It is late Saturday afternoon on the island of Vava‘u. Samisoni and Meleane Uasila‘a, who have raised 20 children in addition to their own 12, are preparing for the Sabbath. The setting sun shines through the freshly washed white shirts hanging on the clothesline and reflects off the lush green foliage surrounding the house. A child sweeps the steps as others clean up the yard. Inside, Sister Uasila‘a and her daughters prepare Sunday dinner. Each wraps a taro leaf around meat mixed with coconut milk, then wraps it in a banana leaf to be cooked slowly overnight in an outdoor oven made of heated rocks covered by banana leaves. Brother Uasila‘a, a stake patriarch and principal of Saineha High School, and some of his sons work in their taro field. They toss weeds and debris into a smoldering fire. Yellow light from the setting sun streams through the gently rising smoke, silhouetting one of the boys tending the fire.
Similar scenes of preparation are repeated in tens of thousands of Tongan homes each week, for in Tonga keeping the Sabbath day holy is required by law. Christianity began to take root here with the August 1831 baptism by Wesleyan missionaries of Taufa‘ahau, who became King George Tupou I. Tradition says that he committed the islands of Tonga to God by scooping up a handful of soil and lifting it heavenward in prayer. Today Tongans reverence the Sabbath—willingly. Nearly all stores and businesses are closed. No taxis or buses run. Everything is quiet.
Elder Pita Hopoate, an Area Authority Seventy, says: “King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV emphasizes keeping the Sabbath holy, so Tongans go to church on Sunday. Then they come home and eat their best meal of the week.”
Parallels between Tongan culture and the gospel do not end with Sabbath observance. “Family comes first to us,” says Elder Hopoate. “Mother, father, children, grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins, nieces, and nephews are all called family, not relatives. The Church emphasizes family, and this is one reason the Church is growing.”
And The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing here. Of the 106,000 people in Tonga, more than 46,000 are Latter-day Saints—just over 40 percent—the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints in any country in the world.
This statistic comes as no surprise to many. “When Tongans become Latter-day Saints, the gospel just refines their already good values,” says Helen Latu, a teacher at Liahona High School. “It’s like a double dose of the gospel.”
Mele Taumoepeau, the principal of Liahona High School, agrees. “We live our lives mostly on faith,” she says. “Our society is built on a belief in God.”
‘Alofanga (‘Alo) Moli’s life has been refined as a result of the gospel. As a young boy on Vava‘u, he was unable to attend school regularly because of severe headaches and nosebleeds. Though not a member of the Church, he fell in love with ‘Ana, who was. ‘Alo was baptized in December 1957 and a short time later was called to serve as a labor missionary, helping to construct meetinghouses. But health problems still plagued him. One day as he lay stricken, he was given a priesthood blessing and promised that if he served the Lord, these ailments would never return. This blessing has been fulfilled.
‘Alo’s knowledge and understanding increased as he magnified his Church callings. In 1960 he and ‘Ana married, and in 1962 they served a two-year mission together. Brother Moli was called as branch president in each place they served.
After their mission the Molis and their two baby daughters moved to the island of ‘Eua to farm with ‘Ana’s brother. ‘Alo served as counselor to the district president. “Our mission prepared us for the callings we received,” he says. “Later I served as branch president for 11 years. The rest of our 14 children were born here.”
This gospel training carried over into his personal life. “After Hurricane Isaac hit in 1982, our crops were ruined and I needed work,” says Brother Moli. “An unexpected opportunity came for me to manage a general store for three years. My experience as branch president helped me know what to do. No one believed I could do it because I had not gone to school, but the Holy Ghost had taught me.”
Now ‘Alo serves as a temple sealer, ‘Ana as a temple worker. “Though I have only been a farmer on a tiny Pacific island,” says ‘Alo, “I stand as a witness of the truthfulness of the gospel and the reality of Jesus Christ.”
The first Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Nuku‘alofa, the capital city, in 1891 and started the Tongan District of the Samoan Mission. The first Tongan Mission was created in 1916, but in 1922 a law prohibited all but a few North Americans from getting visas. To meet this challenge, the mission president called Tongans to serve as missionaries in their own country. After two decades Tonga had built up a large core of faithful Melchizedek Priesthood leaders. So in 1940, when foreigners left Tonga because of World War II, strong local leadership was already in place. And an important missionary tool came on 7 June 1946, when the Book of Mormon was published in Tongan. In 1954 Tongan Saints began receiving a Church magazine in their own language.
Today serving a mission is an established tradition among young Tongans. President Kelikupa Kivalu oversees the Tonga Nuku‘alofa Mission, which is one of the most successful local missionary programs in the Church. President Kivalu explains: “The mission here averages 160 missionaries at any given time, and it’s rare when they are not all Tongans. They often know each other and the people they teach. They know the culture and the language. Members know them, feed them, and house them.”
In September 1968 the first stake in Tonga was created. Church membership was just over 10,000, and the mission had 10 districts and 50 branches.
Among early local leaders was Tonga Paletu‘a. Laughter still comes easily to this 78-year-old man, who was the first Tongan to serve in each of the following callings: mission president, regional representative, temple president, and patriarch. He and his wife, Lu‘isa Hehea Kona‘i, like many Tongan couples, have provided strong leadership. Scrapbooks and hundreds of pictures of decades of service fill one end of their living room. The other end is unadorned and serene. Here Brother Paletu‘a gives patriarchal blessings, continuing his life of devoted service.
Ninety-nine percent of the students at the Church’s Liahona High School are members of the Church. Sione Tu‘alau Latu, who attended in the 1950s, was not. Like many students not of our faith who attend, Sione gained a testimony and was baptized. He remembers: “I came from a poor family with nine children. We lived on a small island. My father died before I was born, and I wanted to do something to help. I decided to try and go to the Church College [now Brigham Young University—Hawaii], but I knew I would have to pass a difficult government exam. I was afraid. I had been taught that if you fast and pray, the Lord will give you the answer. So I began to look for a place to pray in private. On my way home from school, I passed a taro field with its tall, broad-leafed plants. I thought, If Joseph Smith can pray in a grove of trees and get an answer to his prayers, then I can pray here and get an answer to my prayers. I began to fast and returned to the taro patch. I made sure nobody was around, and then I knelt beneath the broad taro leaves. I prayed for what seemed like a long time. I felt so close to my Heavenly Father. When I got up, my shirt was wet with tears.”
Sione Latu passed the test and got a scholarship. “I knew these things came to me in answer to my prayer under the taro plant,” he remembers. “I knelt and thanked the Lord and promised Him I would come back and help my family and my country.”
Brother Latu did come back and has served his people as a longtime Church leader and a gifted businessman. He is well suited for his calling as director of public affairs for the Church, where he sees the growing positive effect Latter-day Saints are having on the nation of Tonga.
For example, one community leader, who was a member of a television panel on Tongan youth, said he admired Church missionaries because at a critical time in their lives, these young people turned their time to studying the scriptures and learning the ways of Jesus Christ.
“Here children have respect for their parents,” says Lani Hopoate. “It’s our culture, our tradition. You always try to behave yourself. Family pressure is real, but it’s a good pressure. You live in a village; everybody knows you. People watch over each other. You even have a chaperon when you date.”
Suliasi Vea Kaufusi, head of temporal affairs for the Church in Tonga, agrees. “Tongans tend to think of their family before they think of themselves. When my father died while I was at the Church College, I came home to help my mother provide for my 12 brothers and sisters. That is typical here. Sometimes adult children leave Tonga to get better jobs and then send part of their salary back to their family. In fact, that is an important source of income for many families. But even when Tongans leave, they still feel a strong connection to Tonga because of their sense of family and community. My own brothers and sisters now live in Tonga, New Zealand, and the United States, but we are all close.”
Of course, there are times when a family suffers because of divorce. Being part of a large extended family and a loving ward helps families heal. Gospel teachings help them remain faithful. Says one sister, whose husband left her and their seven children six years ago: “Though my husband was not a Latter-day Saint, the children and I always had family home evening, family prayers, and scripture study, including memorizing scriptures. After he left, I found work in a bakery, and my older children found jobs too. Family and ward members helped us also.” In this family, three sons and a daughter have served missions and married in the temple. The younger children are still living at home. “The priesthood of my sons and our testimonies of the gospel have sustained our family,” says this sister.
The gleaming white Nuku‘alofa Tonga Temple is a landmark. Dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley on 9 August 1983, the temple is open six days a week and stays open all night on the last Friday of every month—busy with members performing temple ordinances for their ancestors.
Because family has always been important here, Tongans have great interest in their ancestry. Many graves are decorated not only with flowers but also with a handmade quilt held in place by a wooden frame. The quilt remains in place until it naturally deteriorates. These quilts are a reflection of the love and respect Tongans have for their deceased ancestors.
In the past, Tongans recorded information about their ancestors on long rolls of tapa cloth (rough paper made from pounded bark). Many families know their family history back hundreds of years. In modern times, many Church members have transferred this information onto paper or typed it into a computer in preparation for performing temple ordinances.
Everyone benefits from the temple. “Having a temple here brings a special feeling to all of Tonga,” says temple president Sione Fineanganofo.
Testimonies abound in Tonga of the power of the priesthood as a means of bringing comfort or healing to those in distress. When 44-year-old Sione Siaki of Tongatapu fell ill with fever and pain, many feared he would die. The hospital in Tonga was full, but a nurse brought medication to his home. Day after day he suffered, for more than a month. “I was waiting to die,” says Brother Siaki. “Then our Relief Society president suggested a ward fast. She talked with our bishop, and twice our ward of 300 members fasted for me. Before the fasts, I couldn’t move. Two weeks after the second fast, I sat up and gradually got better. Now I am a temple worker. When I am in the temple, it comes straight into my mind that maybe this is why I was saved.”
Mele, daughter of ‘Ahongalu and ‘Ana Fulivai of Vava‘u, was also healed. Nine years ago, Mele collapsed with an unknown illness. From March to December she lay in the hospital with fever, seizures, and hallucinations. Her mother stayed with her during the day. At night her father, who had worked all day, came to the hospital and sat by her bed. Mele would relax as she held her father’s hand all night, drawing comfort from the knowledge that he held the priesthood.
Mele has recovered gradually, with only occasional problems. “We have learned to trust in the Lord,” says ‘Ana. “He has blessed us in ways we did not expect.”
Says Mele Taumoepeau: “I appreciate how peaceful it is here, how safe. What we don’t have in monetary terms is more than made up for in the love we share and the faith that prevails. We may not have all the worldly things, but we are surely blessed with things of the Spirit.”
It is Monday evening in Vava‘u. It is dark, but a warm light glows from the windows of many homes. Through the night air come the strains of “I Am a Child of God” from one of several family home evenings being held. From the home of Tukia and Linda Havea the giggling of children is mixed with the words and music of Primary songs.
“Music is the language wherein we unite our children and teach them the principles of the gospel,” says Linda. “They sing and at times do not know the meaning, but it stays with them, and eventually they will understand.”
Across town, the Uasila‘a family is also holding family home evening. As usual, several friends of their children have joined them as they sing hymns and then discuss which friends and neighbors to invite to hear the missionary discussions.
In home after home, there are believing people—Latter-day Saints as well as those of other faiths. All enjoy the promise found in Leviticus: “Ye shall keep my sabbaths. … Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. … And ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land. … For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you” (Lev. 26:2, 4–6, 9).
In Tonga, these promised blessings are poured out abundantly upon the land and upon believing people.