Everything Safe, Mon

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That’s what the islanders say in St. Thomas when things are going well.

I was trying to prove him stone wrong,” said Diahann Piper, remembering the first time she accepted a challenge from an instructor to attend the small LDS branch on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas.

“Brother Gerald Cox told me, ‘You ask some tough questions. Just go. Nobody will force you to join the Church.’”

Diahann took him up on his challenge. She attended church expecting the worst, but the worst never happened. “Some of my friends were so down on the Church. They told me all kinds of terrible things. When I went I kept waiting to see those things happen, but all I was seeing was love and more love.” Now Diahann is a member of the St. Thomas Branch.

St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a green, hilly island with sand so white it seems to scorch your eyes. The ocean is warm and turquoise. The beaches are lined with palm trees that arch out to offer shade. Wild iguanas saunter by in search of their favorite snack—red hibiscus blooms. The temperature is never cold or unbearably hot. The island qualifies for many people’s definition of paradise.

But paradise is a little damp. It rains. Every day. Everyone carries an umbrella all the time. And everything rusts.

St. Thomas has a sound and rhythm all its own. The calypso that Diahann and her friends love so much is everywhere—in the music heard in the streets, in the melodies being hummed under their breath. It’s even in the lilt of their speech.

The language of St. Thomas is American English, and that’s what those who live here speak with visitors to their island. But when the young people of the St. Thomas Branch are among themselves, the language starts to take some interesting twists and turns. They speak to each other like most of the islanders speak, quickly, using a shorthand version of English.

“Cool out dread,” means “behave yourself.”

“Limin’,” means “relaxing and killing time.”

“Mash and go,” means “automatic transmission in a car.”

“Jam,” means “getting together to dance.”

“Mon,” means “man,” and ends nearly every sentence.

And when everything is going their way, when they are secure and happy, then they say, “everything safe, mon.”

For Diahann, joining the Church has brought some big changes in her life. “I had to change my attitude,” she said, “my style, my friends. I liked to go to the beach on Sundays, and I swore a lot. I had to change. Now I follow the prophet.”

Diahann and the other youth of the St. Thomas Branch gather in the sparkling white chapel on a hill to talk about their conversions. Diahann, selected in high school as ROTC Queen, Miss Photogenic, and Miss Popularity, is doing most of the talking. Asked what she likes to do for fun, Diahann’s answer is obvious, “I like to talk.”

All the others in the group nod in agreement. Marlene Jackson good-naturedly says, “You sure do.”

Diahann goes on listing her favorite things. “I love watching the ocean. I like to smell the breezes. I go to the beach and spread that beautiful sand all over me. I love our calypso music. And every time I drive by the church house, I have to look up the hill and say, ‘There’s my beautiful church.’”

Diahann’s list continues inside the church house. “I love these chairs. I love the nursery. I’ve never seen a church with carpeting before. The first day we held meetings, it was amazing. Everything was so clean and beautiful. At church everyone makes you feel at home. We hug each other when we get together. Everyone is so caring here.”

In addition to Diahann, Brother Cox has introduced the Church to several other young people. “I thought Brother Cox was crazy,” Theresa Matthis said. “He invited me to church. Finally I agreed to come. I always came home happy, but I didn’t let Brother Cox know.”

Theresa’s sister Nicole began attending church with her, and both were baptized. Theresa looks a little differently at the problem of keeping friends after making such a life-changing decision as baptism. She said, “I didn’t lose friends; I gained friends.” Then looking at the group gathered in a circle, she said, “I gained all of you.”

Jonel Foster, a tall, serious Aaronic Priesthood holder who is looking forward to serving a mission, was also introduced to the Church by Brother Cox. “I also thought Brother Cox was a little crazy, but my mother said you must listen before you pass judgment. I already believed in Christ. Now I believe fully. My belief is truly from my heart.”

Jonel was baptized in the ocean. “It was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “I felt pure. I felt it was right. The Church is a driving force in my life. If you write anything about what I say, I want you to write this. I know the Church is true.”

Several young people were introduced to the Church in other ways. Marlene Jackson’s family first noticed the Church when a series of commercials, the Homefront series, began running on television. “You just wanted to be like those people in the commercials,” Marlene said. She and her mother and brother accepted the missionaries’ challenge to baptism.

Beth Bowles, a longtime member of the Church, moved to St. Thomas with her parents and has seen the youth program in the branch grow. She remembers when Sister Keele, the branch president’s wife, started seminary for the group. “Seminary helped a lot,” said Beth. “I really learned more about what I believe.”

For the youth of the St. Thomas Branch, learning about the gospel has brought joy to their lives. They are secure in the knowledge that God loves them and that they can repent and return to him. They want to share what they know with others. And it is this knowledge that makes “everything safe.”

[photos] Photography by Janet Thomas and Lisa A. Johnson

[photo] “Everyone is so caring here. We are so glad to see each other at church.” Diahann Piper (right) hugs a friend, Nichole Matthis.

[photos] All this, and the gospel too? St. Thomas youth enjoy the beach and tropical flowers all year. But they also have their own trials.

[photo] The same harbor that entices travelers also brought missionaries to St. Thomas. The converts are glad they came.

[photo] Beth Bowles is involved in her school. She’s captain of the cheerleading squad, secretary of Honor Society, and writes for the school paper and literary magazine. While visiting her father in Connecticut during the summer, she discovered her commitment to the Church was strong, since she often had to attend by herself.

[photos] Jonel can tell you about the incredible harbor and exotic sites on his island, but he’d rather speak about the beauty of the gospel.