Church continues to grow in Kiribati: 4,600 Church members now in country; 80 recently ordained elders

When he served as a missionary in Kiribati 16 years ago, Iotua Tune and many of the country's 500 Church members faced huge opposition.

"At that time it was unusual to see people with long pants, going from house to house and wearing ties," the current district president remembered.Today the Church in Kiribati - home to more than 4,600 members and 17 branches - is proof they did.

Pres. Tune said the Church is no longer seen as a minority in the developing country made up of 36 Pacific islands, where the equator and the international dateline meet.

"The country is now viewing us as a big Church," he explained. "The thing about the Church is that when you do your part, it will just keep on growing."

During a district conference the first week of February, 80 men from Kiribati were ordained elders and received the Melchizedek Priesthood. The Kiribati Tarawa District now has the membership and leadership base to qualify for a stake, said Elder V. Dallas Merrell of the Seventy.

Pres. Tune noted members in Kiribati are excited about their successes. They have been working together for years to strengthen the Church and its priesthood base, he said.

Before the district conference - responding to a promise given to them by Elder Merrell - active members and missionaries identified and invited prospective elders and their families who had strayed from the Church to return.

Elder Merrell told the members on previous visits to the country, quoting Moroni 7:29-33, that if they would invite less-active members back into activity, "angels would prepare the way for them" and "soften the hearts" of the people they were trying to reach.

Many members held a fast and set aside an entire Saturday for missionary work. Pres. Tune said because of their culture, inviting people to come back to Church was a difficult thing for them to do.

"But the idea of an angel preparing the way had a very powerful impact on us as leaders," he said. "We said, `We will do our best.' "

Elder Merrell said it was "really inspiring to see the power of the spirit move across the island" as Pres Tune, the members and the missionaries worked to activate prospective elders.

Pres. Tune said as the men and their families came back to Church they were given callings. Most, he explained, had wanted to come for some time but were waiting for an invitation.

"You could see tears coming out of their eyes," Pres. Tune said. "They said, `We were just afraid to come. No one has ever invited us.' It was an emotional experience to see them."

Pres. Howard Fredrick Wolfgramm of the Fiji Suva Mission, which includes Kiribati, said missionaries have also been working in the country to increase the priesthood base.

He also said that as the missionaries and members in the area heeded Elder Merrell's promise, they found that people were ready to hear their message.

"We had missionaries going into the small villages together," he related. "They went to the homes, and in some case the people were prepared and waiting and in other cases were very receptive and received that invitation with joy. It was a beautiful experience.

"I think it was a great exhibit of faith on the part of both the missionaries and the members."

Elder Merrell called the Church members from Kiribati "precious people."

"They have simple faith. They are believing souls. They want to do good and be part of the Lord's kingdom," he explained.

Elder Merrell said government leaders have also noticed the quality people in the country who are members of the Church. He met with Teburoro Tito, the president of Kiribati, and presented him with the Church's proclamation on families.

Elder Merrell called the meeting - the president's first with a General Authority - a success.

"He has very high opinion of the Church," Elder Merrell said. "He is anxious to see the Church grow and extend its influence. He feels like the Church is the one organization that is really emphasizing strengthening families and has a program for doing it."

Elder Merrell explained that official government visits, such as this one, open doors of understanding and support with key opinion leaders. "His speaking well of the Church will ripple out across the whole country," Elder Merrell said.

Pres. Tune said Pres. Tito asked to be notified when the first stake is established in the country. "One of his comments were, `Your Church is taking the lead in leadership, education and in the community,' " Pres. Tune said.

The district president expressed optimism about the future of the Church in Kiribati - where members plan to continue to devote one Saturday a month to missionary work.

"After we become a stake I think we will have to work hard to get another stake in the next year or two," he said. "The people now are coming to a point to where they are excited about the work."

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