Johnston Atoll: Small LDS branch in vast pacific draws members together

On a tiny speck in the vast Pacific - where it would be very easy to feel isolated and alone - a branch of the Church draws members close together, offering friendship and unity among a people in unusual circumstances.

The Johnston Island Branch, a unit of the Hawaii Honolulu Mission, is progressing on this two-mile long, half-mile wide island. It's the largest of a cluster of four islands known as Johnston Atoll, a crescent-shaped coral reef about 825 miles southwest of Hawaii.Like all the approximately 1,500 residents of the island, branch members are either military personnel or employed by civilian companies under contract with the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) and the U.S. Army to operate the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Demilitarization System (JACADS), a facility for the destruction of chemical weapons.

Being so far from home and family, Latter-day Saints here feel naturally drawn to the companionship and acceptance common in this branch, according to leaders. And in return, members reach out to others on the island, regardless of belief or denomination.

Branch Pres. G. Merrill Andrus, who is a manager for one of the contractors, explained: "All the members of the Church in our branch are appreciative of the goodness of other people. They have daily contact with all sorts of people. I don't think anyone could accuse us of being clannish. We are very much into the business of our job and involved in the island society."

There are only about 25 known LDS on Johnston Atoll, said Pres. Andrus, who added that about 10 to 12 come out to Church each Sunday. He said more would attend meetings if it weren't for long hours on the job, shift work, and leave schedules.

"The first noticeable thing about the branch is there are no children," he related. He explained there are no family arrangements on the atoll, therefore the majority of branch members are more than 40 years old, and there are few young couples or young heads of families.

Because all civilian residents are typically under contracts for one to three years, and with no bank on the island for tithing funds, membership records are kept not in the branch but in each member's home unit.

However, the branch is in full operation with priesthood meeting, Relief Society, sacrament meeting, Sunday School, home and visiting teaching programs, and even a family history center. There is also a pair of branch missionaries. Branch members use the base chapel and coordinate activity and meeting schedules with other denominations on the island.

Pres. Andrus relies heavily on his two counselors, Scott Braithwaite and Stanley Moore, for assistance.

"We have to rely on each other," recounted Pres. Andrus. "We have priesthood members who handle the sacrament without promptings. We have one speaker in sacrament meeting each week. We use audio tapes to accompany our hymns when we don't have a pianist available.

"I think attendance at meetings and associations with other Latter-day Saints are testimony building and build reliance on the Lord. Partaking of the sacrament is a major act of spirituality.

"I'm asked to give priesthood blessings on an average of once or twice a month to people who want some encouragement. They have a desire to improve their lives and their relationship with the Lord. A lot of difficult problems have been overcome."

One of the challenges Pres. Andrus faces is, as he described it, "to help people who are discouraged feel they are worthwhile and that their membership in the Church is something that will help them."

Kathleen Clawson found her Church membership has helped her. She was less active in the Church when she arrived as a power plant operator on Johnston Island in December 1988. The warmth and acceptance she found among branch members encouraged her to begin attending Church. Today, she heads the branch activities committee and is second counselor in the branch Relief Society presidency.

"There's definitely a bond here. You don't feel you're out here all by yourself," she told the Church News. "I knew most of the members from work. They were happy to see me. They got me involved right away."

The dedication of members on Johnston Island was emphasized by Pres. Andrus who, with tears in his eyes, said, "The branch members are outstanding, and they stand out because of leadership training."

One evidence of good leadership is the branch's Relief Society, headed by Lori Bevan and her counselors, Gina Wood and Sister Clawson. About three to four members attend Relief Society each Sunday, related Sister Bevan, who added that there is a closeness in their meetings.

"Relief Society is like my battery charger. Out here we don't work a normal eight-hour day in a five-day work week. Sometimes we work 14 days in a row. I think the highest was 21 days without a day off. It's wonderful having the Church."

Everyone on the island goes to a dining hall for meals, as there are no kitchen facilities in the sleeping quarters. Relief Society sisters obtained permission, however, to utilize the kitchen in the power plant where they hold many homemaking activities.

Another sign of good leadership is the enthusiasm felt in other branch activities. Sister Clawson said as many as 15 people, including from six to seven who are not Church members, have participated in activities, which are usually held during the "Saturday night social."

"We have game nights, when we play board games. We show videos, most of which I get from the Church distribution center in Salt Lake City," Sister Clawson said. "We have hymn sing-alongs on the different holidays. These activities are open to everyone. We don't go heavy on anything that would be uniquely LDS."

Pres. Andrus emphasized, "We try very hard to interface with non-LDS people on a Christian basis. Our Saturday night socials are designed to provide a way to associate with other like-minded people - a Christian alternative to the other usual Saturday night activities.

"The military chaplains have been outstanding in making facilities available to us. They've seen to it we've had everything we've needed in connection to having our meetings and using the base chapel for our activities."

This interfacing is not limited to just activities. The family history center, directed by branch member Raymond Winn, is open one evening a week for all island residents.

"For an isolated place like this to have a family history center is highly unusual," Pres. Andrus added.

This acceptance of people, regardless of beliefs, has drawn many non-LDS to meetings. Pres. Andrus said they had two baptisms in 1991 and one in 1990. "We have the biggest baptismal font in the world [the Pacific OceanT, and we wish we could use it often."

Pres. Andrus said a branch was functioning on Johnston Island long before his arrival in May 1990. He noted that branch historical records indicate members were on the atoll during the 1950s and 1960s when the island was used as a base for testing nuclear weapons.

But the history of the island goes back much earlier in time. Johnston Atoll was accidently discovered in 1796 when the American brig "Sally" broke up on the reef. In the early 1920s, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge designated the atoll as a bird refuge. Pres. Andrus said the atoll was used during World War II as a fueling station. Today, in addition to being used as a base for chemical weapons destruction, Johnston Atoll is also a national wildlife refuge.

But for Church members working on the 600-acre island, Johnston Atoll is a place where a branch of the Church offers them friendship and a solid gospel foundation.

Sister Clawson explained the impact of the branch and Church in her life: "I grew up in a military family. The one thing that provides stability in my life is the Church. That's true even out here. The gospel provides focus, values and purpose. There are a lot of people out here in the middle of nowhere. Some lead sad lives. Living the gospel helps me be the best person I can be."

Julie A. Dockstader

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