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Monday, December 24, 2012


When I was about 9 years old, I remember being taught the passage of scripture in Matthew 8:20 – the one where the Savior says “the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”  That was the first scripture that made me sad – I felt sorry that Jesus had no place to lay his head.
Benjamin has that non-time-
 bound perspective.

A few days after I was introduced to that scripture, my mother came in to say goodnight to me, and found me hugging the far side of the bed, with an extra pillow on my bed.  “Why are you up against the wall?” she asked.   “I’m leaving room for Jesus,” I answered matter-of-factly.  “He doesn’t have anywhere to lay his head, so he can share my bed.”

Bless her heart, my mother didn’t say anything, she simply smiled and kissed me goodnight.  With the short attention span of childhood, my wall-hugging sleeping habits soon passed, but every time I come across that scripture, I smile.   And I bless my mom.

My mother allowed me to keep my simple, non-time bound perspective.  She probably chuckled about it with my father, but neither of them ever reproached me for thinking that the Savior of all mankind would deign to rest in a bed next to a 9-year old.  My faith was very simple; I knew that Jesus Christ loved me, and any loving person would respond positively to a heart-felt invitation.

Children are the best part of Christmas, and that is true in Tonga as well.  Christmas is different in a subsistence culture, but gifts are still shared.  One friend of mine remembers that as a child her mother would slice bread and butter it and send the children out to deliver platefuls to neighbors.  Often the family would give away all their food, but because their neighbors also shared, the family still had breakfast on Christmas morning.

Most Tongan homes are very humble.

Another friend remembers her father dragging her along to go caroling to the widows in the neighborhood.  She reluctantly sang at a few houses until one widow wept during “Silent Night”.  This little girl suddenly understood that she was giving a gift  - that the simple act of singing was a way to share.  Her attitude changed, and she happily made her way to the rest of the homes that Christmas morning. 

I think more at Christmas time than any other, I am reminded of the purity of a child’s perspective.  I need to make more heart-felt invitations, and be a more loving person and respond to others’ heart-felt invitations.  I need to remember the Tongatapu proverb, “Tonga’s only mountains are in our hearts,” and summit my own mountains by offering service more freely and showing gratitude for simple gifts.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” - Mister Fred Rogers

In the US, this week was marked by the third school shooting of the year, but this one was different because the student victims were all under 10 years of age.  I have shared my heartbreak with friends both here and in other countries, but I am convinced it is my duty to BE one of the helpers that Fred Rogers spoke about.  I am limited in my choices of how to help; I am assigned to be here in Tonga, so I am not able to physically go to Connecticut. But there are still ways to offer my help, and I will find a way.

In considering this tragedy, I have reflected on my own life.  Being a helper has brought me wonderful blessings.  I have a different perspective on life because of the opportunities I have had to help others.  Whether helping in dramatic circumstances or quiet ones, helping has made me a better person.  And I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve.  

During the early 1990s, I lived with my family in South Korea.  My husband was a high school principal, and I taught second grade to children whose parents were serving in the military.  One of those years, North Korea started threatening to invade South Korea.  After seeing soldiers practice drills and rehearse for war, watching Patriot missiles be positioned on the base, and feeling the tension in their parent’s attitudes, my little second graders became quite concerned.  One day I finally opened the issue for discussion in our class.

“What will happen to us if there’s a war, Mrs. Szoka?” 
“Yeah, if my mom and my dad both have to be gone, who’s going to take care of me?”
“What if the North Koreans try to take over the base?”

More and more questions like that rang out.  I pondered the questions, and knew I could not simply dismiss their feelings.  These children were genuinely worried.  It was up to me to show them that the military was prepared to keep them safe, too.  I smiled calmly at my students.

“Somewhere under this base is a very big underground bunker. It is large enough to hold every man, woman and child who live on this base, plus all the Americans who work here but live off the base.  If the North Koreans head for our base, we will hear sirens that will tell all the grownups to get their families together and go to the bunker.  If the sirens go off while we’re here at school, our school buses will take us to the bunker.  Then once we’re there, we will be divided up into groups to make sure everyone is safe.  I will stay with you the whole time, until your parents can come for you.  If your parents have to stay out of the bunker and fight, I will be with you.  I will keep you safe.  I will take care of you, and things will be okay.”

My students breathed a collective sigh of relief, and though there were still war games that brought soldiers too close to the school for my own comfort, they were able to go back to concentrating on their own job – that of learning.  I was grateful that God gave me the words to help those children.  Fortunately, the North Koreans did not invade, and life returned to a more peaceful calm for us on that base.

A few years later we were living in Naples, Italy, and I was involved in a car accident.  Before I could even think about what to do, two lovely Napolitanos were at my car door making sure I was unhurt.  I spoke only a few words of Italian, they spoke no English, but they invited me into their home, served me a glass of water, and gave me their telephone to reach my husband and notify the military police of the accident.  They even took the phone and gave specific directions to the police about where the accident had happened in Italian, so the police could get there more quickly.  In a very short time, my husband arrived with the police, and the car was taken away and we were provided a ride back home.  With new eyes, I watched highway behaviors from then on, and saw that no one who ever pulled over to the side of the road was ever left alone for more than a few minutes; Napolitanos helped someone in a broken-down car on the side of the highway today because they might need that same help tomorrow.    They took turns being helpers.

I have been a helper, but one of the strongest memories I have involves the comfort others brought me in a time of tension and fear.  During September and October of 2002, the so-called “D.C. Sniper” was at large, and no one knew when or where he would strike next. I worked at two schools in Northern Virginia that fall, and one of the schools was only a few minutes away from one of the sniper’s murder scenes.  Everyone was fearful; students did not complain when they were told there would be no outdoor recess until the sniper was caught – even the youngest kindergarteners recognized the schools’ efforts to keep them safe.  

One day as I was driving home after school, I tuned the radio to a station I had listened to with my parents as I grew up, and discovered a familiar voice.  One man who had been on the radio 25 years earlier was still with the station, even though the station’s format had changed.  As I listened to this man’s voice, I was filled with comfort; it was as though this voice from my past was sending me a message of hope.  The man’s words did not matter; it was his voice that I needed at that moment.  Simply hearing his voice in my car helped me, as I tried to deal with the tension of those weeks.

Another part of that story in which I watched the helpers took place at the school that was very close to one of the places where the sniper killed a victim.  Each morning at the school, buses would pull up to take turns discharging their students one bus at a time.  When students exited the bus, they found themselves in a gauntlet of teachers, a line both to students’ right and to their left, framing their path to the school’s front door.  These teachers voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way on behalf of their students, and the students realized that.  As a result, students’ appreciation for these teachers grew by leaps and bounds in those weeks.  The harmony at the school that year was remarkable; students knew exactly who were their helpers, and depended upon teachers for comfort and safety, as well as academic learning.  It was a remarkable event to witness.

When Jim and I came to Tonga, we came to help.  We knew we had a lot to offer, and the longer I am here, the more urgently I see the need for what help I can give.  But if there has been one “loud and clear” message from my time here, it is that the act of helping is like a see-saw.  You help someone, and that action helps you.  You receive help from someone, and that action helps them, too.  

Tongans will bend over backwards to help.  Jim was given a flash drive at the open-air market just because he was wearing his missionary badge.  “No, you’re a missionary, take it,” said the young man, refusing to take any money for the item.  “I know I will be blessed for helping a missionary,” he said.  Just the other day, I took some of my Primary children Christmas caroling around the homes here at Liahona, and just for singing a few songs, some of the families wanted to invite us in to share some food, or they gave us an entire tray of sweet rolls, or they wanted to take a picture with us – their delight at being given a free gift was wonderful, and they wanted to give us something in return.  Most Americans are happy when they get help from someone; Tongans are happiest when they can GIVE help to someone.  They know that helping someone helps them, too.

When I am helping, I know it is not just me helping someone else.  I know I am gifted with the opportunity to help, the words, the actions, the perspective.  I know the source of my strength.  And I am grateful for the strength of others, when I am in need.  I hope I can continue to look for opportunities to help, and be humble enough to accept the help of others when they offer.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012


The green is still that new, "spring" green, even under the
trunk of a fallen tree. 
It is spring here in Tonga.  The grass is that bright shade of “new green”, and the crops are maturing at an incredible rate.  We have green mangoes – so called because they never really turn pink – and golden pineapples once again.  And I’m already salivating because the avocadoes are coming on the trees.

Outcroppings like these can be over very shallow or very deep water,
and the beach is very different at high or low tide.
We enjoyed exploring to a new place the other day, and watched a Tongan family play in the water at a beach that was only about 40 feet across, framed by coral outcroppings.  The parents and five children (ranging in age from about 16 to 3)  jumped into the water, raced the waves up and down the beach, swam through the surf, and tried (and succeeded) to catch a few sea creatures.  One boy caught a  creature of some kind – it had a shell, but I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.  He was quite excited to put it on the wet sand, watch the creature flop toward the water, then grab it again and move it back up on the shore.  He finally wrapped the creature in some aluminum foil, and took it home with him when the family left.  The crustacean will probably become part of the family’s dinner tonight.

The most fascinating moment when the youngest daughter, about 8 or 9, finally freed a crab from an abandoned net the family had dragged out of the water.  She took it over to her 16-year old brother, who talked to her about it for a few minutes. Then she handed him the crab, which surprised me, because she had not let any of her other brothers take the crab.  But she willingly handed the crab over to her oldest brother, and he in turn lobbed the crab back into the water.  Then the family began gathering together, and decided it was time to go home.  Within minutes the beach was quiet, as the last of the family waved goodbye to us.  The rest had already disappeared into the mangroves.

I was fascinated with the conversation and the actions of these two siblings, because they demonstrated to me a change in traditional family dynamics here in Tonga.  Most of the time authority rules here; fathers are feared more than loved, older siblings get their way at the cost of the tender feelings of younger siblings.  But not this time.  This older brother chose to teach his sister about this crab.  Perhaps he explained that it was not edible, or that it was too small.  In any case, her accomplishments and tender feelings were honored, and she in turn honored his greater knowledge, and allowed him to rescue the crab and return it to its saltwater home.  And both she and her brother were happy.  It was like watching a bit of “new green” in family relations here. 

We sat under a mangrove tree like this one.  
What a lesson.  It was an honor to watch this family enjoy each other’s company today, parents and siblings taking turns helping the little three-year old get used to the strong surf, younger brothers and sisters cartwheeling and flopping in the sand, and the older ones jumping into the water from the outcroppings.  Jim and I were blessed to be witnesses as this family shared a simple yet profound expression of love and joy in each other’s company.  As the season of spring continues, it is wondrous to watch the growth in the people of this tiny island.  

Monday, November 5, 2012


Tui, who never seems to be without his smile.
Selflessness is almost a way of life here, but sometimes it still takes me by surprise.  Twice in the past week our friend  Tui (TOO-ee), who is a counselor here at the high school has stopped by with food for us – mangoes and kumala, a white sweet potato.  This is a man who has five children of his own to feed, but still finds a way to share.  “Tonga’s only mountains are in our hearts,” says a Tongan proverb – meaning that the challenge to create a summit of good character is of prime importance here.  Our friend has created his own mountain, and summited that mountain in quiet, humble service. 

Students would work in this kind of field.

We are not the only objects of his service, either – Tui is working on creating a program that will help students next year (school is over except for exams and national exams).  The program is kind of a work-study program, using the Church welfare farm to raise and sell crops to reduce their school costs.  If four acres of kumala (those white sweet potatoes, like the ones Tui brought us) can be planted and harvested three times during the school year, each boarding student’s total school cost will be cut in half.  Not bad for two or three hours’ work every Saturday morning.  Here’s hoping the area church leaders will approve Tui’s request.

This is a part of the Church farm here in Liahona.

Tui serves for the same reason as most Tongans – they are firmly convinced that their own spiritual welfare, indeed, their whole balance of spirit, emotion, intellect and social connection -  depends on finding ways to share.  Most of the rest of the human race are happiest when we receive something.  Most Tongans are happiest when they have the opportunity to give something.  Perhaps it is because they have so little, that they are so generous –  sort of “give now while I have something to give, because I may need someone else to be charitable toward me next week” thinking.   Whatever the reason, the generous nature of these people, as typified by Tui, is remarkable.  They don’t call Tonga “The Friendly Islands” for nothing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Every culture honors its dead in unique ways.  Tonga is no exception.  

Tonga is an island formed by coral pushed up from the seabed.  So when you dig, you don't have far to dig before you hit solid coral.  As a result, most graves are created by creating frames for raised mounds.

Whether by forming a concrete frame or by laying blocks, graves are clearly defined by borders.  And the grave markers you see are not what most people are used to:  Here, where natural stone is incredibly expensive, families use fabric and wood.

The marker of choice is a quilt.  It's far too warm, most of the year, to consider using a quilt on a bed, but somehow quilts have become quite popular as beautiful grave markers.  This quilt takes the names of a husband and wife and frames them with depictions of the heilala flower, a tiny flower unique to Tonga.  We have also seen graves lit at night by solar-powered lights, and even Christmas-style lights defining the border of a grave.

With no law to limit the location of graves, little cemeteries populate each village and indeed, many private homes, such as this one.  This family couldn't afford a concrete or block frame for the grave, so they built a natural fence around it.  The bushes provide color and some protection from the wind, and the posts and chicken wire keep out the animals.

Almost all graves are topped with sand.  And what happens when the wind blows it away?  We go get more.  The Tongan government is beginning to get concerned about illegal "sand mining", the theft of sand by the truckload (!) from coastal beaches.  This little island cannot afford to see its beaches eroded - we have few enough of them here to begin with.

 Families who can afford it can bury their relatives in style - here is a concrete frame topped with ceramic tiling, blackstone rock, and permanently placed pots for silk flowers. This is one of the few polished granite markers I have seen on the island.  But all graves are decorated with flowers, some with lace tablecloths, and some with hand-knitted afghans.  The dead are protected in a place of beauty.  There are a few LDS missionaries buried here, two who died in the Spanish flu outbreak in 1919 (the flu took two years to make it to Tonga, but it got here), and two others who died of other illnesses in the 1930s.  Their graves are tended, too.

And again, if the family can afford it, the grave is protected from the elements by a pavilion roof.  This will help the sand from being washed away in a sudden rain or a severe storm, and it will also keep the silk flowers from fading quickly in the hot sun. 

And it provides shelter for mourners.  When Tonga's king died last March, we got an extended view of the mourning traditions here in Tonga.  Students tended small fires surrounding the palace  all night long, the night before his body was brought to the royal tombs and the king's body was laid in its final resting place.  So, too, is the tradition with all deaths. A round-the-clock vigil is kept at the gravesite for anywhere between 3 and 10 days, (noblemen sat under a pavilion roof all day and all night 100 days for the king)and gifts are offered to the family of the deceased, although in a totally different perspective, the family of the deceased feeds visiting relatives for many days after receiving the gifts.

Even while tending a vigil fire, teens can be counted on to be cool!

The love and respect shown for one's elders here does not end at death.  Families are quite often seen cleaning up the cemetery, placing faded quilts with bright, new ones (out of respect for the dead, the old quilts are destroyed), and replacing and rearranging flowers.  Life may be a little more subsistence-oriented here, but the bonds of love stretch beyond death.  Tongans have that lesson to teach us all.  

Monday, October 15, 2012


The entrance to Liahona High School, dedicated by LeGrand Richards in 1953.
Pretty impressive by any standards.
Because of the wet climate, concrete sidewalks
 are everywhere.
Liahona High School in Tonga is an interesting mix of approaches and cultures, both in the way the organization is structured and in the way that people relate to each other.  One of the most British features is that it functions as a boarding school for about 80 of its students, who live in dormitories during the school year.  But imagine for a moment going to a boarding school, when the only thing you know that is bigger than your house is the ocean.  You come from a remote island, with very little exposure to even the still-developing standard of living here on the “big” island of Tongatapu.  
Major walkways are shelters from the hot sun and torrential rains,
regular features in the tropics.
So the shock of seeing concrete buildings, paved roads and sidewalks is dizzying, much less the shock of changing from family surroundings to a school of 1000 students.  Thankfully, the shared culture of the LDS Church helps students have an anchor here, and somehow they endure challenges that would have overwhelmed me at their age.

All students in Tonga wear school uniforms.
Liahona's colors are green and white, and
the two stripes represent the phrase
"by study and by faith,"the school motto.
Take Selu (SAY-loo) for example.  She comes from one of the other islands, a small island called Ha’apai (Hah-ah-PIE).  Her parents struggle to provide her with money for tuition, and since the kitchen provides two meals a day, breakfast and supper, Selu often goes without lunch, to save money.  But so do most of her friends, unless they buy some Ramen noodles or share a loaf of bread, two of the cheapest options for lunch at the store across the street from campus.

Selu spends the whole school year here, because her parents can only afford to bring her home on the ferry at the end of the school year.  So during the week-long breaks after each quarter and semester, she stays with relatives here on Tongatapu.  She misses her parents, especially her mother, but accepts the reality of spending ten months a year away from them. 

Selu has “dorm parents” who try to support her, but she is one of 40 girls in the dorm, so she has to create her own system of support.  Fortunately, the families here at Liahona spend a great deal of time with the dorm students.  Because of this support, and because of the way some of her teachers have extended themselves to her, Selu has found ways to succeed in school and be happy here.

Boys all over the Pacific islands wear a type of
wrap-around skirt. In Tongan it is called a tupeno.
Much cooler than trousers.
Sila (SEE-lah), one of the boys in the boys’ dorm, has had to work harder to find success.  He struggles with his English, since no one in his family speaks English at home, but he is expected to function in English during his classes.  He wants to do well, but is often frustrated with his lack of skills with the English language.

Sila’s dorm parents know that he is not the only boy who struggles.  So they have established a new system for the boys, assigning them in multi-age groups in rooms.  That way, 14-year old Sila has some older brothers in the dorm room with him.  These  older brothers have been trained to be guides and role models for Sila, and they take their responsibilities seriously.  Some of them serve as district leaders, a term borrowed from Mormon missions. District leaders are given the responsibility to make sure several room groups are functioning properly – that boys are where they ought to be, that problems are solved, that needs are addressed.  Sila’s  older roommates help him with his homework, teaching him the English words he needs to succeed.  They help him read his assignments, but they also spend ten minutes every morning and ten minutes every evening reading scriptures together.  They pray together, in their small groups, and all the boys in the dorm meet at 7 am every morning for a hymn, a prayer, and to share a spiritual thought. 

Saturday morning is not an opportunity to sleep in, either.  These dorm students are kept busy all week long.  Twice a month, before sunrise,  Sila and all the dorm students  go together to the LDS temple to serve by performing vicarious baptisms for dead relatives, to offer their deceased ancestors the choice of accepting the fullness of the gospel in the spirit world, while they await resurrection. The feelings and experiences they share about the chance to serve their ancestors are deep and frankly, too sacred to share here.  Just know that they come back from the temple happy.   

On the other Saturday mornings, Sila and the other  dorm boys go out to the Church farm and work “on the plantation”.  They usually spend about 4 hours there, then they are granted the afternoon off.  And at church on Sunday, Sila is surrounded by older brothers, who make sure he understands the lessons and feels the spirit of the messages he hears.  

I am amazed as I watch the dorm parents and their dorm students, that a couple, with children of their own, would be willing to take on an extra 40 children for ten months.  I smile as I watch the bonds of love that develop between these students and their dorm parents, their teachers, and the families who connect with them at church.  One of the “golden principles” of Tongan culture is love, and I see love in action every day here.  Life is challenging wherever you go, but because of their shared values, these teachers and students, these leaders and young men and women, are taking on the challenges together. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I have a friend I will call Ted (not his real name).  Ted has been in my prayers many times over the past few years.  Ted lost his job more than five years ago, and tried living very carefully on his savings and investments, but with the economic turndown, soon was out of money.  At age 55, he knew that getting a traditional job would be next to impossible, but he tried.  After many job interviews and not one job offer, he decided to invent his own job.  He tried running an internet business, but that didn’t work.  He wrote a book, but couldn’t get it published.  He worked with a partner to start a business, and the partner disappeared with the investment funds.  Finally Ted sold his own possessions, one by one, even the precious silver passed down to him by his grandmother, and heartbreakingly, the mahogany grand piano on which his own mother taught him to play – he was a piano prodigy, performing in public by age 5.  

Ted was informed that the bank was going to take over the house where he had lived for 15 years, since he hadn’t made payments on the house for a year.  He got a break when the bank couldn’t find the mortgage papers, so he was able to stay in his home for another year.  But finally a few months ago the papers were found.  Ted was told to move out of his house, and let the bank take it over.  He talked to lots of people – lawyers, bankers, realtors – and found that if the bank could sell the house, he might get a few dollars out of the sale, based upon the terms of his mortgage.  He retained a realtor, and the bank agreed to sell the house in what is called a “short sale.”

Based upon the information his realtor and the bankers gave him, Ted figured he would have $3000 to his name when he walked away from his home   After many weeks, a buyer was found, but closing came and went without the papers being signed – the buyer didn’t show.  Ted had already turned off the electricity to his home, since he could no longer pay the electricity bill.  He took his laptop computer to the library, where he could get on the internet and stay in touch with friends and relatives who worried about him, but who weren’t in a position to help.  He was living with cold water, candlelight, and cooking on his outdoor grill.  His few remaining belongings were packed up in boxes, and one friend stood at the ready to load those boxes into a van and drive him to his own home, to stay until Ted could find a way to support himself.  Ted had used the time available to him to choose a new enterprise: he would be a street vendor on a nearby island (a tourist favorite), and he would sell homemade fruit drinks.  He priced a three-wheeled vendor’s cycle, and a machine that would mix and chill enough drinks to make it worth staying outside for the day.  If the buyer would just come through, Ted would have enough money to buy the needed equipment and three weeks’ worth of ingredients.  But the money from the sale of the piano and silver was slipping though Ted’s fingers quickly, just being spent on groceries and gasoline for his lawnmower.  And then more bad news came.

The buyer wanted to delay the purchase one month.  One month doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference to most people, but when you are living on candles and sandwiches, a month can make a very big difference - an awful, dreadful, stressful difference.  On October 4, Ted entered his status on Facebook:  “I’ve just gotten word that closing will be November 5.  November 5?  How am I going to make it through a whole month?  I feel like hitting something.  Very hard.”  None of us blamed Ted for his feelings of frustration.  It seemed like every time he tried to do the right thing, all he got in return was a slap in the face.

I had done this before, but that Thursday night, the night of October 4,  I felt prompted to put Ted’s name on the prayer rolls in the LDS temple here in Tonga.  His was not the only name I wrote down, but I know by the next morning his name was in a package of papers being presented to humble, faith-filled, prayerful people.  And less than 24 hours after that, Ted entered his status on Facebook:  “AT CLOSING!”  The closing had been rescheduled.  Then a little while later, “I’m officially homeless!  I’m so happy!”  Ted had gotten the $3000 and was making plans to move out of his house and into his friend's home on the nearby island.  In the few days since, Ted has expressed only optimism as he moves on to this next chapter in his life.  

I bow my head in gratitude.  Thank you, Heavenly Father, for answering prayers, and for always being mindful of each one of your children.   Thank you, dedicated Tongan Saints, for your prayers and faith in behalf of my longsuffering friend.  Thank you, Ted, for your shining example of integrity, determination, persistence and problem-solving in the face of adversity.  And thanks all around for letting me learn this lesson once more: the Lord answers prayers.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Serve, opposing disinterest and disobedience.
Serve, for your sake, and theirs.

Serve. Pray.
Pray for understanding and effectiveness.
Pray to rescue one, then one more.

Serve.  Pray.  Study.
Study your message and your people.
Study, so you can coach them to success.

Serve.  Pray.  Study.  Ponder.
Ponder your blessings and your readiness.
Ponder their challenges and impact.

Serve.  Pray.  Study.  Ponder.  Listen.
Listen to your experienced fellows.
Listen to the experts, and The Expert.

Then go serve.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Another senior missionary in front of one
of our favorite flowering bushes.
There are seasons in Tonga, just like everywhere else.  That was one of the first lessons I had to learn - mangoes are not available year round, neither is any other fruit.  What?  The pineapples are finished?  Oh yes, this is an island, and since Tonga imports the highest proportion of food of any nation in the Pacific, we still have to wait until the next ship arrives to get the next shipment of milk, or wait for the rainy season to end to plant new tomatoes.

Keep in mind that the fence in front of the bush is about
6 feet high.  I love the way the bush just grew right
through the chain link.
The nice part about "winter" in Tonga is that you still get flowers, just different ones, like the yellow ones above or the purple ones at right.  I have no idea what most of them are called, but that doesn't keep me from enjoying their colors and their fragrances.  This purple bush at right is about 8 feet tall, and reminded me of some of the wild azaleas I used to see in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Flowers are planted purposefully, as well, and this amaryllis, which I photographed in March, finally succumbed to torrential rains in late  August.  The petals retained their delicate colors even after the blooms were on the ground.    This was in the garden of the LDS church across the street from us.

This picture at right shows the plantings in front of the mission office building - my favorite plant is the bush covered in tiny white blossoms.  Too bad the blossoms only lasted about 10 days.  But what  a wonderful fragrance!

And I love the way everything just grows together here.  In this picture there are at least five different plants sharing the same square foot of soil.  And they all seem to just thrive together.

The yellow leaves on the tops of plants are new growth -
the leaf comes first, then the chlorophyll! And yes, that's
a fallen coconut on the road.  They're everywhere.

The best plantings are in front of more established homes, where time has been the best ally to beauty.  I love this garden - this family has no other place than the front balcony to hang up clothes out of the rain, but the beauty of the front garden is not diminished by the realities of daily living.

And families are not shy about planting in front of their properties, either - this roadside fence is a simply a defining line between two gardens, rather than a boundary of property.

But the biggest winter surprise has been the amazing number of poinsettias here on this tropical island.  Red, white, and pink poinsettias are everywhere - some forming a wonderful hedge along the road, others just stretching up over other bushes (up to 8 feet in the air) and providing pops of red and white mixed in a hundred shades of green.

And then there are the giants.  This is another senior missionary hiding behind a leaf of kape (kah-pay), a root crop. A field of kape fills up a lot of space in a hurry!  And it invites certain senior missionaries to get silly...

The other giant leaves behind me are banana tree leaves.

The four of us snapped pictures, posing as Ninja Turtles and other such, but just so we could fit in some classics, here I am as the fairy queen from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream!" Tah-dah!

The greens, reds, purples, yellows, and other colors of Tonga delight the eye and serve to remind me of the endless variety of beauty in this world.  What a wonderful place - just like so many other wonderful places on this planet.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Imagine yourself for a moment as an 18-year old boy, named Pahulu.  You have experienced debilitating pain in every step for months, yet the doctors have no idea what is causing the pain.  You have managed to get a pair of crutches, even though they are few and far between in this country.  That helps you get around the house, but you don’t have the endurance for much more than that.

Oh, and you’re not living with your own family.  Your parents have thrown you out of your family home, because you joined the Mormon Church.  You have been taken in by Lopeti and Luseane, a generous young couple who have no children of their own, but who share their home with you and six other young adult men whose circumstances are not so different from your own.  You get wonderful love and support from everyone around your, yet your heart longs for your own family.

You long for them, but your own family feels only animosity towards you.  When Lopeti informs your parents of your undiagnosed, painful condition, their reaction is to go to the family cemetery and dig your grave.  Then when you do not die in a short time, the family turns to prayer – praying that you will suffer greatly, because of your choice of religion.  Lopeti chides your parents:  “Where is your faith?  Why do you not hope for your son to be healed?”  Your parents have no answer.  But you hang on to Lopeti’s promise to your parents: “I will stand by him and support him with all my heart no matter what happens.”

This house is typical of most Tongan homes. 
Lopeti and Luseane both work long hours for meager pay, and you try to be as independent as you can, though you know you take a lot of their time.  You watch the other young men in Lopeti’s and Luseane’s home.  Joseph rises before dawn each morning to cook food to sell, so he can finance a full-time mission for the Church.  The others, David, Jeffry, Liva, Maikolo and Ensini, do what they can to bring in some money to help defray the cost of their meals.  Lopeti and Luseane do not expect rent; this home is for all nine people, as long as it is needed.  Lopeti says, “It’s hard to be a father,” and your mind completes the sentence:  “especially trying to be a father to sons who have already been raised by someone else.”  Yes, when something gets broken in the house, all of you still stiffen in expectations of being beaten, but Luseane simply says, “Let’s get a broom and clean it up.”  You hear Lopeti say frequently that “hands are for blessing, not beating,” but it’s going to take a while longer to stop being fearful when accidents happen.  Not being beaten, not being blamed when things go wrong, is still a new experience for all of you.

The Mormon chapels in Tonga are modest, but sturdy. 

Because you don’t want to be discouraged by the malice of your birth family, you have turned off your cell phone and given it to Lopeti.  Better to have no contact than negative contact, at least for now.  Perhaps their hearts will soften in time.  And Lopeti strengthens you many times a day, reminding you to seek solace in prayer, to remain faithful and strong in the face of this adversity, to forgive your family for their ill will towards you and try to feel only love for them.  You receive a priesthood blessing at the hands of a senior missionary, which provides comfort and strength, if not healing.  Now you can find peace even in pain, because you know in your heart that you are safe here, you are protected and loved, and you will be the better for this experience.  So you smile, and your face is an expression of calm assurance, your demeanor one of acceptance and endurance.

You know that Lopeti is a man of God, for he has shared with you a dream he had some years ago.  His father also opposed Lopeti’s choice to join the Mormon Church, and died a few years before Lopeti served a mission.  In the missionary training center in Provo, Utah, Lopeti dreamed he saw his father dressed in rags and in prison. His father pleaded with him to free him:  “Only you have the power and authority to free me.”  After a long conversation with the President of the missionary training center, Lopeti went to the Provo temple and did vicarious work for his deceased father, to provide him the opportunity to choose, in the next life, which path to take.  A few nights later Lopeti dreamed of his father again, but this time his father was dressed all in white, and had tears of joy in his eyes as he held his arms out to his son, saying “thank you, thank you.”  That experience helped Lopeti build his life around serving others.  Not for the first time, you close your eyes in gratitude for Lopeti and Luseane, realizing how blessed you are to be the object of their service.  You echo the words of Lopeti’s father:  “Thank you, thank you.”

Lopeti, Luseane, with Pahulu (seated) and two of the other young men in their home. 
You smile as you think of the way Lopeti and Luseane have applied one particular scripture in their lives:  “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  (See Matthew 25:40.) And you hope you will be healed, so that you can serve in the same way that these two wonderful people do.  You hear Lopeti’s words echo in your ears: “When you see someone in need, you’ll feel the Spirit prompt you.  That may be Christ right there, waiting for you to serve Him.”  And you understand more fully how to be Christlike, because you see it around you every day.

Monday, August 20, 2012


We have had the pleasure of working with Elder and Sister Sanders, a senior missionary couple who accepted a humanitarian assignment here in Tonga.  Last March, we were a bit amazed (but not really surprised) when these two volunteered to take on a second assignment, that of inspecting, supplying and maintaining the 50+ little buildings called missionary quarters, where the young missionaries live here.  

Elder Sanders always wanted to get up-close and personal.
 Here he is inspecting a village water tank.
Sister Sanders knew better than to try to climb the
water tank ladder in a long skirt!

Well, the bad news is that Elder Sanders has developed some serious medical issues, and they have been sent home to Washington State.  There is a hole in our hearts, but we know that because of the events that have happened in the last week, the Lord has more in mind for this fine man and his wonderful wife.

Because of the limited medical care here in Tonga, the area supervisors flew Elder and Sister Sanders to New Zealand for a hospital stay and screening, to diagnose his trouble.  Our mission nurse, Sister Johnston, had been trying to get Elder Sanders to New Zealand for weeks, but he kept postponing the trip because of this project or that.  But when Elder Johnston got an abscess that would not respond to antibiotics, he was put on an urgent evacuation to New Zealand, and the mission president told Elder Sanders (and his wife) to go, too.  Tickets were purchased Friday evening for the flight to Auckland Saturday morning.

One of their few days off, at the beach.
While waiting in the airport in Tonga, the four missionaries met an LDS American couple who explained they had brought their adopted child, Tongan by birth, to meet his birth mother and experience some of the culture that was his heritage.  A pleasant conversation ensued, then everyone got on the plane and thought nothing more of the encounter.  They should have.

Arriving late in the evening, the missionaries decided to wait until morning to arrange treatment.  The next morning they found themselves at a nearby hospital emergency room, and the admitting doctor tried to explain that patients were not admitted on Sundays.  Then the supervising doctor came in to see what was going on.  The supervisor was, of course, the man the missionaries had met in the airport.  Turns out he works at three different hospitals, and “just happened” to be on duty at this particular hospital that morning.  Both men were quickly screened, and Elder Sanders was admitted as an inpatient. Miracle #1: check.

That evening, Elder Johnston found his abscess had begun draining.  This abscess, which had been in danger of going systemic and causing serious bodily harm within hours, simply began draining, once Elder Sanders was admitted. Miracle #2: check.

Elder Sanders’ prognosis is good.  The specialist in New Zealand has a brother who is exactly the kind of doctor Elder Sanders needs; and he just “happens” to practice in Elder Sanders’ hometown.  The Sanders, who started their journey home on Monday, had two appointments with doctors before they even got on the plane, and medical coverage assured from the Church.   Miracle #3: check.

The Sanders live in a rural area, and with the coming recovery period, Sister Sanders worried that because of the needs of their home, Elder Sanders would ignore doctors’ counsel to limit his activities.  Elder Sanders is a worker; he cannot sit for any length of time – he needs to be up and doing.  But Sister Sanders is very aware that in order for her husband to heal completely, he has to follow medical advice and avoid strenuous activity for three months.  Not easy for a man who has worked his own land and been a plumber for 40 years. 

Besides, before coming out on their mission, the Sanders rented out their house, and the contract is not up for another nine months.  Where would they live?

A couple of friends emailed the Sanders telling them they were going to travel to their daughter’s home, that they would be gone up to a year.  The Sanders looked at each other, smiled, and emailed a message:  do you want renters while you’re gone?  The return message began:  “The key is in the garage, the truck is ready to go, the cupboards are pretty empty – do you want our son to shop before you get here?”   And because these friends understand the power of pets during recuperation, they left their border collie behind, to stay with the Sanders.  Miracle #4: check.

Those are not all the miracles, but you get the idea.  The Lord takes care of His missionaries.  I believed that before, but now, with this experience, I have first-hand knowledge.  And Elder Sanders is not surprised.  He told us: “Why shouldn’t we expect miracles?  We’re out here doing what the Lord wants us to do.  We’re out here obeying our leaders, doing our best, and serving the people the way the Lord would serve them, if He were here.  So why should we be surprised when miracles happen?”

I am grateful for the faith and the faithfulness of those beside whom I serve.  It is hard on us to see the Sanders leave, but we trust that the Lord will continue to be mindful of this senior missionary, that his recovery may be complete, that he will be able to serve in other ways during the rest of his time here on earth.  And our friendship, our fellowship together, will continue to grow and develop.  Our paths may divide, but our hearts will remain entwined.  And we will continue to expect miracles.

The Sanders and our mission president and his wife.