Thursday, March 29, 2012

Deeper Than Before ~ And Still Rising

Who needs an oven when the cab of your truck is 121 degrees?  Well, maybe hotter but the thermometer quit working at that temperature two days ago so you can imagine how relieved we were yesterday for a cool breeze and overcast skies.  Normally we would have been wading through water getting to the family's home where we were going to teach last night but instead we were only dodging the horse manure and mud holes using a "torch" (flashlight) to light our way and avoid stepping on toads.  During our lesson the wind began whipping up and blowing through the home while an outside tarp flapped like a sail.  The father commented that a tropical depression was on its way.  Being removed from local news sources, that was new news to us.  In fact, all news is new to us!

It was lovely to go to bed with the windows open and the breeze wafting through.  Dare we admit that we actually felt cool?  Somewhere in the night we became aware of the constant pounding rain and wind howling and we woke up to soaked curtains, water on the floor and no electricity in the "power points" (Fijian for outlets).  Anticipating our appointment this morning with Tuliana and Olivia, we turned on our phone to touch base and found this message from Tuli: "Bula! Wel hope u 2 r fine, me a little bit cause my house is full of water its almost touching the roof.  just getin things out of the house so i dont think il mak it today.  have a nice day."  By the time we got her on the phone, we found that she was sitting on a table -- on the roof we think -- watching the flood waters rise.  She said the water just came up all of a sudden during the night and her whole village was flooded.

How we wish we could get out to the villages to help but again we find ourselves isolated on the hill where we live - safe but feeling somewhat useless.  How bad could the flooding be after less than a day of sustained rain?  No way to know without driving to each of the view points so we picked up the young missionaries who live nearby just to check things out.  What a shock.  The flood waters were already much higher than their highest point in January and the forecast has another 15" of rain predicted over the coming days.

We're so sad for all the families, homes, market vendors, and stores who are still reeling from the previous flood and its long term impact. "Slack time" is the term being used to describe the post flood period where market vendors/merchants are back up and running but the people have little work and even less money so everything is depressed.  How can they do this again?  The bigger stores have just recently been opened and they have the benefit of insurance but the family shops absorb all the loss.  The most affected are the market vendors who barely subsist on a few sales per day of food they harvest at home or buy from middlemen.

So it was with sad hearts that we drove around taking the following pictures comparing January's flood to today -- and who knows how much worse it will get.  We are cut off by the river from getting to our chapel which we were scheduled to return to just next week.  We tried to encourage the Church to purchase a new location safe from the floods but they had determined to repair the existing one and the work was nearly finished.  How sad for everyone here on top of their more important personal losses.
January 25, 2012
March 30, 2012
January 25, 2012
March 30, 2012 at Rajendra Foodtown, the one big market that stayed open
all during the previous flood but closed today.  That leaves only one small neighborhood
market available for supplies on our side of town. 
January 25, 2012
March 30, 2012
January 2012 - normally this road leads across a little bridge connecting a distant small
village to the main town.  We have several members who live out this direction.

March 30, 2012
 The forecast is not optimistic (, and the cyclone season normally runs through April but these dear people need a reprieve.

Journal Entry

Our first six months of missionary life for Annie and I in Fiji has been a unique combination of the mundane (living and “surviving” in a 3rd world country), and the reverent.  I’ve wanted for some time to describe this ironic mix but already know in advance that words will be inadequate.  When the Book of Mormon missionary, Ammon, struggled to convey the reverent he acknowledged that he could say only “the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16); and Joseph Smith similarly bemoaned the dark and narrow “prison of pen and ink.”  So at the outset, I’m aware that deep feelings will be difficult to describe in a way that accurately reflects the experience we’re having -- but I want to try.

What I now relate is something of a composite experience of teaching in the homes of those who are inquiring into the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Eventually, some of them will decide for any number of reasons that they do not want to “come unto Christ and be baptized in his name” at this time; while others will have that magical experience of study and prayer that leads them to feel the truth of what we have shared in such a way as to overcome all the barriers of discipleship.  They come to know for themselves that God lives and that they are divine sons and daughters of that God – a singular experience that changes everything.  Regardless of what these “investigators” experience, Annie and I are simultaneously having our own personal experience with each person and every lesson.  Lessons don’t always go well, and Fijians are very hard to read (they have a cultural way of silence), but each experience is sacred in its own way.

Try to picture sitting on a woven mat laid over a cement or dirt floor in a little home.  The mats are treasured signals of sociality, painstakingly made from the leaves of the Voivoi plant especially suited for that purpose.  Once prepared by boiling, drying, splitting, and weaving, they become the signal of an invitation to sit and talk.  When you come to one of these bare-bones homes unexpectedly, you may see those inside scurry to get their mat and spread it out to welcome you.  It will not do to sit on the cement as they may have been doing before you arrived; no, the conversation is always honored by laying out one or more mats so that all may be seated on them. They are wonderfully smooth and “comfortable” even though there is no padding – they just have a nice feel to them.  Fijian culture dictates that guests of honor sit in the “highest” location on the mat.  Sometimes that is literally elevated because the floors are often uneven, but other times they have a way of knowing what is the head place and what is not and they always solicit you to sit there (however, in our untrained eye we cannot tell that location so we wait for them to signal us).  When you enter, you try not to walk in front of anyone (considered rude), and you get very low, bending over and apologizing for the disturbance as you reach out to greet them with a handshake or perhaps the women will pull you close to their cheek as they both smell you and give you an affectionate kiss.

In the villages, the homes are varied but so much the same – often a single room divided by hanging cloths for sleeping areas. Some homes are very small, perhaps 12’x16’ and others larger with separate rooms.  But there is often nothing much in them.  Electricity is dear and may or may not exist, as is running water.  That means, of course, you may or may not have light during an evening meeting unless a kerosene lamp is brought out.  There is often no refrigerator, no outlets, no electrical appliances or entertainment (TV, radio, music, etc.).  We carry a little flashlight to read scriptures from as needed (Fijians call flashlights a “torch”).  Where electricity is available, they use it sparingly being very conscious of its cost. If they do have electricity, they may also have an old television hooked up to some ingenious antenna, like a defrocked umbrella hanging on the roof edge. The walls are generally corrugated metal, as is the roof with the studs and ceiling supports open to view.  There are always windows and door openings but not always a door, and the window holes may simply be an opening, or have louvered glass, but rarely a screen.  They depend on the breeze to cool them, and everything – birds, insects, rats and mice, frogs and geckos seem to come and go through the home as easily as the owners; no one pays much attention to their presence and do not treat them as intruders. Most homes have a little round kerosene stove on which to cook inside as needed but all have a main outdoor “kitchen” (either attached to the house, or a few feet away) where they do most of the cooking over a wood fire.  By kitchen, we mean that there is a rude wooden counter with a piece of corrugated metal for a roof covering and an elevated fire location made from stones or metal scraps. Toilets are generally “outhouses” and people commonly bathe in a nearby stream or river.

When you visit a village, poverty is apparent everywhere with dirty kids and ragged clothing but it’s amazing how well they clean up each day when they leave the village for school or church and they look very nice, taking pride in presenting themselves well.  School kids all wear uniforms and generally have one or two of them that they hand wash each day.  At home they are playful and joyous, entertaining themselves as millions before them by inventing games outdoors with sticks, rocks, climbing trees and playing in streams. Their bare feet are hardened leather and they run over stones and debris with no apparent notice. It’s really wonderful to see and be with them.  Jesus said; “for ye have the poor with you always” and that their reward would be in heaven.  “They” may have to wait but in so many humbling ways, Annie and I do not have to wait for our reward as we meet with these wonderful people and feel blessed by our association.

Everything is simple but very functional here and every Fijian knows how to live off the land.  That doesn’t mean you’ll live well, but around the home and village there will be Cassava and Taro plants (“Dalo,” in Fijian), coconut and papaya trees, perhaps some breadfruit and bananas will also be near.  Cassava is the mainstay (on Viti Levu) – a very starchy, heavy and dry root that grows readily and is filling but likely has little nutritional value.  I once asked a family if they ate Cassava everyday because that was our common observation (many eat it more than once).  Some of the kids said, “yes;” but the woman protested, saying, “maybe not every day – we’d throw up.” However, if you’re hungry it seems you can always get full on Cassava and it appears to us that along with some tea, that may constitute the whole meal at times.  Fijians are almost universally cash poor but rarely starving and they will generally offer you something to eat or drink even if that means they will have little left for them – and they want you to eat first (while they all sit and watch you).  We try not to do either, both for health reasons and more importantly, to let them conserve the little they have for their own family.  If we do eat with them, we try to prevail against tradition and encourage them to eat with us.

With all of the foregoing as context and background, back now to impressions and experiences when we teach in these humble Fijian homes and among a people so sweet and simple that they easily melt your heart:

We drove far out into a farming settlement last week to teach a family of 2 boys and 2 girls, the mother and father, grandma and aunti.  The parents are members of the LDS Church but never taught their children before now and had not been active in church for some years.  It was getting dark as we arrived and parked just off the main dirt road and began walking toward the home on a hill about a hundred yards distant.  We walked down a muddy path to a stream and I was just in front of Annie when I noticed a naked boy finishing his “bath.”  We stopped and moved back slightly to give him some privacy and then we all walked together up the hill to the home.  The path is an old road, which has largely been taken over by nature.  Rivulets of water flowed down its grooves, toads were hopping around, and we dodged the horse manure as we picked our way up the hill.

Depending on the circumstance, we often show people the brief or long version of the movie: “Joseph Smith – Prophet of the Restoration” which depicts the early 1800’s life and experience of Joseph Smith and that’s what we had planned for the lesson that evening (available on YouTube or at  The setting in the film is foreign to modern Western culture but absolutely current in Fijian life.  So there we were, sitting on a mat with the family teaching about the essential role of prophets and of this one young man in the year 1820 (Joseph Smith) who sought God and longed to know for himself how and where to worship.

As we viewed the film, we saw the Smith’s simple log cabin and I looked around thinking that the little house we were in was not likely much different – it contains just what you need to live and not much more.  The movie depicted farm animals and oxen yoked to plow and there was not a notice of surprise because these Fijian farmers see working “bullocks” every day with their yoked burden trudging through the plowed ground or munching grass along the roadside.  People in the movie rode horses for their transportation and the horse of this Fijian family was just out back nibbling on the grass.  Somehow my mind wandered as I noticed the insects crawling over the mat, flying ones biting us, and geckos on the wall doing their best to decrease the number of irritating pests.  I thought back to a time in another home when Annie asked if I had seen the large spider on the wall near us and I remarked that I hadn’t because I was too busy digging bugs out of my hair and watching the rats. But was this any different than in the pioneer days of Joseph Smith?  Not much I would think.  And how different is it really than in millions of homes of humble people across the world – more homes than the clean and pristine and wealthy ones I’m sure.  This is life for most people, and they seemingly pay little attention to their poverty and related circumstances. Despite the heat and sweat and bugs and lack of modern conveniences, there in that little home we felt the Spirit of God and testified that the story they had just seen was true.  They too are children of their Father in Heaven who loves them dearly and wants for them to experience joy that transcends the mundane eking out a living in the cane fields of Fiji.

Fijians are simple, but not unintelligent.  When we teach them we do so in simple terms – partly because of the language barrier and partly because life and faith are simple things for them.  We speak of faith in the biblical terms of believing in something that is true but for which we do not have complete knowledge; knowing that through prayer, study, and obedience we can gain that knowledge.  We speak of living prophets and apostles today in just as much reality as though we all were living in biblical times.  We speak of the Father and Son restoring the New Testament church organized by Christ, and of the “plan of happiness” by which we may all return to their presence after this life (and do so as families).  It’s all very simple and we don’t have to pour through scriptures to prove a point or carry on an extended intellectual examination to establish a precept.  We ask them how they feel about these things and they say, “good.”  We ask them if they believe them, and they say “yes.”  To them it doesn’t seem very complicated.  Of course it is always easier to talk than act but that is something for them to determine on their own. During the lessons, they count it respectful to simply listen and agree if they agree, or to quietly let you move on if they don’t agree.

I think of all the years of academics in my career and my deep love of thinking things through and examining every facet.  I have felt invited and challenged by Peter who encouraged believers to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).  I know Heavenly Father gave us a brain and expects us to use it and I love the statement from Joseph Smith inviting our best thinking: “The things of God are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out.  Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of the eternal expanse; [we] must commune with God.”

Though I’ve loved those years of constant examination and critical thinking, I’m also aware of the pitfalls of pride and have observed too many whose intellects had paralyzed their faith.  James E. Faust observed that, “there is a certain arrogance attached to intellect.”  And a Book of Mormon prophet says it best I think when he cautioned: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men!  When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not . . . But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:28-29).  I love that last line.

There are none of these intellectual trappings in Fiji, so far as we have experience.  You teach as clearly and simply as you can and they respond in kind. We really come to know how they feel as we watch them act on the information we’ve shared in the coming days.  At then end of each lesson we have a prayer and if they enjoyed the evening and appreciated what you’ve taught they smile and give three little muted palm claps – it’s strange to us, but a sweet way of acknowledging their gratitude.

As we left that home last week, we stepped out into the warm wind that was picking up strength, forecasting a coming storm.  The family kindly asked if we needed the kids to accompany us to our truck but we had brought our torches (flashlights), and told them we’d find our way just fine. The whole night seemed heavenly to me in such simple ways and I was filled with love for them, our opportunities as missionaries, and for Annie.  She had taught and shared her testimony with directness and power, but always with tenderness and affection.  She did not complain about the mosquitos or bugs or another night sitting cross-legged on a hard floor.  We shook hands in the Fijian way, gave hugs and off we went onto the rutted path in the dark, Annie holding up her dress to protect from the mud and both of us grateful again that we can wear sandals here.  We picked our way down the path, crossed the stream and up the other side to the truck.  Passing another little home we saw a man making brooms from palm fronds and we wished him well.  It is the off-season for cane workers and he was finding any means possible to earn a few precious dollars. This was a good night and I was filled with appreciation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Tale of Tuliana

. . . and we thought we were shopping for a stove/oven.  Blaring Indian music almost kept us from walking into an appliance store that first day in Ba back in mid-October.  We were determined to find an electric unit which apparently does not exist in Fiji.  Had we not been warmly greeted by a great Fijian smile with an offer to assist us in the search, we might have given up.  But there was Tuliana, a 19-year old sales assistant who, though new to her job, brought her natural gregarious personality to help us adjust our "American" expectations to a Fijian reality -- "there are no electric cookers!"
Tuliana Lewaseni
As we were signing papers and making arrangements to have it delivered to our flat, we realized we would need help obtaining a gas line and getting it all hooked up.  Tuli offered, "Don't people in your church help each other with things like that?"  Hmmm, I guess they just might do that  IF we knew any of them here in Ba. She went on to say she had some relatives who were members of the LDS church and that she had visited church before.  Being very new to this ourselves, we sprung into action, " Tuliana, would you be willing to let us share a message about our church?"  "Sure", she responded.  What?  Really?  Did we understand you correctly?  And then we added an invitation to attend church the next Sunday as well.  Too simple, too perfect, too easy, buy a gas cooker and meet our first investigator who has now become a dear friend.

People frequently move around and live with other family members here and it's no big deal for either party. This was the case for Tuliana, she was living with her sister, Olivia and family.  Directions to her home meant nothing to us at this point in time since Ba was a completely new location for us.  We carefully followed the landmarks: bus stop, two little stores, tall coconut trees and very steep rocky road.  There we found Tuliana waiting and her married sister had prepared an amazing assortment of treats to welcome us with.  Such gracious hospitality.
Olivia & her children with Aunti Tuliana at our first meeting
Thinking Tuli was the only one interested we shared our message with her and then scheduled a return appointment.  She wanted to walk us back to our car and on the way we inquired if her sister might be interested in learning as well.  Tuliana responded, "Actually, she does want to learn, she just didn't know if she was invited!" Later we learned that Olivia just "felt something special" when we were there and was drawn to it.

And so began our weekly teaching appointments with two sisters we've grown to love, and they have grown to love the gospel.  Along the way we've had setbacks in scheduled meetings with unexpected work conflicts, injuries, flood, missed rendevouz locations, holidays, etc.  However, each meeting has brought heart to heart sharing of mind and soul and there's never a shortage of jokes and laughter.  On the day we taught them the "Word of Wisdom" (health code advising against the use of alcohol, tea, coffee, drugs, etc.), we asked Tuli if giving these things up would be difficult.  "No," she replied, and then received a big scowl and small punch in the side from Olivia who protested that they all would be hard!  For the most part though, they have loved the teachings we've shared.  After we had taught them about the "Plan of Happiness" (where we came from, why we are on the earth, and what happens after death), we asked how they felt about these truths.  Tuli answered: "We have never heard these things before -- but we like them." In fact, she came to like them so well that many weeks we'd find that Tuli had invited a friend or two to join us for the lessons.

Not long after going to Fall #7, Tuli expressed her desire to be baptized on her 20th birthday (March 6th), and become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Olivia felt similarly but her Muslim husband is not supportive of the idea.  She shared that she has fasted and prayed for his change of heart but as yet things remain the same. They have been partners through this spiritual journey and Olivia was right by her side on this special day for Tuli.
On the morning of her baptism, Annie sent a text message wishing her a happy birthday and asked how she was doing.  Tuli texted back: "Wel, wat greater gift cn  be than babtised on yor birthday anywayz its a wonderful morning. i like the weather i told Oli i wish it rains ths morning n it did.  we just see the rainbow, am so happy" (guess text talk has made it to Fiji!).
Baptismal day on the banks of Namosau Creek

Off to the "changing room"
What a great day for all of us!  Tuli is an endless reservoir of wit, humor, and joy and we have loved our relationship with her.  We were looking forward to the next Sunday worship service when she would be confirmed a member of the Church and receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost but just before then she called to explain that she wouldn't be coming until the following Sunday.  Concerned, we asked what the problem was.  She shared that unbeknownst to us she had been serving as the "youth captain" (sort of a youth minister), and treasurer of her Methodist congregation and she agreed with her parents that she should attend the Methodist Church that Sunday to formally resign her position and explain why she was leaving.  We hadn't known that her new-found faith would come at such a cost but we had complete confidence in her and she shared that the meeting went well and she was now prepared to move forward.  Last Sunday she was confirmed and was called (appointed) to be a Sunday School teacher of the 12-18 year-old youth.  This Sunday she has been asked to speak in church.  She'll do great and we're sure the kids will come to treasure her as we have.

Guess we weren't really shopping for a stove that day after all.  We were on the Lord's errand and He was in charge -- a fact for which we have become profoundly grateful.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ascending Fall #7

Fiji: White sandy beaches, azure blue waters, with soft ukelele music playing as you swing in a hammock . . . Oh wait, we're in Ba and haven't seen that Fiji yet, but we did have the wonderful fortune of spending the day with some great people exploring a natural beauty in the interior mountains overlooking Ba.
Our trusty Toyota truck was recently named "Vosota" by Fijian friends.  It means "patience" and how we put her to the test on our way up the winding, rocky, pot-holed, and deep muddy roads to Fall #7.  Have we mentioned it rains in Fiji??  Each downpour has a marvelous accumulated affect on the roads.
Looks beautiful but this road through the cane field was just the beginning
of testing Tom's 4-wheeling agility.
At several points, worried about the welfare of Vosota as well as ourselves, we would yell back to Lalesh (owner of the land & falls who was riding in the bed of the truck): "Do you think we can make it?"  His reassuring response: "Don't worry, I have bullocks that can pull us out!"  Great, no worries (saga na laga - in Fijian).

Prizes go to those of you who can figure out why this fall is named, "#7"
After arriving at Lalesh's mountain farm home (a deceptively quaint title), we caught the horse, grabbed a large cane knife, and headed to the river flowing down the mountain from the falls.  Lalesh continually reassured us, "hiking up the river is probably safer than bush whacking through the jungle."  Thanks Lalesh.  Later we learned that Lalesh was worried about our ability to make the climb "due to our age" (most people in Fiji die before age 60).  Tuliana, our friend who arranged the trip, assured him we were "fit."

Tuliana's constant cheery playfulness made everything fun

Tuli's friend, Mere, was a wonderful addition.  Along the way she kindly (but unnecessarily)
 worried about Annie's climbing safety.  On particularly steep slopes she would give a little
bum boost to "steady the aged grandmother." Such sensitivity!
When our movie camera quit working (water, battery, or . . .?),
Mere's faithful assurance was; "Don't worry, I had a prayer and Heavenly
Father will bless it."  And by the time we returned home, it was working.
Our first full-view of the falls
Our faithful and fearless guide, Lalesh
Tuliana was first into the falls
Tuliana's father, Tuvusa, joined in the fun

More about Tuli in our next blog . . . 

Ginger "on the hoof". We also dug fresh curry root.

All cleaned up and ready to enjoy. Soon gingerbread aroma was wafting through our
apartment and for just a minute we thought we were back home.

We hated to leave #7 but the weather was changing and Lalesh
got uncharacteristically concerned about our welfare.  Soon, we were dodging
lighting bolts and raindrops as we munched on fresh sugar cane stalks. 
Before coming off the mountain, we helped Lalesh retrieve a "hand"of bananas which had been
ripening in a little hut.  Pretty handy to be able to grow and harvest your own bananas to
be sold at the family store.  We also stopped by a bread fruit tree where Lalesh and Tuvusu
handily used a bamboo pole to harvest several ripe ones.  
A great adventure, special friends,
and a fresh perspective on our side of the island.