Week 6 – MTC/Tongatapu/Vava’u

Malo tau ma’u ahoni!

Last Saturday we had our departure farewell. First the departing missionaries recited the First Vision in their languages and then we sang hymns  from all of our zone’s languages. The Tongan hymn, Folofola mai a Sisu, was saved best for last, of course. Everyone in our zone knew and sung it all the time.

The next day we sent off the Samoan districts, and then Monday afternoon we finally got on the bus and left the MTC. A bunch of Elder Mahe’s relatives were at the Salt Lake airport to say goodbye and hand over some luggage which they had kept so Elder Mahe would be forced to see them before he left. Elder Mahe was kind of annoyed but I thought it was pretty funny. We took our first plane to LAX, then boarded the Air New Zealand plane to Auckland. It was pretty huge, ten seats and two aisles wide. The flight took almost thirteen hours. Since we were flying against Earth’s revolution it was night the whole time, which was weird but I slept through most of it anyway. We arrived at the Auckland airport, explored there a bit, then took our final flight to Tonga.

Landing in Tonga it felt like my mission had finally started. We got our luggage and met President and Sister Tuione for the first time. They took us to the mission office, where we received our tupenus (traditional kilt-like cloth that wraps around the legs) and our pa’anga (Tongan money). They gave us a few hours to drop off our luggage and chill before going to the Nuku’alofa Temple. That really surprised me, I didn’t think we’d get to go so soon but the temple is actually right across from the mission office, and Liahona High School is just down the road as well. Altogether the new intake for the Misiona Tonga is 35 missionaries, 15 of us from the Provo MTC and 20 from the New Zealand MTC. Apparently that’s the biggest anyone’s seen.

The next morning we ate breakfast at President’s house then walked over to the chapel to meet our trainers. The AP’s called out trainers’ names, then their trainee and area. It was exciting but also pretty nerve-wracking waiting to see who we’d be stuck with for our first six weeks. My name wasn’t called until the very end, because I and three others wouldn’t meet our trainers that day. Instead of serving in Tongatapu, we are assigned to Vava’u, the most northern island group of Tonga. I was super excited to receive that assignment. From what I saw and heard at the MTC, Vava’u was the one place I really wanted to work in and now I’d be going there for my first transfer.

Everyone but two from my MTC zone left the next day, so it was bittersweet knowing I’d be serving in my dream location but having to send off all the friends I made in the past six weeks. The few of us left waited until Saturday morning to take a small plane to Vava’u. Elder Hopoate, my new trainer, met me at the airport and we got a ride to our MQ (missionary quarters). Our area is pretty small. It consists of just two villages, Talihau and Utungake, on a small island connected to the rest of Vava’u by one bridge. The walk between the two villages is about 20-30 minutes so we get some good exercise every day. The people here are mostly either Momonga (Mormon), Wesleyan, or Seventh Day Adventist. Talihau is actually somewhat physically divided by religion. The LDS members all live on a different side of the village than the other religions.

Even though our area is small and many people are already strong in their religion, I can see a lot of potential and I’m excited to get to work. Elder Hopoate and I spent almost three hours last night just doing our weekly planning and discussing our potential investigators. The people here are very religious; it’s often just family history and tradition that keeps them stuck in their current faith. It was a bit of a shock being completely immersed in the language but I think I’m coping well. Most of the adults know some English and the kids are surprisingly fluent, so when I can’t express myself in Tongan they can still understand me. On the first day I could barely understand anyone with how fast they speak but I can already see some progress.

So much has happened since I last wrote and I feel like I’ve missed a lot but I’m sure things will get cleared up as I keep writing. To end I’ll share 3 Nephi 5:13, which we recite every time we leave the MQ:

Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life.

I can’t wait to go make some experiences to share next week. Ofa lahi atu, tau toki sio!

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Week 5 – MTC

Malo e lelei! We finally got our travel plans! We’ll be flying from SLC to Los Angeles, then to Auckland, New Zealand. From there we take a smaller plane to Tonga. The trip is supposed to take over 24 hours of flying. Thankfully all of the Tongan missionaries are traveling together so it should be fun.

On our way back from the temple last P-day we ran into a Brother Gent who had just been released from an assignment as a missionary housing coordinator. You could tell he loved talking to missionaries. He gave us so much advice about missionary work in just ten minutes of conversation. Brother Gent was a strength training coach for football players and he made an analogy that stuck out to me: there’s no growth without opposition, just like in weightlifting. Whenever it gets hard in the mission, ask yourself what you can gain from those challenges and thank the Lord for them.

There was a rumor that Elder Holland would come speak to us for Tuesday’s devotional. Of course someone says that every week so I didn’t believe it until we found out he was in Provo for BYU Education Week. Then we noticed that the speaker wasn’t scheduled which could only mean that an Apostle was coming to speak. We arrived at choir practice before devotional just late enough that they wouldn’t make us fill up the bleachers first, so we were able to overflow into the front seats. The speaker turned out to be Sister Oscarson, the Young Women general president. We were kind of disappointed, and then Sister Oscarson jokingly apologized that she wasn’t Elder Holland. Apparently the rumor had gotten so big that even she heard about it.

Something I learned from her talk was the eternal importance of the decision to serve a mission. I had only ever thought about how serving a mission would help me in my earthly life, but her talk helped me realize the potential eternal impact a mission can have if you allow it. Elder Holland said in a 2006 MTC address that there hasn’t been a day since his mission that he hasn’t thought about it. The mission is a source of experiences, relationships, and testimony that I will draw from for eternity. Understanding this has made be even more grateful that I decided to serve.

Our investigator lessons have continued to be very successful. The first few weeks we were just worried about knowing the lessons and relevant vocabulary, but now our planning is more based on how we can best teach the investigator according to their needs and background. We’ve also been working a lot with Sister Fotu in roleplaying contacting situations. She picks a role to act and we have to approach and hopefully invite her to be taught. At first it felt really forced trying to tie in the conversation with the gospel and a lesson invitation but when I focus more on being friendly and listening sincerely it’s much more natural. Contacting is really just getting to know people well enough so that the Spirit can then help you know what to teach. I’m super excited to go meet real people in Tonga. Especially there, they love to talk about their families, which is easy to relate to the Restoration.

Hard to believe but the next time I post I’ll be in Tonga! I think I’ve fully enjoyed my time at the MTC but it’s time to move on! ‘Ofa lahi atu kiate kimoutolu! ‘Alu a!

Week 4 – MTC

We had some really great devotionals this week. On Sunday the President of UVU, Matthew Holland (also the son of Elder Holland), visited us and talked about some of the lesser-known struggles the Prophet Joseph Smith endured. When he was young, their family experienced a series of setbacks with the farm. Joseph Smith Sr. tried to export ginseng to China as a more reliable source of income, but a business partner took advantage of him and stole most of the profits. This left Joseph’s family in poverty and they had to sell the farm to pay their debts. From then on the Smith family moved constantly, experienced years of failed crops, and suffered from diseases such as the one that left Joseph Smith Jr. with an infected leg. The Restoration of the Church was not easy. The early Saints fought through persecution, famine, and disease because their faith was more important than anything else. When we sang “Oh How Lovely Was the Morning” and “Praise to the Man”, the context from Brother Holland’s history lesson made the hymns even more powerful. Overall it was a very informative and spiritually uplifting meeting.

Elder Neil Anderson visited us for our Tuesday devotional. The main theme from his talk was that “missionary work is not complex, but it is not easy”. He shared a powerful story about two Elders in Denmark who set a goal to have just one baptism by the end of one month. They found a family that for a couple weeks was progressing very well until they found a note at their door telling them to never come back. This family seemed like their only chance and to have them drop so suddenly was very discouraging. However, the Elders kept working hard until the end of the month even though the chances of even finding a new investigator were slim. Finally on the last night of the month at 11:00 PM they received a call from a man who had taken the discussions and wanted to be baptized while he lived in Pennsylvania. He had just been transferred to Denmark for work and wanted to know if he could still be baptized. I felt so happy for those Elders, even though it happened years ago and in a totally different mission. I can’t wait to experience for myself the joy of an investigator accepting baptism.

This past week I’ve been studying the scriptures Kolipoki-style, with the Tongan and English versions of the Book of Mormon side-by-side as well as a dictionary to make sure if a word translates literally or not. Studying this way has helped me so much with my vocabulary and grammar. It’s really interesting how sometimes a more archaic English word translates into something much simpler and more easily understood in Tongan. So not only does Kolipoki’s method help with learning Tongan, it makes the English scriptures easier to understand too.

On Wednesday Elder Mahe and I were preparing for one of our investigator lessons by searching for scripture verses about the Priesthood. Surprising to both of us, there was a lot more information on the Priesthood in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon. The week before we had studied the Plan of Salvation and the opposite was true; though the topic was discussed in both books, the Book of Mormon was much clearer and more detailed. The Book of Mormon does not replace the Bible; it supports and complements.  In fact, the prophets in the Book of Mormon very often back up their words with the Bible. This experience strengthened my testimony that the Bible and the Book of Mormon go hand-in-hand as testaments of Jesus Christ.

Exciting news from home! Katie and Bridger had their first child, Ezra Robert Park. I can’t wait to see him when I get back. Congratulations and good luck to my sister and brother-in-law.

Everyone in my district is so ready to start our work in Tonga! Just one more week and I’ll start packing up my bags. Toki sio!

Week 3 – MTC

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District 14-J with President Willes.

Another week down, only seventeen days to go!

We had our first TRC (Teaching Resource Center) on Saturday. Members, often return missionaries, volunteer to take lessons from missionaries at the MTC, and they’re instructed not to speak in English at all. Elder Mahe and I taught two RM’s who served in Tonga. After the lesson I shared with one of the Tongan instructors that I felt like I was right on the edge of being able to understand full sentences and not just recognize words. He told me the best way to understand others is to speak the language myself. At the time I could actually write sentences faster than I could speak them, so this past week I’ve focused more on speaking the language than reading and writing.

On Monday and Tuesday we said our goodbyes to the departing Malagasy, Marshallese, and Kiribati districts. Though I only knew them for a couple weeks I felt proud and glad that they finally completed their time at the MTC and could move on to serve in the real world.

When President Willes (president of our branch/zone) called me to be a zone leader, he promised me that as I served in my calling I would be blessed to not fall behind in my learning of Tongan. I have felt the effects of that promise already. The past few days I was in class about half as much because of meetings and responsibilites, but the language feels more and more comfortable. We held a zone orientation for the incoming missionaries on Wednesday night and one of the Sister Training Leaders from my district said the prayer. Later President Willes introduced himself to the new missionaries and noted that probably none of them understood the prayer but they understood the Spirit. When he said that I wondered, “Wait, wasn’t the prayer in English? Why wouldn’t they understand it?” Then I realized it had actually been in Tongan but I hear it so often now it seems as natural as English. I ended the meeting with my testimony in Tongan and President Willes remarked how good it was for only three weeks. Seeing their faces as I testified reminded me that only three weeks prior I was in their seats marveling at the previous zone leader’s Malagasy, expecting that level of mastery of the language to take me much longer. That was a pretty cool experience and another way President Willes’s promise was met, as well as the promise in D&C 46 that if we ask sincerely and obey His commandments we can receive gifts of the Spirit including the gift of tongues.

Our investigator lessons continue to improve every time. We taught the Plan of Salvation to both Elisapeti and Fisi’inaua this week. Elisapeti asked why we were teaching her about Adam and Eve from the Book of Mormon when she already knew it from the Bible. I explained that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon tell the same story, but the latter gives us more understanding of its role in the Plan of Salvation. The Book of Mormon explains the necessity of Adam and Eve transgressing God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so they could progress and have children. Fisi’inaua asked why the Fall of Adam and Eve should be important to him, and though I hadn’t really thought about it before, I was able to answer that it explains our need for the Atonement – that the Fall placed everyone in an imperfect mortal state exposed to pain, disease and temptation, but that we can be redeemed by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Originally I thought the best lessons would be those that go perfectly according to plan, but really they have been the ones in which we have a real conversation with the investigator and can answer questions we didn’t prepare for.

I’m grateful for all the support from home. Checking for letters and packages has never been so exciting before. Though there might be months at a time that I can’t receive email, I can still feel your support. ‘Alu a!