22947_000_010Surrounded by members and living on their beautiful islands, teens in Tonga are thriving.
Imagine living in a place where graduating from seminary is cause for a big celebration—a huge party not just for your family or seminary class but for practically everyone in your ward and neighborhood. Imagine a place where seminary graduation is time for a feast, where the food is amazing and it’s all for you and your fellow graduates.
After you eat, there will be dancing—big dances held in every stake center. Everyone will be so proud of you, and to show how pleased they are with your graduation from both high school and seminary, they will pile leis around your neck so high you can hardly see over them. And they’re not just leis made of flowers but leis made of candy. Graduation from high school is a big time for celebrating, but graduating from seminary is equal in importance.
There is a place where this happens, and it’s Tonga, a nation of Pacific islands where nearly half the population belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In every school, every business, everywhere on the islands, these teens get lots of support from other Church members. But they still must do the studying and praying to gain their own testimonies. No matter how strong their parents or friends are, they still have to learn for themselves the truthfulness of the gospel. Seminary helps give them a firm foundation in learning the gospel and understanding the scriptures.
Tonga, in general, is a religious society with Christian beliefs helping the people to be modest, kind, and giving. Living in a place where religion is so important, Tongan youth are not harassed or made fun of when they choose to follow the teachings of the Church.
At the top of last year’s graduating class of Liahona High School, Luseane Kupu of the Liahona First Ward explains how she knows that God lives.
“Whenever I go to church or am with my family, there is a spirit I feel. I don’t feel it any place else. That’s when I know that God lives. I don’t see Him, but I feel His presence there. I can’t deny it when I feel His Spirit.”
Luseane hopes to attend Brigham Young University—Hawaii campus. She wants to become a doctor so she can serve her country, but no matter what happens in her studies, she is determined to marry in the temple and hopes to have many children. At graduation, she advised her fellow classmates. “Obedience brings blessings. Obedience is better than sacrifice. It brings unity, humility, and happiness.”
‘Aisake Lavaka of the Liahona Second Ward, also a top graduate, looks around at the people he knows who have stayed close to the gospel teachings. He likes what he sees in their lives and wants the same. “I look at the Church in the lives of the people. It’s brought joy and happiness. There are no bad fruits from their labor in keeping the commandments and following the doctrines of the Church. I plan to continue on that same road.”
Tonga’s relaxed pace of life is one thing most of the teens recognize as an advantage. They also like feeling safe all the time. They see and hear about the dangers in other parts of the world on television and in movies, but on their own lovely islands, they find they have little to fear. Everyone seems to enjoy a family feeling and uses it to help take care of each other. Luseane says, “Here you can just go to any neighbor and ask them for something or talk to them. They accept you. You just feel like you belong. That’s what I’ll miss. You mind your own business when you go out into the world. You don’t talk to people unless you know them. You have to knock on their doors before entering their homes.”
One way this caring feeling spreads from parents to children is in family home evenings and in reading scriptures together. ‘Amanaki Kamisese Jr. says his family helps his testimony grow. “Sometimes we get up early and read scriptures. It’s pushing my testimony to grow up. My favorite section of the scriptures is in 1 Nephi 3:7 [1 Ne. 3:7]. I’m getting ready to go on my mission. I can’t wait.”
They enjoy the freedom offered in their country. They appreciate the importance of choosing wisely. And many LDS teens choose to be Christlike examples. Mumui Tautua‘a of the Tokomololo Second Ward said his dad gave a family home evening lesson on the sacrament. It had a big impact on him. Mumui says, “Whenever I take the sacrament, I take upon me the name of Christ. Whatever I do, I am representing Him. From that day on, I always tried to be a gentleman.”
Two temptations overcome
Tongan teens are fortunate that two temptations which exist in other places really are not much of a problem for them. The first is modesty. Even though they live on tropical islands where it can be hot, they don’t wear immodest clothing. The other major religion on the islands, Wesleyan Methodist, also encourages modesty, so essentially everyone, including adults, chooses to wear conservative clothing. Students are also required to wear uniforms to school. But after-school clothing choices are casual shirts with long shorts. ‘Aisake says, “You can be yourself. There is no peer pressure to keep up with modern styles if they are immodest.”
The missionaries, both elders and sisters, serving in Tonga stand out by the clothing they wear. They wear traditional formal clothing, with the elders in white shirts and ties, a black tupenu (like a long skirt) and a ta‘ovala (woven mat) tied around the waist with a string belt called a kafa. The sisters wear a puletaha (dress with long sleeves and high neckline) and tupenu with a kiekie (woven strips) over the top. By dressing in this formal way, they show respect for the message they teach and for the people they meet. Most of the missionaries serving in Tonga are from Tonga. They often are assigned to other islands or other towns than the ones where they live.
The other area of temptation that is not much of a problem in Tonga is keeping the Sabbath day holy. In Tonga, it is written into the country’s constitution that businesses must close on Sunday. What does everyone do on Sunday? Lesila ‘Alatini of the Ha‘ateiho First Ward says, “We go to church. We eat and walk around. It’s nice just to relax.”
However, one small crack is developing in the Sunday-closure law. Bakeries are allowed to remain open. Lesila explains, “It’s hard for us Church members to stay away. We have to help each other make right choices.”
Turning to the Lord
Even though they live in a wonderful part of the world, the teens in Tonga face many of the same dilemmas as teens anywhere in the world. And like teens everywhere, they must learn to turn to the Lord for help and guidance. They must learn where to place their faith. Fualupe Wilma Tangi of the Nuku‘alofa First Ward says, “Although we don’t see the Lord, there are Church books and prophets and scriptures that have explained there is a living God. We don’t see Him, but we feel Him. Every single time I go through hard paths and hard decisions, I would always bow my head and ask for help, and I would always feel this warm feeling. I know it’s true, and someone is there for me all the time.”
Setting the standard
Every Saturday afternoon, without fail, the young people of the Matangiake Ward of the Liahona stake show up at their chapel to prepare it for Sunday. They know what to do. They’ve done it faithfully for more than four years, ever since they made the commitment to do all the upkeep on the building and grounds themselves. No one has to call with assignments anymore. The older boys teach the younger ones how to handle the mowers and edging equipment. The girls know all the nooks and crannies that need to be dusted and cleaned. The flowerbeds are immaculate. And they do windows too.
“It started with Bishop Sioeli Unga,” said stake president Howard Niu. “He wanted something to keep the kids active and involved in all aspects of Church responsibility.” And the youth rose to the challenge.
But their service did not stop with their own chapel and grounds. They have confidence that they can do any job given to them. They take care of the widows in their ward. In fact, they help out anyone in need. They have even gone so far as to build small homes, under the direction of their priesthood leaders, for families in their ward in desperate need of housing. The younger boys in Primary look forward to their 12th birthdays, when they are old enough to officially help with the projects the Aaronic Priesthood young men undertake. The younger girls often go with their older sisters, and they learn to serve.
Instead of being too hard for them, these projects have proven to these teens that they can do just about anything by learning from their leaders and being given the opportunity.