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Visit to Vanuatu: Answered on a wing and a prayer

PORT VILA, Vanuatu — Members in Vanuatu placed great importance to the visit of President Gordon B. Hinckley. Perhaps nowhere was it more evident than among the members living on the outer islands of Espiritu Santo and Malekula.

As soon as they heard President Gordon B. Hinckley was coming to Port Vila, about 136 members living on the islands began saving for the fare to Port Vila, an overnight journey by boat.

They saved and found extra jobs, such as cutting grass with machetes. But, said President Albert Laih, it was very hard to earn money. "There is a depressed market for copra," so the people are living on shell food and raising vegetables.

A single sister, Christina Haeremai had no resources at all to buy a ticket. "I just prayed," she said. Her neighbors helped her. The members raised about 900,000 Vatu or about $7,500, said Honore Tiasinmal, the branch member who helped in transportation negotiations for those in the Santo, Nduindui and Lolotinge branches on Santo and the Pinalum-Wala and Uripiv branches in Malekula.

However, booking passage was difficult. A boat was secured, but later it was canceled, said Elder Glenn Allen, who, with his wife, Sister Marcie Allen, is serving on Santo.

"I gave up 20 times," he said. As soon as he and Brother Tiasinmal arranged for a second boat, Elder Allen left the island to attend a zone meeting in Port Vila, only to learn later that transportation had failed again.

He was told the group had collected on the boat with food and sleeping mats. But relations between the crew and captain were strained. To make matters worse, when the boat got out in the channel, its motor failed and it drifted back to shore, along with the hopes of the disappointed members.

"When we got off the ship, we felt very bad not to be able to attend," said Sister Haeremai.

Their leaders took the members, some of them weeping, to the meetinghouse in Luganville and they discussed the problem. They called the local leaders in Port Vila and informed them of their situation. Then they prayed, and sang hymns, and prayed and slept.

At this time, the only option was an airplane because boat travel would not get them to Port Vila in time. Two Church members in Port Vila with influential ties, Edwyn Basil and Sovai Pita Sali, approached Air Vanuatu, realizing that air charters were very expensive, and had to be paid at least a month in advance. And they were 300,000 Vatu, or $2,500 short of the amount needed. But government and airline officials were sympathetic to the situation and kindly supplied a 737 on a few hours notice.

In the meetinghouse in Luganville, "We were chatting when they told us to gather at 4:30 a.m. to tell us what the people from Port Vila had arranged," said Sister Haereami. "We were so happy we clapped, and then we sang, and then we gave thanks to God and Jesus Christ."

"Every one of us prayed to Papa God that He would deliver us," said Simon Peter Leowia, a tribal chieftain and member in Santo. "We were very happy. It was marvelous. It seems to everyone that it is a miracle."

It was important to go because "this will be the first and last time we see President Hinckley."

Early the next morning, the big jet arrived and loaded them on, picking up an additional 10 passengers. The members eventually returned home by boat.

But the day wasn't over for Simon Peter and his wife, Juliette. That afternoon, as they were riding a taxi to the meetinghouse, the vehicle's brakes failed and it collided with another. The driver was pinned in the taxi with two broken legs and had to be cut out by rescuers. Brother Leowia was thrown 10 feet through the windshield but received no lacerations. After the accident, Sister Leowia wailed from the back seat, "I want to see President Hinckley."

Brother Leowia, battered, dirty and and covered in broken glass, emphatically replied: "You will see President Hinckley."

That evening when the prophet came to the meetinghouse in Port Vila, Brother and Sister Leowia and their fellow members from Malekula and Santo were waiting reverently in the congregation.

It was an experience they will long remember, more than worth all the effort.

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