Early in 1963, I was a brand-new missionary serving in the French Polynesian Mission on the island of Maupiti, a small island in the Leeward Islands group.
I had been on my mission only three or four months when the mission president, Kendall W. Young, assigned my companion, Elder Gerard Jugant, and me to replace the first missionaries to Maupiti. Our predecessors, Elder Lynn Hutchings and Elder Henri Tehani, had converted a number of investigators who built their own small chapel for the Maupiti Branch. It was a wonderful location to begin my mission and to study the Tahitian language. I loved the members and had the opportunity to baptize several people during my stay there.This was a time of great expansion for the Church in the South Pacific. On the neighboring island of Huahine, Brother Charles Lynn Evans and his wife had been assigned to supervise the construction in the area known as Haapu of a beautiful cement chapel sitting on the crest of a hill overlooking the bay.
Upon completion of the building, it was announced that Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, a newly-called apostle, would dedicate the chapel. Pres. Young assigned Elder Jugant and me to travel to Huahine to assist in the preparations for the chapel dedication. When we arrived, we found one of the most beautiful chapels in the entire mission. The building had electricity, running water, a basketball court and a wonderful apartment for the missionaries. Members of the Church from the neighboring islands of Raiatea and Maupiti were making plans to charter small island trading boats to attend the dedication and hear an apostle of the Lord speak.
On the day of the dedication, Elder Hinckley arrived with Pres. and Sister Young, as well as a number of Church leaders, on a chartered sea plane. It was a wonderful dedication. The chapel was packed with members, many curious people of the community and local government leaders.
At the end of the dedication, Elder Hinckley felt inspired to have all of the missionaries accompany him to the mission home in Papeete to participate in a missionary conference before he returned to Utah. We were to fly in the chartered sea plane with Elder Hinckley and rejoin the Saints in Maupiti at a later date.
We had a wonderful missionary meeting upon our return to Papeete. However, shortly after the meeting, we received word that the Manuia, a locally-constructed island trading boat carrying the Maupiti members, had capsized in the turbulent pass. Flipping sideways, the boat was broken up and 15 people were killed, including 14 members of the Church. The first people I had baptized on my mission were among those who had been killed. The grief of my companion and me was overwhelming. We had grown to love these people. They were our family.
Elder Hinckley immediately made arrangements to comfort the members of the Church and the families who had lost their loved ones. A converted PT boat, the Rotui, was chartered and Elder Hinckley, along with Pres. and Sister Young and two of their missionaries, Elder Richard Low and Elder Nels Hansen, accompanied them. The stories still remain in Maupiti of the great comfort and love an apostle of the Lord brought to the grief-stricken families of that little island.
I have no doubt in my mind that I would have not survived that disaster. This was the first time Gordon B. Hinckley profoundly influenced my life.
Shortly after our return to Papeete by seaplane, Pres. Young informed me that I was to be assigned to a new island in the Austral Islands called Rimatara. My junior companion was to be a new elder, Stephen L. Graham, who later served as mission president in Tahiti from 1984 to 1987. Rimatara was a distant and rather uncivilized island. Since the Rimatara shoreline was so treacherous, a long boat had to be sent to the trading ship to bring cargo and passengers to shore. Once on shore, it was the custom to have all newcomers walk through the smoke of burning fires to purify the visitors from any evil spirits that might have accompanied them. Since I had been a missionary only for six months, I was concerned about my language abilities to labor on Rimatara. I asked Elder Hinckley if he would give me a special blessing before leaving for my new assignment. Elder Hinckley invited me into the mission president's office and laid his hands on my head to pronounce a blessing upon me. He blessed me that I would be successful on my mission, paused, and ended. Then he immediately went to Pres. Young and told him that I was not to go to Rimatara. I was to receive another assignment.
I will never know what would have happened if I had traveled to Rimatara. However, the change in assignment under the direction of Elder Hinckley changed my life forever. Shortly afterwards, Pres. Thomas R. Stone replaced Pres. Young, and I was called to be the assistant to the president, laboring with Pres. Stone for almost two years. Under Pres. Stone's guidance, I was also able to write an English/Tahitian grammar and dictionary for the missionaries serving in French Polynesia as well as organize the first two Tahitian temple excursions to New Zealand.
Because of the distance and difficulty in communicating while laboring on distant islands, it is doubtful that I would have had any of these wonderful opportunities for service and growth if Elder Hinckley had not been inspired to change my assignment. My life was touched by a prophet of God, and I will forever be grateful to him.