The Polynesian Cultural Center has always been vibrant and energetic, but an unusual sense of excitement pervades it right now as some 1,500 alumni of the Church facility and its adjacent BYU-Hawaii campus have converged here, a number that might expand to 3,000 before the weekend is over.
The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the cultural center in 1963, next to what was then called the Church College of Hawaii on Oahu's famous North Shore. It's purposes today remain what they were back then: to share with visitors the cultures and customs of the six Pacific island nations highlighted at the center and to provide grants, scholarships and employment opportunities.
Twin sisters Connie Barber Burke and Maryella Scharnhorst, fourth-generation Latter-day Saints born and reared in New Zealand but now living in Sedona, Ariz., look back on their period at the center beginning in 1986 as a pivotal time of personal growth as well as a time to give.
"When you're living in New Zealand and your surrounded by your own culture you don't appreciate it as much until you go into a different country," Sister Burke reflected. "And you learn so much more about it and then you get to know the other cultures, and appreciate them just as much. We learned to just love the Samoan and Tongan and Tahitian cultures. It's beautiful, and everybody has become lifetime friends."
Sister Scharnhorst agreed.
"We're Maori, which is the native indigenous people of New Zealand," she said. "We're quite a close-knit community, very culturally minded, and we stick together. We didn't really reach out. And coming here, we had no choice but to. We realized what we missed out on, getting to know such beautiful people. And from that, we've gained lifelong relationships."
A favorite memory of both was the time when they were invited to give a special performance to the board of trustees of the university.
"When it was over and done with, my sister and I were walking across the bridge leaving the Samoan village," Sister Burke said. "We could hear these footsteps behind us and someone said, 'Excuse me, girls.' We turned around, and it was [Elder Thomas S.] Monson. He said, 'Let me tell you how wonderful it was, and let me escort you back.' We were in la-la land for the rest of the month."
As the sisters saw so many of their friends go on missions, they were motivated to do so themselves and, at age 21, were called to serve in separate missions in Australia.
The spirit of missionary work continues to characterize the students who work at the cultural center today.
Ilidsa Delai of Matauloa, Fiji, said all of the performers who work in the Fiji village at the center are returned missionaries except one, and she is a prospective missionary.
"And those who haven't gone on missions are serving missions right now," he said.
He was motivated to come to the university and audition to perform at the cultural center after his mission to Hawaii, where he served in Laie and experienced the cultural center during visits.
Asenaca Vuikadavu of Lomanikoro, Fiji, also served a mission before coming to the center. Hers was in Madagascar.
"My dad and my brothers and sisters worked here, and that made me want to come but before my mission, I was quite unsure," she said. "But the day before I boarded the plane to come back home, I knew I had to come here."
Though many visitors to the center are not even aware it is owned and operated by the Church, they feel something special from the joy and wholesomeness reflected in the countenances of the performers, Sister Vuikadvu said.
As demonstration guides in the Fiji village at the center, they perform the chants and the dancing (known in Fiji as meke) that tell the stories of their ancestors.
"We try to keep our history accurate," Brother Delai said. "It's one area that I feel is kind of like record keeping. We preserve the stories and can pass them down to our kids."
Thus, there is a spirit of family history – a turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers – as well as missionary work among the performers.
"One of coolest things is sometime you can actually feel their presence, especially when you're doing meke and have that kind of atmosphere, Sister Vuikadavu said. "It's really comforting, to know you know you can actually share the culture and be able to connect with the people in that way, that you can actually have respect for the culture and help preserve it."
The observance of the 50th anniversary continues through the weekend with an anniversary parade in Laie and, a luau and a "Breath of Life" event at the cultural center.
On Sunday, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve is scheduled to dedicate the new Heber J. Grant Building on the university campus and to deliver a Church Educational System satellite devotional address from the campus. A testimony meeting of alumni will be held that day at the university.