Tears stream down the missionary’s face as he watches the people he has taught come out of the water newly baptized. His heart swells with emotion as he listens to these new members of the Church thank their Father in Heaven for sending him to Tahiti to teach them the gospel. All the sacrifices he has made to serve a mission so far from home have been worth it.
At another baptism, a young girl of 14, with tears in her eyes, hugs the sister missionary who has taught her the gospel. Even though this missionary had to leave her home thousands of miles away to serve a mission, she feels it has been worth it.
Two missionary stories with the same emotion and the same sacrifice. It may be surprising to learn they took place 150 years and an ocean apart. The first missionary was Elder Addison Pratt, who in 1844 baptized the first members of the Church in the Pacific not far from Tahiti. The second missionary was Sister Barbara Nauta, a native Tahitian who left her island home to serve a mission in Canada in 1993.
For as long as the Church has been organized, missionaries have sacrificed to take the gospel to places like Tahiti. In Tahiti, missionary work now has come full circle. Today, young islanders are leaving their homes and serving missions on other islands as well as around the world.
A little more than 150 years ago, the first missionaries ever called to serve in an organized non-English-speaking mission started their missions in what is now French Polynesia, the most well-known island of which is Tahiti. Their mission calls came from the Prophet Joseph Smith himself.
Getting to Tahiti and the surrounding islands was no easy matter. It took almost a year of traveling. Those first missionaries—Addison Pratt, Benjamin F. Grouard, Noah Rogers, and Knowlton F. Hanks—literally had to sail around the world to get there. They traveled on land from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the East Coast of the United States to find a whaling ship going to the Pacific. They then sailed across the Atlantic, where Elder Hanks, suffering from ill health, died and was buried at sea. They rounded the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Indian Ocean, passed the islands of Southeast Asia, and landed first at the island of Tubuai, just south of Tahiti, nearly a year after they had left Nauvoo. They found the islanders eager to welcome them. Elder Pratt was immediately popular because, years earlier, as a sailor, he had visited Hawaii and learned a little of the Hawaiian language. The people of Tubuai could understand him.
Within a few years, there were hundreds of members of the Church on several islands, including Tahiti.
Eight years later, the government asked the missionaries to leave. For 40 or so years, the mission was closed, but a core of Church members stayed faithful. Then, when the mission was reopened, the Church in the islands began a hundred years of growth. It started slowly but picked up speed. Today, with four stakes, Tahiti and its neighboring islands have a temple, dozens of chapels, and scores of young people serving missions and many more preparing to serve as soon as they are old enough.
Just like those missionaries 150 years ago, young Tahitians look to the Lord to guide them as they serve. For example, Sister Barbara Nauta, who grew up in Tahiti, served in the Canada Toronto Mission. She said investigators in Canada were amazed that she had left her warm Pacific island to learn another language (Barbara, who speaks French and Tahitian, had to learn English) and endure cold and snow. They asked her why. “I told them the Lord sent me here,” she says.
French Polynesians today still know the names of those first missionaries of 150 years ago. They also treasure the names of other missionaries who have served since then—especially the missionaries who first taught them the gospel.
For 17-year-old twins Titaina and Titaua Germain, from the Haumi Branch on the island of Moorea, those special missionaries are Elder Nelson and Elder Snowden. The twins, who share everything, including remarkably similar faces, said: “When the missionaries explained to us about the principles of the gospel, we were truly astounded. It was as if we had dreamed of meeting people who lived like this and a church that worked like this one.”
The twins have to wait until their 18th birthday to be baptized, but they attend all their church meetings and institute classes besides. “We were both interested from the moment we heard about the gospel from Elder Nelson and Elder Snowden,” said Titaina. Or was it Titaua? “We feel the same about things.”
There are living, breathing pioneers in French Polynesia. Lianna Tarahu, 14, of Hapiti, needs to look no further than her grandparents. They joined the Church many years ago and remember with fondness Elder John Fuhriman, the missionary who taught them.
Because of her grandparents, Lianna is the third generation in her family to be active in the Church. But Lianna, just like everyone, had to gain her own testimony.
“First of all, I was very blessed to be raised in the Church. My parents taught me all of my life the principles of the gospel. We have studied the scriptures together,” said Lianna. “There wasn’t a particular moment or one experience, but many things through the years that have helped my testimony grow little by little. Now I attend seminary and am learning a lot of wonderful things about the gospel. Because of seminary, when I serve a mission I will be much better prepared.”
Lianna is very serious about a mission. She said her favorite scripture is 1 Nephi 3:7, in which Nephi promises to go and do the things the Lord commands. Lianna says, “This promise is one I make also.” When asked what she will do if she is called to a faraway place, Lianna hesitates. She is the oldest of 11 brothers and sisters. She will miss her many family members, and they will miss her. Then she says: “It would make no difference. If the Lord calls me to America, to London, or to Bora Bora, I will serve.”
Taped in the front of Lianna’s scriptures is a copy of the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth. Of course, her copy is in French, so it’s called Soyez Fort, “Be Strong.” She looks at it often.
Is it difficult for her to follow the standards? Lianna gives one example. “It is very hot here, but we are told to be modest and wear dresses and blouses with sleeves,” Lianna says. “Sometimes it is difficult, but the standards are good and protect us. We learn many things we need to know to be Saints.”
Stelio Mauahiti lived next door to an attractive building in Paea on the island of Tahiti. He was told it was a church, but he didn’t know what kind of church. The grounds were always neat, and people seemed to come nearly every day to participate in a variety of activities. On Sundays, he could hear the singing, as the doors and windows were always open. Other days, he watched boys near his own age play basketball on the outdoor court. He paid particular attention to the two young men who wore white shirts and dark trousers.
Soon he was playing basketball with them. Then he started to listen to what they had to say. He and his mother agreed to be taught the gospel. At their baptism, Stelio made up his mind to serve a mission someday.
That day has come. Elder Mauahiti was called to serve in the French Polynesia Mission. One of his first assignments was to the village of Uturoa on the island of Raiatea. Mission life is very different from his life before his mission. Now he is the young man in the white shirt and dark trousers. Now he is the one who plays basketball on the outdoor court with those who are wondering about the Church. Now he is the one who does the teaching.
Best of all, Elder Mauahiti sees the same thing happening to his people that Elder Pratt saw 150 years ago. He’s seeing people change for the better. “I have seen the difference between the homes of Church members and the homes of nonmembers,” says Elder Mauahiti. “I have seen lives changed, hearts touched by the Spirit. I know that it’s not me who makes the difference, but the Spirit of the Lord working through his missionaries.”
Now many young French Polynesians are serving missions. Take, for example, Alona Losamkieou. She left her lovely island of Raiatea in the Pacific and traveled to a far-off land—Salt Lake City—to teach the gospel to visitors on Temple Square. She is just one young French Polynesian missionary following the example set 150 years ago by those first missionaries to the Pacific. Missionary work has come full circle.