbulent times. As the good news spreads, more and more Micronesians are finding their place in the world and navigating their way Home.

    “A Woman’s Face Is Not Her Only Virtue” (From a Chuukese Proverb)

    How Magrina Sam Aiten came to be endowed in the Manila Philippines Temple illustrates the distances, both physical and cultural, Micronesians often cross when coming to the Lord. While living in Chuuk (or Truk), she was visited by the missionaries. When she asked them a question about Joseph Smith, “their answer touched my heart, and I asked them to give me the discussions.”

    Reading the Book of Mormon gave her a testimony of the gospel, but her testimony alienated her from her husband. He resented the missionaries’ visits. When the elders taught Magrina about fasting, she decided that her first fast would be for her husband. “I felt the Spirit, and my husband’s heart was softened.” He allowed the missionaries to continue meeting with Magrina and the children. “After one month, he joined us,” Magrina says. “In January 1986, I, my husband, and our oldest child were baptized.”

    Her mother also felt unhappy about her association with the Church. “My Mom didn’t want me to join and said that if I did I wouldn’t be her daughter anymore.” In a society that values family relationships more than personal preferences, that was a difficult thing to hear. “But I told my kids to pray for Mom.” After three months, her mother came to Magrina’s home and stayed the weekend.

    On Monday, the family had family home evening. “Mom was really quiet,” Magrina says. “My daughter gave the closing prayer, and after we finished, all the kids hugged her and kissed her. She had tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘Maybe this is a good way to raise your kids. They are sure different from you when you were little.’ I said that’s right; I didn’t know how to pray. But my children know how to conduct themselves.”

    Not long after that, Magrina moved to Saipan, some 1,300 kilometers away. Saipan is something of a melting pot. A large island (23-by-8 kilometers) in the northern Marianas, it serves as home—and home away from home—for people from all over the Pacific and from as far away as the United States and Europe. The Japanese have made it a popular tourist destination, and Filipinos and Koreans come to work in its textile factories. Islanders from other parts of Micronesia have found it attractive as a place where the life-style is halfway between Micronesian traditional and Western contemporary.

    On Saipan, Magrina met Jim and Julie Ellis, mainland Americans living on the island. Jim was her home teacher, Julie her visiting teacher. In 1992, Jim encouraged Magrina to go to the temple. She wanted to go, but by then her husband had died and she had remarried. Her nonmember husband refused to let her go. Eventually, their disagreements led them to separate.

    The day before she was to fly to Manila, her husband returned. “When he walked in the door and saw my face, he knew that I hadn’t changed my mind. I loved him, but I also loved my kids and wanted the best for them.” He consented to her trip—and even agreed to stop smoking and drinking in the house.

    “So I went to the temple, and Sister Ellis went with me. I really felt the Spirit. Everything touched my heart.” While there, she had the temple work done for her first husband.

    The book of Proverbs praises the woman of virtue as more precious than rubies. “Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. …

    “Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. …

    “A woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31:25, 28, 30).

    In Micronesia, there are many women worthy of such praise.

    “You Don’t Know If a Coconut Contains Milk until You Open It” (Palauan Proverb)

    More than fifty years ago, Ben Roberto was born on Angaur, a small island some three kilometers wide and four kilometers long near Palau (or Belau). “When I was young,” Ben says, “Angaur seemed like a large place, but when I started looking at magazines and seeing other places, I realized how small it was.” After two years in college on Guam, he joined the United States army, hoping to experience more of the world.

    He found more than he expected during his tour of service in Vietnam. “I had never experienced anything like that,” Ben says. “It got me to wondering what life was all about.” After his service in the military, Ben worked at various jobs in the United States, finally ending up as an iron worker. He was looking for “something exciting.” But “after all the searching, there was still something missing. I felt there had to be more to life.”

    One day he came across a Gideon Bible in a motel room. Reading it left him hungry for more and feeling that what he might be looking for was God. “So I started looking, going to different churches. Something started happening to me, troubling me, telling me to go to Palau. I was in Milwaukee when I decided to go home.”

    After Ben returned to Palau, his long search for God remained fruitless—until one day in 1980, a year after his return home, he was approached by LDS missionaries. The Church was new in Palau, and at first he rejected their words as nonsense. But after reading the Book of Mormon and some other Church literature, he received a spiritual witness that he had found the truth.

    Ben was baptized and turned his life over to the Lord. Despite his age (he was 41 at the time), he was prompted to serve a mission. It didn’t seem a likely possibility—but a mission president was inspired to call him on a district mission. Elder Roberto served in Palau for 16 months. Shortly after his release, he was married, then sealed in the Manila Philippines Temple.

    Ben currently serves as a district president. He is also a member of Palau’s board of education and works for the legislature. “The Church has been the greatest education that I have had,” he says. “When I’m given a task, I use my church experience, the way the Church does things, to get it done.”

    President Roberto praises the missionaries for helping redirect the tide of change in Micronesia. The gospel improves lives, and because the missionaries represent it so well, “many Palauans are accepting the Church. Every missionary who has come has left a good impression.”

    And now missionaries are being called from the islands. When Ben was serving his mission, he taught a young Palauan named Rebluud Kesolei. Brother Kesolei recently served his own mission, finishing as an assistant to the mission president. Now other young men are following Elder Kesolei into the mission field.

    The changes in the lives of these native missionaries are impressive. “The Lord brings these young men into a mission,” Ben says, “then he shines them. They are shining wherever they go, and other young Palauans look at them and want to be like them.”

    Much like Lehi, they have opened the coconut and tasted the milk (see 1 Ne. 8:11–12). Now they find joy in sharing the fruit of the gospel with those they love.

    “Family Ties Do Not Break” (From a Pohnpeian Proverb)

    This year, Ricky Joel, 18, graduated from high school on Pohnpei (or Ponape), a mountainous, tropical island about 19 kilometers wide and 23 kilometers long. He is a second-generation Latter-day Saint, an example of the blessings that come to families who join the Church.

    “Ricky doesn’t drink or smoke,” his sister, Jayleen, says. “And he has lots of friends. The guys say, ‘You need to respect him; he’s a priest.’ And all my girlfriends are interested in him. It’s rare to see a boy with teeth not stained by the betel nut.” Betel nut is a mild narcotic that, when chewed with lime, stains teeth red.

    Ricky’s parents were among the first to join the Church on Pohnpei. His father joined first, in 1977; his mother had a more difficult time because her grandfather was a minister in another religion. When the missionaries first arrived, persecution came, too. Some of the people “beat them up and told bad stories about them,” Ricky says. “But my dad made friends with them.”

    The persecution hasn’t ebbed much since then. Untruths still circulate. Even some schoolteachers talk against the Church. And in a society that equates manhood with smoking and drinking (both alcohol and a local limb-numbing beverage called sakau are popular), Ricky finds keeping the Word of Wisdom a challenge. “If you drink,” he says, “you have lots of friends. If you don’t drink, they call you a girl.”

    Ricky received his testimony of the gospel by working with the missionaries. Like his father, he developed a friendship with the elders and has been helping them for the past three years. Through the experience, he learned that the Book of Mormon is true. “Everything about the Church is true,” he says. “I feel lifted up.”

    Seeing how different Ricky and other active LDS youth are from their peers has begun to soften the attitude of many Pohnpeians toward the Church. While most of the younger generation are struggling to cope with newly imported vices like alcoholism and dysfunctional family life, the Latter-day Saint youth seem to be handling the challenges with better success.

    Still, there are plenty of challenges for Pohnpei’s young Latter-day Saints, who, like other LDS youth in the islands, are exploring new waters. They succeed by preferring a strong relationship with God to fitting in with the crowd. The love they feel for their Heavenly Father binds them to him and helps them keep his commandments.

    “If you don’t let what people think bother you,” Ricky says, “it’s easy being a Mormon.”

    “Where There Is Kindness, There Is Life” (From a Marshallese Proverb)

    When the missionaries first approached Jormeto and Vineta Moreang on Majuro, Jormeto told them he was busy. He admits now that he was stretching the truth. There’s not all that much to do on Majuro. Although it is the capital of the Marshall Islands, like most atolls it is a small, self-contained world. Thanks to construction of a causeway during the second world war that joined several islands in the atoll together, Majuro is more than 56 kilometers long. But it still remains only a few hundred meters wide. A single road connects the west end with the east. Recreation consists mostly of swimming and fishing.

    The Marshallese are a religious and hospitable people, and Jormeto, embarrassed by his inhospitality, finally allowed the missionaries into his home. At first, Vineta left when the elders came. But when she saw that her husband was serious about changing his life, she joined the discussions. Three months later, in July 1985, Jormeto was baptized. Vineta was baptized that October.

    Jormeto says that his life is much better now. “Before, I didn’t care about my family’s needs. I was just interested in cigarettes and drink. But when I learned that our Heavenly Father cared for us, I began to change. I started reading the scriptures and Church manuals.”

    “There’s a lot of change when a person joins the Church,” Vineta says. “Family life gets better. There is more respect. Even people’s bodies change, and they begin to change their environment.”

    Change did not come easily for the Moreangs. “I asked the missionaries a lot of hard questions,” Jormeto says. “But they never showed anger or disappointment. They always stayed with me, like brothers. The more I tried to push them away, the more they loved me.” Their gentle kindness and concern kept him listening until the Spirit finally swept through his soul like a cool ocean breeze. At that point, he embraced the gospel of life.

    And so have many others on Majuro. Some 10 percent of the estimated 23,000 people on Majuro have joined the Church, though keeping people active is a challenge. The Saints need training, and priesthood leaders are in short supply. Even so, Majuro may soon have the first stake in Micronesia. Brother Moreang explains the reason for the rapid growth: “Other churches are not teaching the true gospel,” he asserts. “People recognize the pure gospel when it comes.”

    Jormeto has seen the growth first hand. Shortly after his baptism, he was called to be president of the Long Island Branch on Majuro. At that time, only four members attended church. When he was released several years later, more than 100 were attending. Brother Moreang currently serves as a counselor in the district presidency and as Sunday School president of the Long Island Branch. He also teaches seminary and works as the custodian at the chapel.

    He has plenty to do.

    “The Lord Has Made the Sea Our Path” (2 Ne. 10:20)

    Not so long ago, experienced seafarers used stick charts to teach new sailors how to navigate. The charts showed the wave patterns in the archipelago, and by consulting the charts, young men quickly became expert at using the sea to find their way island to island.

    Today, stick charts are rarely used. Modern technology has swept away the need and knowledge to use them. In other ways as well, the modern world has sent waves of social change thundering throughout Micronesia. Whether the islanders are able to find a safe path among these confusing currents, or sink beneath them, depends largely on the choices they are making now. Some of the old ways need to be preserved. Others may need to be discarded. And some new customs can improve life. The problem is deciding which of the old ways to keep, which to set aside, and which of the new ways to adopt. Micronesians need an experienced navigator.

    For members of the Church that navigator is the Lord. Through his church, he is charting a safe course to a new and promising future. “Great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea,” Jacob wrote. “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose … the way of eternal life” (2 Ne. 10:21, 23).

    Photography by R. Val Johnson

    Ricky Joel, left, of Pohnpei, received his testimony while helping the missionaries. Above, Guam at sunset.

    Jim and Julie Ellis and their daughter, Megan, above, helped Magrina Sam Aiten, opposite page, holding baby, to make the journey from Saipan to the Manila Philippines Temple.

    Ben Roberto below, serves as district president and plays an active role as a member of the Koror Topside Branch, left, in Palau. He is also a member of Palau’s board of education and works for the legislature.

    “If you don’t let what people think bother you,” says Ricky Joel, 18, of Pohnpei, “it’s easy being a Mormon.”

    Vineta and Jormeto Moreang of Majuro have seen great changes in their family since joining the Church. “Before, I didn’t care about my family’s needs,” says Brother Moreang. “But when I learned that our Heavenly Father cared for us, I began to change.”