Members on isolated isle must rely on selves, Lord

Isolated from the outside world by hundreds of miles of ocean, members here have learned to rely on themselves and the Lord.

Takaroa is a narrow atoll with a village of the same name in the Tuamotu islands in French Polynesia, some 250 miles northeast of Tahiti. It is perhaps a city block or two wide and several miles long, interrupted here and there by the ocean.The first LDS missionaries came to the Tuamotu island chain in the 1840s by sailing ship and established branches, some of which have continued ever since.

During much of the 150-year history of the Church in these islands, the Takaroa members have been isolated from Church leadership. Even today, said Pres. Louis Palmer of the Takaroa 2nd Branch, visits from the district or mission president are few because round trip fare by air just to Papeete, Tahiti, is about $370. There are only three flights a week. An average of "two boats or no boats" visit the island each month. Leaders do communicate frequently by telephone, however.

Isolation can be an advantage, too. Far from the smoky air of cities, the island's colors seem to be a shade cleaner than colors elsewhere; the sky a lighter blue, the palms a lighter green, the ocean more turquoise. A dusty road winds from the airport to the village. At the village, the metallic red roof of the 103-year-old LDS meetinghouse dominates the view, a vestige of the faith of past generations. (See "100-year-old meetinghouse link to the past, hope for future," by Kathleen Clayton Perrin, Church News, Feb. 9, 1991.)

Houses are tucked behind a wall on the village main street. Here and there are new motor vehicles and satellite dishes. Most of the modern touches come because the island developed a successful pearl industry after World War II. Hundreds of thousands of mother-of-pearl oysters lie in offshore beds. These black oysters produce cultured black pearls, more prized than traditional white pearls. Oysters are expertly seeded and each may grow several successively larger pearls over their lifetime.

According to Tuamotu District Pres. Thierry G. Hunter, who is assistant engineer in the Papeete Tahiti Temple, most residents on Takaroa earn a livelihood through pearl farming, while others fish and harvest copra, which is dried coconut meat. Those in the oyster and pearl business earn about twice as much as the others.

Fish are plentiful in the clear Tuamotu waters. On some islands, fish come in with the tide and are easily netted. Game fish are abundant as well. At one home, a collection of swordfish heads was nailed to a tree in much the same way deer antlers can be found in the yards of the rural American West.

In Takaroa, refreshment is just a tree away as young coconuts are plucked and perforated for drinking. The tender meat inside is scraped off with a shell as a snack, an opulence nature didn't provide other countries of the same latitude, such as Bolivia or Angola.

Pres. Hunter said the villagers are nearly all LDS. They are divided into two branches with 190 members in one and 145 in the other, about 60 percent of whom are active in the Church. Some 450 people live on the island.

Branch Pres. Palmer is among those who earn a living from the shell industry. He is also a fisherman and has resided on the island for the past three years. He said administering the branch without regular training can be difficult.

"We don't function as well as a ward - we have to rely on the manuals to guide the Church. Because of the distance and air fare, the visits of leaders are pretty scarce."

The recent visit by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve, the first apostle to visit the island, was a rich spiritual experience for the members. His visit was part of the observance of the sesquicentennial of the Church in Tahiti. (See Church News, May 21, 1994.) Takaroan members sometimes shed tears when his visit is mentioned.

Despite their isolation, residents stay in touch with world current events through television, radio and telephones. The more affluent residents are also well-traveled.

Locally, much of the travel is in small boats.

The 2nd branch, said Pres. Palmer, consists of those who live farther away from the meetinghouse, beyond the reach of roads. "Most of the members come to the meetings by boat every Sunday." Full-time missionaries stationed on the island also do much of their work traveling in boats for transportation.

"We are doing pretty well in missionary work and in reactivation," Pres. Palmer said. "That is where we succeed the most. We do very well for a little island. The new converts have remained active in the Church."

The branch Primary functions well, but when youth reach age 12, they leave the island to attend school either in Papeete or larger neighboring islands. Only a few years ago, once the island children completed primary school they began working.

Pres. Palmer came to Takaroa in 1991 from Tahiti. About a year later, on May 29, 1992, he had an experience that illustrates perils of life on the island.

He and his cousin, Tahiarii Tamarono, went fishing about 4:30 p.m. in a diesel-powered boat. Within an hour and a half, they had a good catch. But as they started to return, many miles from shore, the boat hit heavy waves. Both men were tossed into the ocean.

"The boat kept going. The engine was running, so we started swimming after it, hoping it would run out of diesel. After about an hour of swimming, my cousin wasn't doing well. I swam back to him and said, `We can't swim to the island; we are too far away and it is getting dark. If you want me to stay here with you, I will.'

"He said, `No. You swim for the boat and then come back for me.' So I swam for the boat. I don't know how long I swam. It was pitch dark and I could hear the engine running."

He said he prayed many times during the ordeal. Hours passed. The boat seemed to be making large circles. Coincidentally, the engine ran out of diesel and stopped running when it was within his hearing.

"I was able to get on it."

He explained that when a diesel engine runs out of fuel, it usually takes special equipment to recharge the fuel lines.

"I had no tools; I could not see because of the darkness. I had a spare tank of diesel. I just asked the Lord to bless the engine that it would start. The first time I tried, it wouldn't start. I prayed again, and the second time, it started.

"I went looking for my cousin. I searched for him for hours and I never found him."

As he searched, he drew closer and closer to the island and could see the lights, so he went ashore for help.

"Many people were on the dock waiting. They were worried about us. The police came back and started searching about 2 a.m., and then again at 5 a.m. another search started. We never found him."

During the tragic incident, the people formed a unity and developed a closer sense of brotherhood, he said.

The next day, the presidency of the 2nd branch was reorganized and Louis Palmer was called as its president.

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