There’s not much sadness in her voice. No trace of anger. All the upheaval took place when Vani Tanumi had just learned to walk and talk, so she doesn’t remember any of it.
Her story about her parents is more matter-of-fact than anything. Her mom died before Vani turned two, and her dad left the family. Vani, age 19, has no recollection of her mom or dad. Fortunately, she was reared by Grandma and Grandpa, her mom’s parents. It’s the only life Vani has ever known, and so she smiles. She smiles because she is happy. Truly.
Despite the chaos in her life, Vani’s grandparents were able to give her the one thing she needed most: stability. And with that came one other thing she learned she couldn’t do without: the gospel. “The Church has been a great help to me,” she says.
Suluya Racule, three weeks older than Vani, faces her own challenges. Suluya didn’t grow up in the Church, although it seemed like she did. She began attending Primary when she was nine because her aunt, a Church member, was a Primary teacher. And Suluya kept going to church even when her aunt and uncle moved to Tonga. But she was not able to be baptized until December 1995, when she was 15.
Even now, Suluya is still the only member of the Church in her immediate family.
“My parents were against my getting baptized. They thought I was too young to know the truth, and they thought I should go to other churches and see what they were like before I decided,” she remembers. “But I had this strong feeling inside that this was the true Church. I couldn’t think of any other church to go to.”
Maybe it takes a little adversity—or even a lot of it—to make people truly appreciate what they have. Vani admits it has been difficult at times not having her mom and dad around. Suluya, meanwhile, would like nothing better than to have her family join her on Sundays. For now, she goes to church alone.
Neither situation is easy. But both Vani and Suluya have testimonies. That’s where their strength comes from.
Vani and Suluya live in Suva, the capital of Fiji, a tropical country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But they don’t go to the same school, and their interests are very different. Vani is a student at the Church-sponsored LDS Technical College (she wants to be a lawyer), and Suluya attends the city’s International Secondary School and has an emphasis in information technology. They are both members of the Lami Second Ward, Suva Fiji North Stake. Church is where they come together and form a common bond.
In many ways Vani’s day is just beginning when school ends. She gets off the bus at 3:30 P.M. and walks a few blocks to her home. There is little time to relax. There’s homework to do, and there’s also cooking, cleaning, laundry, and dishes. Grandpa died two years ago, and Grandma can’t do the things she used to.
“I have to look after my grandma. I have to help her. I know it’s been pretty hard for her because she raised her own kids and then raised me,” Vani says.
“It’s been a challenge for me not to have parents,” she adds. “But being involved in the Church is a great help because it has provided me with so much. Right now I’m the secretary in the Primary, and I teach the CTR class.”
When Vani entered the Young Women program, she served as Beehive class president and then was first counselor in the Mia Maid class presidency. Later she served as Laurel class president. It’s obvious the gospel is a priority.
“Because I’ve been a leader, I feel a responsibility for the girls who have fallen from the Church,” she adds. She is thoughtful for a moment. She feels bad about once-active girls who no longer come out.
When Suluya is asked about her conversion, she gladly shares the details of her Christmas Eve baptism. She beams as she remembers that day. Suluya then mentions the death of her father a few years ago. He was 47.
“Although I’ve always wanted my family to join the Church, his death has encouraged me even more to help my mom and my sister get baptized. I’m trying so hard to get them to come to church with me,” she says.
When Suluya was baptized, her family didn’t attend the service. “But they understand now that I hold sacred the covenant I made with the Lord, and they respect my decision and support me. Still, it’s hard to see families sitting together at church, and my family isn’t there. When you have something this good, you want to share it with your family.”
Suluya admits she was closer to her father than to her mother, but she says one good thing has come of his death. “It’s brought my sister and me closer to our mom. We’ve really gotten to know our mom better,” she explains.
Vani and Suluya are not far from leaving their teenage years behind. Life ahead will be full of changes. As they look back, they can’t help but wonder how things might have been different.
What if Vani had grown up in a two-parent home? What if Suluya’s entire family had joined the Church with her? What if life had been a little easier?
Neither thinks too much about these questions. They both look ahead, happy for what they have. Their life experiences have shaped them into who they are, and fortunately the gospel gives them an advantage. They know they are daughters of God. And they are happy.