LOLOTINGE, Ambae Island, Vanuatu That the gospel has become the central focus for Church members on this island became evident Oct. 15-16 with the first formal seminary and institute graduations.
"The gospel is moving forward like never before," said Elder Robert Larsen. He and his wife, Sister JeNiel Larsen, of the Val Verda 1st Ward in Bountiful, Utah, are CES coordinators for Vanuatu. "Nine dedicated teachers have spent hours preparing lessons, encouraging the youth and young adults to attend seminary and institute, but most of all helping these beautiful young people to learn about the Savior."
When people think of Bali Hai of the musical movie "South Pacific," for which this island was the setting, they may remember events of more than half a century ago the war in the South Pacific or the lieutenant enthralled by the tiny volcanic island with its mystical folk lore, author James Michener.
But to the hundreds of members of the Church, the Bali Hai of today continues on the small island of Ambae tucked inside the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. The island where a movie was filmed was on the day of the graduation ceremony the setting for a baptismal service. Some 50 members walked carefully over the rugged rocks down to the sea where three people were baptized. One was a mother of two missionaries serving in the Fiji Suva Mission. Another was a sister of a returned missionary who has been enrolled in institute during the year. The third was a young boy named Gideon. The elders who baptized them carefully helped each person down into the sea as the waves rose and fell, breaking on the rugged rocks.
After the baptisms everyone walked up the steep bank to the bamboo chapel located high on a hill overlooking the ocean. Some people might never believe a chapel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be located in such a remote part of the world. But 123 people were present at just such a meetinghouse on this beautiful day. They had decorated their chapel with flowers. The bamboo walls and the cement floors were covered with fresh flowers they had picked that morning. They also brought food for all those gathered for the formal seminary and institute graduation.
Prelude music was offered by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the help of a branch generator and a cassette player. Certificates of "Course Completion" were given to 11 seminary students and seven institute students. Five students received their graduation diplomas from seminary. Names including Spencer Kimbol, Moroni, Simon, and Mathew were commonly announced as they each came forward to be congratulated. They bore testimonies of the restored gospel, encouraging everyone to "stand up strong" in the Church.
Following the graduation program everyone ate the prepared food. Then a great game of volleyball took place. Those who were not playing sat in small groups quietly talking and just enjoying being with one another. There is no rush on this island.
"As we sat under the shade of a tree and watched this wonderful event take place, we thought about how our Father in Heaven must be feeling," said Elder Larsen.
"The joy in our hearts was something that is hard to explain," said Sister Larsen. "Tears came often as we watched the kingdom of God rolling forward in this part of the world."
A second graduation took place the next day at the Navuti branch. Students from three groups who attend this branch from villages of Navuti, Lolowalakesa, and Tavala, received certificates. Among them were 10 students from Tavala, who are a two-hour walk from the chapel. For all of them, the walk is difficult. Soon these three areas will be divided into branches and a group. But for now they join to worship Heavenly Father and His beloved son Jesus Christ, and they come with happy hearts.