Crocodiles, sharks, and sea snakes are strange things to mention as memories from childhood. But when Domingos Liao was growing up in Darwin, Australia, they were an everyday part of his life.
Domingos and his friends would ride their bikes to the mouth of Rapid Creek, where fresh water and sea water mix. They would wade across, dodging jellyfish adrift in the current, watching for sharks that wandered in from the sea, crocodiles buried in the mud, poisonous sea snakes, and stonefish with their venomous spikes. Despite the perils, they crossed the river again and again, lured by what they knew was on the other side.
“It was a land of promise,” Domingos remembers. “We could catch buckets of fish. The beaches were untouched and clean. There were green fields where nobody had been before.”
Today a bridge crosses the river. The open spaces have become a park, crisscrossed with jogging paths and frequented by university students. Still, Domingos likes to visit the river, to remember and to think.
His young life is full of memories. They begin on the island of Timor, several hundred miles north of Australia. His Chinese parents were working in the Portuguese colony there (Domingos is a Portuguese name) when it was invaded by Indonesia. The men fled to Portugal. Women and children escaped to Darwin. “My mother, myself, and some other relatives came on one of two boats that got away,” Domingos explains. “We were lucky to survive.”
Domingos’s father later joined them in Darwin. Thanks to hard work, the family prospered. Two more boys were born. Domingos learned English. He discovered sports—cricket, karate, tennis, soccer, handball, volleyball. He excelled in school, in music, and in art. He worked in his uncle’s restaurant.
One day his aunt, a newly baptized Latter-day Saint, introduced his family to the missionaries. Soon the Liaos joined the Church. “We were active for about a year,” Domingos says. “Then my parents stopped going. I kept on for a while; then I started to play cricket on Sundays. But my conscience kept nagging me that I should be in church.”
It was at this time that Domingos’s grandfather, who lived in Melbourne, suffered a stroke. He wasn’t expected to live. Domingos, 16, felt compelled to pray. “I told Heavenly Father if he would give Grandfather a chance, I would devote my life to the Church. But I didn’t just wait for him to recover. When we returned home, I returned to church. I’ve been taught that if you say something, you should do it.”
Grandpa did get better. And by the time he did, Domingos was going to church, not just to keep a promise, but because he truly believed it was the right thing to do.
By the time Domingos turned 18, his church activity began to irritate his father.
“Dad thought seminary was getting in the way of my schoolwork, so he banned me from getting up early to go. I wanted to honor him, so I quit going. But I still did seminary at home. Then he didn’t want that either, so I put that away.
“Then he’d find me reading my scriptures and think I hadn’t done my homework, even though my grades were good. One time he grabbed my scriptures and threw them in the rubbish bin. I had spent the last two years reading them and marking them, and they are really precious to me. The next morning I was able to get them back, but I had to give them to the branch president for safekeeping.”
It wasn’t long before Domingos’s father banned him from everything related to church activity—scripture study, Mutual activities, home teaching, and, finally, Sunday meetings.
“Even though I was 18 and legally my own person, my first reaction was to obey. Really. You want to obey your father because he is your father. But I knew I couldn’t break my promise to Heavenly Father by not attending church.
“Dad said if I went that Sunday, not to worry about coming back. So I packed my bags. My prayers were very sincere that night. The next morning, when he saw me dressed up, he was furious.”
Domingos left, but his parents came to the chapel and found him. They reached an agreement that he could attend every other Sunday. “I wasn’t happy with it, but it was better than nothing,” he says.
Then the next time he got ready for church, his father again told him if he went, never to return. “The second time was just as bad, probably worse. I’d been waiting to receive my patriarchal blessing, and the patriarch, who can only come about once a year, had come from far away. I got there for the appointment, but my father came at the same time. I had to go home and missed my blessing.”
The third time that his father confronted him in a similar way, Domingos left home and moved in with his grandmother. “Eventually my mum came and said my father was all right and he wouldn’t get angry again. So I came back.”
But in the meantime, he’d developed a desire to serve a full-time mission. “I prayed, and the answer was very certain that I should go when I turned 19. From then on my mind was made up—I just needed to prepare.”
If he would complete his first year of study, the University of the Northern Territory would agree to give him two years off to serve. But he’d have to carry an even harder class load for a few months before he left. “My coordinator actually encouraged me and said the mission would be a good experience,” Domingos says. He continued something he’d done since high school—telling fellow students about the steps of repentance and the plan of salvation.
He intensified his scripture study, memorizing many passages. “The scriptures brought me peace,” he says. “They reminded me of the things I should be doing.”
He joined the full-time missionaries when they gave discussions. He often bore his testimony. He kept a journal, writing in it every day. His Church leaders interviewed him, found him worthy, and sent in his missionary application.
Then one day, this time when he returned from church, his father kicked him out for the fourth time. “It was pretty final,” Domingos says. “He was not pleased with my plans for a mission and said if I went I wouldn’t be his son anymore.”
His branch president, Michael Kuhn, invited Domingos to live in his home until the mission call arrived.
Finished with his schoolwork, Domingos filled his days with prayer, with uplifting music, with Church activities, missionary work, and study of the scriptures. Sometimes he would read the scriptures all day long.
And then the letter came: “You are called to labor in the Hong Kong Mission.” Domingos returned home for a short time to try to make peace with his family before he left. “Mainly because they knew they could not change my mind, they yielded,” he says. Before he left, the family went out to dinner together and took lots of farewell photos.
Letters written from the Missionary Training Center and from the mission field reflect the joy that quickly followed:
—“At the airport I was able to meet one of the missionaries who taught me, Elder (Hoyt) Skabelund, and his wife and baby and parents. I am slowly learning Cantonese. The people in the MTC are wonderful.”
—“I’ve received two letters from my mother. Everything is going well at home. They are being blessed greatly and they know it! My family and relatives are now happy that I am serving a mission. Surely God is a God of miracles!”
—“I have done my first street display, talking to everyone who goes by. I have taught the six discussions in Cantonese.”
—“Now I have been transferred to Macau, a Portuguese colony neighbouring the coast of China. I am pretty lucky because not many missionaries get to serve here. We are teaching an investigator, and he will be baptized. I know that God called me here to do a special work.”
—“Every inconvenience was worth overcoming to read the Book of Mormon. Every insult was worth swallowing to keep the Sabbath holy. Every moment was worth waiting for to kneel in private prayer, every pain worth enduring to attend church. Every blow was worth taking, every torment worth suffering, every tear worth shedding to come on this mission.”
Today in Macau, Elder Liao looks out the window of his missionary apartment and sees a promised land.
“When I decided to go on a mission,” he says, “I knew there would be strong currents against me. I didn’t really know the dangers lurking in the water, what might try to sting me or to swallow me up. I was only thinking about making it. Now here I am, and I know that it’s worth it.”
And he’s eager to build a bridge to help others, including his family, to cross over to the other side.