Ta e Fihi: Clear a Path for the Lord's Work

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Tevita KailiDevotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

April 5, 2007
Tevita Kaili
Assistant Professor of International Cultural Studies

Tā e Fihi: Clear a Path for the Lord's Work
Tapu mo e 'Otua 'oku 'afio 'i he Langi
Kau taki mo e tangata'ifonua 'o Vaihi
Kae 'atā ke fai ha fakalāngilangi
'O e si'i kau tā fihi 'o 'aneafi.


Brothers and sisters, "Mālō e lelei" and "Aloha." I begin with a fakatapu, a Tongan traditional way of paying respect. I pay my highest respect to our God who dwells in Heaven, to our leaders, and to the indigenous people of Hawai'i. Today, I want to honor and pay homage to our ancestors and pioneers of yesteryear.

It is an honor for me to stand before you this morning. I pray that the Holy Spirit will bear witness to your heart of the truthfulness of my message. In the past few weeks, I have prayed for a message that would inspire you in your work in this part of the Lord's vineyard.

In the scriptures, we learn of people with special mission to go before and prepare a way for the Lord's work. They are forerunners who clear a path and open a way for the Lord's work. In the Old Testament, Moses prepared a way for the Children of Israel to reach the Promised Land. John the Baptist, in the New Testament, prepared the way for the Lord. In 1 Nephi 10:7-8, it reads:

"And he spake also concerning a prophet who should come before the Messiah, to prepare the way of the Lord.

Yea, even he should go forth and cry in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; for there standeth one among you whom ye know not; and he is mightier than I..."

In the Book of Mormon, the sons of Mosiah opened the door for preaching the Word of God to the Lamanities in the land of Nephi (Mosiah 28: 1, 6-7, 10, 20). In our dispensation, Joseph Smith restored the fullness of the gospel and prepared the way for the Second Coming.

Today, we refer to these individuals as forerunners and pioneers. In the Tongan language, the work of pioneers are poetically rendered as tā e fihi, or to go before and cut away the tangled timber in the bush and clear a path for those who will come after. Indeed, the work of pioneers is similar to people who goes before to clear a path by cutting through a bush that is fihi, or tangled together. Fihi, tangled timber, is a metaphor for challenges, obstacles, and barriers that pioneers face in the process of opening the way. Tā e fihi is a difficult work, and it requires dedication, commitment, hard work, and above all, trust in the Word of God. For God's word is a lamp unto their feet, and a light unto their paths (Psalm 119:105). Tā e fihi is part of the reason why our forebears and elders, both males and females, are respected and highly valued in many of the societies throughout the world. Our pioneer ancestors and elders, or tupu'anga/tupuna/kūpuna, are the source of our growth. They make great sacrifice to clear a path so that their descendants can spring up as strong defender of the Truth. In terms of time and space, they are always in front, leading and guiding the present and future generations, and they provide historical solutions to our present day challenges. In Tongan, they are also known as the mu'aki, or persons who go before and lead the way. Individuals who come after the mu'aki are known as the muiaki, or those who come after and walk in the path of the pioneers.

This morning I will focus my address on a handful of individuals who came before and cleared a path, tā e fihi, which allowed the Lord's work to flourish in the Kingdom of Tonga. The stories that I will present today are based on journals and documents of early pioneers of Tonga, both Tongans and non-Tongans. Our very own Professor Viliami Toluta'u collected these journals for the past 10 years. Professor Toluta'u's important work has given many of us the opportunity to learn more about the daily lives of the early Saints in Tonga. I thanked him for his dedication and sacrifice to make these documents available to all of us. He has spent countless hours searching for both written and oral history of the Church in Tonga. He truly exemplified the spirit of Elijah, and he has helped many turn their hearts to their fathers (Malachi 4:6).

On July 15, 1891, the first LDS missionaries, Alva Butler and Brigham Smoot, arrived in Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu, from Samoa, to open the Tonga District of the Samoa Mission. In the first few years, the missionaries focused their effort in Tongatapu, the largest island in the Kingdom of Tonga. In 1895, Charles E. Jensen (from Riverton, Utah) and James R. Welker (from Safford, Arizona) where sent from Tongatapu to the northern islands of Vava'u to open the door for the Lord's work. Elder Jensen wrote in his journal about the call to go to Vava'u:

August 27, 1895: In the evening we had a counseling meeting, at this meeting myself and Brother Welker were chosen to go to Vava'u to open up that part of the Tongan mission. This was quite a task as I was unlearned in the language and my companion also, and also to leave our good house and brethren and friends and to go where the servants of God had not been yet (Jensen, Journal #1, p.142-143).

Just imagine for a moment. Here we have two elders, who were unlearned in the Tongan language, and they were called to open the way for missionary work in Vava'u. It is clear from Elder Jensen's journals that he struggled with learning the Tongan language. Nevertheless, he was committed to learning the language. He studied and prayed. Elder Jensen woke up every morning, he went to a bush nearby his home, and he knelt down and poured his soul to God. In this "sacred grove," Elder Jensen expressed his deep gratitude to God; he pleaded with God to help him learn the Tongan language. In the end, the Lord answered his prayers, and he was able to understand the Tongan language. Elder Jones, one of Elder Jensen's companions in Vava'u, took an interesting approach to studying the Tongan language. He studied the Tongan language by making a handwritten copy of the Tongan dictionary. The missionaries did not have a copy of the Tongan dictionary so they borrowed the dictionary from a friend, and then make a handwritten copy of it. To me, these two elders exemplified the words of the Doctrine & Covenants 88:118, "seek learning, even by study and also by faith."

In Vava'u, Elder Jensen and Elder Welker met Sione Pota, a preacher in the Free Church of Tonga. At the time there were only two Protestant churches in Vava'u, the Free Church of Tonga (Siasi Tonga Tau'atāina) and the Wesleyan Church (Siasi Uēsiliana). Both churches strongly opposed the work of the two LDS missionaries. It was during this time that Sione Pota developed a close friendship with the two LDS missionaries. It is not clear from the journals how a preacher of a Protestant church became close friends with the LDS elders. Somehow, Sione Pota reached across both cultural and religious divide and embraced the missionaries. In other words, Sione Pota opened a path, tā e fihi, and laid the foundation for the Lord's work in the Vava'u islands.

After serving in Vava'u for several months, Elder Jensen remained while Elder Albert Jones (from Provo, Utah) replaced Elder Welker. Shortly after Elder Jones arrived in Vava'u, the missionaries needed to find a new home. In June 1896, they began looking for a new home in Vava'u. Sione Pota, heard about the missionaries situation and he offered his home to Elder Jensen and Elder Jones. Elder Jensen recorded the event in his journal:

July 2, 1896: "I arose about 7 o'clock washed and combed then started to read my bible when a native friend [Sione Pota] came in, he having heard that we would have to move from the place where we were then living, offered us his house, [he] said he did not care for any pay, but desired that we should come and live in his house. We decided the best way to keep a friend was to treat him well...The afternoon we went to his [Sione Pota's] place and made arrangement with him for his house for six months" (Jensen, Journal #2, p. 124).

It was a great risk for preacher to invite the missionaries to live in his home. I am sure that many of the people in Vava'u were wondering why a preacher would invite LDS missionaries to live in his home.

On July 9, 1896, Elder Jensen and Elder Jones officially moved into Sione Pota's home. It was at this home that many of the people of Vava'u heard about the principles of the gospel. The missionaries reported that people came to their home and asked questions about the Gospel. It was also at this home that the missionaries ran a school (taught English) and held their Sunday services. Every Sunday, the elders called the meeting by pounding a lali, a large Tongan wood drum. In Tonga, during this period, pounding a lali was the common method for letting people know that Church was about to begin. Tongans, both young and old, flocked to Sione Pota's home to hear the message of the Restored Gospel from the missionaries. It was not always easy to get people to attend their Sunday services. Young people were more interested while older folks were not so receptive. Perhaps it was difficult because the missionaries did not have a chapel to hold their meetings. Sometimes the Sunday service had about 12 people and other times they had only four people in attendance. Sunday services consisted of each elder speaking for about 30 minutes on the principles of the Gospel, and then performing the sacrament ordinance.

After serving in Vava'u for nearly a year, the elders finally saw the fruit of their labor. Yes, they had their first baptism in the island of Vava'u. Both Elder Jensen and Elder Jones noted this significant event in their journals.

July 12, 1896: "This was one of the happiest day that we had seen for a long time, at 11 am we commenced out meeting as usual but to a larger congregation than usual and some very high chiefs was present. I spoke first and the spirit of God rested upon me, and I spoke with ease and power. After meeting we had the privilege of taking two souls into the water of baptism the first two in the Vava'u group and in the evening confirmed them members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and after having confirmed them they bore a faithful testimony each which caused our souls to rejoice and we instructed them and encouraged them to do the will of God" (Jensen, Journal #2, p. 131).

July 12, 1896: "...May the glory be given to Him for opening the hearts of two of this people that they endure the mockery for the Gospel sake, and may many more will follow their example. I had almost given up in the hopes on even baptizing one while on this mission as my time is getting short and the people seem so indifferent to the Gospel. This evening at 7 o'clock as prearranged Namosi and Toutai came down and after offering up a few words of prayer we confirmed them to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bro. Jensen confirmed Namosi and I Sione Tania [Tanea] (Toutai is only a nickname)" (Jones, Journal #5, p. 23).

Many of the people in Vava'u mocked Namosi and Toutai for joining the Church. Shortly after their baptism, Toutai returned to his island, Ha'apai, and Namosi remained in Vava'u with the two missionaries. You can only imagine what it was like to be the only Tongan member of the Church in all of Vava'u. Elder Jensen and Elder Jones understood the challenges that Namosi faced. As good shepherds, Elder Jensen and Elder Jones invested time and energy in nurturing and strengthening Namosi's testimony.

Namosi faced many challenges but he remained faithful to the gospel.

Elder Jones wrote about one of the challenges Namosi faced:
July 30, 1896: "This evening Namosi came in and spent the evening, he told us that some were talking of putting him up as the mayor (or bulekolo) at his island Huga but because he has joined the Church they would not have him because he would not work hand in hand with the Free Church..." (Jones, Journal #5, p. 31).

In actuality, people refused to give Namosi the chiefly title Fulivai. Namosi did not care about being a chief. All he wanted to do was to remain true to his testimony of the Gospel.

During the course of their mission, the missionaries realized that in order to visit the other islands in Vava'u, they needed to purchase a boat or rent a boat. 'Alipate Sanft, a person in Vava'u, proposed to the elders that it would be wiser to buy a boat. 'Alipate sold his boat to the missionaries for $20.00. It was a good deal because it included the oars. Elder Jones and Elder Jensen became friends with 'Alipate Sanft. They frequently visited him. The boat was very useful. It allowed the missionaries to visit many of the islands in Vava'u.

In the early years of the Church in Vava'u, Sione Pota was instrumental in opening a way for the Gospel in Vava'u. As a preacher and an influential person in Vava'u, he introduced the missionaries to the chiefs in Vava'u. This opened the door for the elders to discuss the Gospel and the Book of Mormon with several of the high chiefs in Vava'u. 'Inoke Fotu, one of the high chiefs in Vava'u, met the LDS missionaries several times.

Friday, July 31, 1896: This evening, we had a good talk with one of the high chiefs of the island by the name of Inoke ['Inoke Fotu], we explained to him a little about the Church and the Book of Mormon (Jones, Journal #5, p.31).

Finding food was never a problem for early missionaries. The people of Vava'u were generous with their food. At the time, no one in Vava'u was member of the Church. Still they offered whatever food they had to the missionaries. The missionaries received the food with gratitude. Elder Jones wrote:

August 3, 1896: "I rose this morning feeling well and hearty, after prayer we prepared our boat and started to visit two villages, that had not been visited before, called Vaimalo and Taoa.  We cast anchor at the landing place at Taoa, as we visited her first.  We could not find many home as nearly all was in the bush. We called in to one place by a man who was sick we left him a tract also talked a short time we then came down to another place and got to talking with an old woman who was making ngatu, or native cloth, she said if we would wait she would boil us some yams but she did not have anything else to give us, we told her we would wait and that 'ufi hamu pÄ“ (or yam only) was good (we had not had our breakfast as we started without it) a native boy who went with us "Loketi" he got some oranges for us. We had a talk with the man of the place, we also left him a tract...(Jones, Journal #5, p. 32-33).

July 26, 1896: The fore part of the day was very quite, we had a real good breakfast and it was Sione Pota's turn to fakaafe, which means to feed the preacher and of course he had to have a talitali lelei 'aupito or a very good meal for them and we got some of it. They killed a small pig and also a chicken, and had vai siaine and yams (Jones, Journal #5, p. 28-29).

Sione Pota always cooked food to the missionaries. There were times when Sione Pota returned from plantation with yams for the missionaries. This is significant because Tongans regard yam as high status food. The missionaries also learned to eat other kinds of food:

Elder Jensen wrote:
Oct 1, 1896: Bota returned from the "Bush" with food, give us some ufi [yam]; he also had a roasted bat and he gave us a taste of it (Jensen, Journal #2, p. 174).

Feb 12, 1897: Our friend "Bota"... had a nice feiumu [underground oven food] ready for us but said that he had been unable to get any meat of any kind to kikiaki. Bro. K. [Kofoed] took our friends gun and shot two bats, which Loketi cleaned and roasted on the fire...(Jensen, Journal #3, p.41).

Sione Pota not only introduced Elder Jensen and Elder Jones to some of the chiefs in Vava'u, but he also took them along when he went to preach in other towns. One time, Elder Jones could not go, so Sione Pota and Elder Jensen, went as "companion" to a preaching service in Falaleu a place in Vava'u. This was a form of missionary splits a LDS missionary and a preacher. Elder Jones provided an account:

September 20, 1896: "This afternoon Bro. Jensen went with our native friend Sione Pota to Falaleu where he (Pota) preached, he wanted both of us to go but I could not sit so long, so I stayed home. Bro. Jensen had a very good meal after the meeting, he (Bro. Jensen) also went with Pota to visit a sick person and they requested Bro. Jensen to pray for him which he did" (Jones, Journal #5, p. 60).

Even with the baptism of Namosi and Toutai, and the assistance of Sione Pota, the progress of the work was slow. The early years of the LDS Church in Tonga were difficult. The missionaries faced great oppositions from other churches. The missionaries only baptized three people in Vava'u (Namosi, Toutai, and Olsen). Only five years after the arrival of the missionaries in Tonga, the Tonga District closed and all the LDS missionaries returned to Samoa. It was a very sad time for the missionaries, for Namosi, and for Sione Pota. The Sunday the missionaries gave their farewell speech, no one came. Elder Jensen wrote about the event:

Sunday March 14, 1897: "At 11 o'clock we gave our usual sign for meeting but no one came to hear our farewell speeches.  This is the second time since I had been in Vava'u that we could not hold a Sunday meeting..." (Jensen, Journal #3, p. 60).

Sione Pota was so sad when he found out that the missionaries were leaving Vava'u. He wrote these two moving letters to Elder Jensen and Elder Jones. I quote a few lines from Sione Pota's farewell letters to the missionaries:

March 16, 1897: To the Missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Dear Mr. Jenisini,

I write you this letter to express my love. Ever since I heard that the boat was on its way to take you, I have not been able to rest. We have become friends... You're like a father to all of us. Misi Jenisini, keep in your heart our love and memories. I will never forget you. Send my love to your mother, to your children, to your extended family, to your family, 'ofa atu, Jone Pota Uaine.

Dear Mr. Jones,

...I am almost unable to complete my letter as memories of our relationship are coming to my mind.  The Lord has been with us in our stay and in our work. I will never forget you while I am still alive. Please express my love to your family, to your father and your mother, to your brothers and sisters, and to all your kin. 'Ofa atu, J.P. Uaine, Your True Kin (Ko ho kaiga mo'oni).

The work of Elder Jensen, Elder Jones, Namosi, and Sione Pota (and also Elder Welker and Elder Koffoed) cleared a path for the Lord's work in Vava'u. I am sure that as the missionaries were leaving, they probably wondered what would happen to all the people that they have worked so hard to introduce to the Gospel.

In 1907 (after 10 years), 'Iki Tupou Fulivai, invited the LDS missionaries to return to Vava'u. 'Iki Tupou Fulivai is Namosi's first cousin and Sione Pota next door neighbor. Elder Heber J. McKay and Elder W.O. Facer returned to Vava'u to re-open the Church in Neiafu, Vava'u. Namosi was still alive in 1907, and the elders lived in Namosi's home. The Church has remained in Tonga since 1907. This year, 2007, will mark the 100th year of the return of the missionaries. In June, the Uho 'o Tonga Historical Society and the Mormon Pacific Historical Society will hold a conference in Tonga, commemorating the 100th year of the arrival to Tonga of the second wave of LDS missionaries.

What can we learn from these pioneers who went before to clear a path, tā e fihi, for the Lord's works? Let me give you four things that I learned:

1) Be good to people of other faiths. Sione Pota, the preacher, fed and housed the LDS missionaries despite the religious difference between LDS and the Free Church of Tonga. Elder M. Russell Ballard said this about serving one another despite religious differences:

Every time I read [the parable of the Good Samaritan] I am impressed with its power and its simplicity. But have you ever wondered why the Savior chose to make the hero of this story a Samaritan? There was considerable antipathy between the Jews and the Samaritans at the time of Christ. Under normal circumstances, these two groups avoided association with each other. It would still be a good, instructive parable if the man who fell among thieves had been rescued by a brother Jew.

His deliberate use of Jews and Samaritans clearly teaches that we are all neighbors and that we should love, esteem, respect, and serve one another despite our deepest differences, including religious, political, and cultural differences.

That instruction continues today to be part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In enumerating the key doctrines of the restored Church, Joseph Smith said, while "we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience," we also "allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may" (A of F 1:11)(M. Russell Ballard, "Doctrine of Inclusion," Liahona, Jan 2002, 40-43).

2) Learn the language of other cultures. We are instructed in the Doctrine & Covenants 90:15 to study and learn, and to become acquainted with language, tongue, and people. The early LDS missionaries made serious efforts to study the Tongan language. Elder Jacob de Jager said the following about our duties as members to learn foreign languages:

We in the Church look at the learning of languages differently from the way the world does. For us it is almost a sacred obligation given by the Lord. Because we have to take the gospel to every nation, we as Church members, more than ever before, must take the obligation upon us to learn foreign languages. The youth especially have to prepare themselves for this. But also married couples who have a desire to serve a mission in a certain number of years can now start to prepare themselves to converse in a foreign language.

As time goes on, the need for a command of various languages will increase because the gospel will be taken to new countries where we haven't been engaged in preaching the gospel so far. As the Lord revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, "It shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language" (D&C 90:11.)
(Jacob de Jager, "'Become Acquainted with Languages, Tongues, and People'," Ensign, Oct 1982, 11).

3) Be willing to give up worldly status for the sake of the Gospel. 'Isileli Namosi willingly gave up his chiefly titled for sake of the Gospel.

4) Pray always. Elder Jensen woke up every morning and went to his "sacred grove" and offer up his soul in prayer and in thankfulness to our Heavenly Father.

I want to conclude by saying a few words about the descendants of those who were taught by the missionaries in Vava'u between 1895-1897.

'Alipate Sanft: The man who sold his boat to the missionaries. Many of his descendants are now active members of the Church. Several have hold important leadership positions in the Church. Some of his direct descendants are currently attending our school.

'Isileli Namosi: The person who was baptized in Vava'u in 1896. Many of his relatives are members of the Church. Perhaps the most famous of all is Vai Sikahema, the BYU Provo football star in the 1980s. Vai Sikahema is a member of the Fulivai family.

'Inoke Fotu: The high chief who met with the missionaries several times and who was taught about the Church and the Book of Mormon. His great-great-grandson, 'Inoke Kupu, is a graduate of BYU-Hawai'i, and currently the CES country director in Tonga. Several of 'Inoke Kupu's children are now attending BYU-Hawai'i.

Sione Pota: The preacher who fed, housed, and introduced the missionaries to several of chiefs in Vava'u. Well, I am his great-grand son. Some of Sione Pota's grandchildren and great-grandchildren have graduated from BYU-Hawai'i. Sione Pota's son, Tonga Pōteki Mālohifo'ou, was President Shumway's missionary companion and language teacher in Tonga in the 1950s.

The righteous work of these individuals, in the process of tā e fihi, has brought numerous blessings to their descendants. I am reminded of Doctrine & Covenants 98:30, "Thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness; and also thy children and thy children's children unto the third and fourth generation."

I bear you my testimony that as we clear a path, tā e fihi, for the Lord's work, we will be blessed, and our descendants will be blessed. I know that Jesus is the Christ. He is our Redeemer and our Savior. In the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.