“One of our core characteristics as human beings is that much of our lives are shaped and informed by stories,” said Brett Macdonald during the Pioneers in Every Land lecture hosted by the Church History Department. Brother Macdonald works for the Church's Welfare Services, and has spent many years living in Africa, Latin America and Oceana.
The power of stories of Latter-day Saints both old and new formed the basis of his lecture titled, “ ‘The Power is in Them’: How Church History Helps Latter-day Saints in Developing Countries.”
“I am drawn to the idea that we have stories that can create [a] sense of community among the living, the dead and those who are yet unborn,” Brother Macdonald said. “Narratives that make the great men and women of the past our companions.”
Brother Macdonald shared the story of Ukenio, a husband and father from Kiribati. Ukenio’s brother-in-law invited him to go fishing for tuna for their families in his newly finished orange fishing boat. With food being scarce on Kiribati, knowledge of good fishing areas is often kept secret. So when Ukenio, his brother-in-law and their 22-year-old nephew left one day in February 2013, “Ukenio’s brother-in-law justified not providing an itinerary to those who could come and search for them if needed, because the fishing spot was relatively near and the bounty of a big catch would be high,” said Brother Macdonald.
After a successful fishing trip, they turned back to return home. “As it grew dark, they could see the lights of Besu, the capital, and knew they were almost home,” Brother Macdonald said. “Although they had started out with sufficient gasoline for the trip, the weight of the boat slowed their progress and consumed their fuel. The engine sputtered out and died. The boat began to drift. By morning, they were on high open seas with no land in sight.”
Ukenio’s wife, Beebe, tried to notify the Marine Guard of her husband’s absence. By the time she was able to do so, a tsunami warning caused another delay. Despite searches conducted by New Zealand’s Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy, the men and their orange boat had disappeared.
“In quiet desperation, Bebe reached to her faith and her culture for solace,” Brother Macdonald said. In the rafters of their small thatched home, Beebe placed a picture of Christ and an empty rice bag filled with her husband’s clothes. “There was a traditional belief among fishermen’s wives that preserving their husband’s earthly possessions was an expression of hope that his return home from the sea might yet still happen,” Brother Macdonald explained.
In a boat so small the men could only sit or lie curled up, the three men struggled to survive as days, weeks and months passed. As they became more and more exhausted, the young and strong nephew deteriorated and died.
Four months after being adrift at sea, the orange boat, now a micro-ecosystem of algae and fish, was spotted by a Japanese fisherman 1,500 miles away from Kiribati in the waters of Papua New Guinea, and the men were rescued.
“One evening I asked Ukenio what he thought about during those hours and days on the ocean,” Brother Macdonald said. “He told me, ‘My family, water, food and water.’ But then he added something. He said that he thought of the stories that he had heard and the songs that he had sung of early Mormon pioneers.” These stories that he repeatedly shared with his companions at their request, became a source of strength to him.
Ukenio added, “When I couldn’t think clearly anymore, all I could do was try to remember the different names of Jesus.”
While stories of Mormon pioneers can build the faith of members in developing countries, their stories of faith, like that of Ukenio’s, can also become a part of the narrative of the Church, Brother Macdonald said.
The Church History Department has undertaken an effort to collect, preserve and share the stories of Saints around the world. Brother Macdonald said, “The work of collecting these stories worldwide, which I feel is so important to the further growth and development of the Church, is being undertaken with a world-class effort by the Church History Department.”
In Samoa, after months of “researching personal narratives to complement and help make more robust the historical record,” an artist was commissioned to create banners illustrating 12 of these stories.
Stories include one of Taumusua’i. William and Adelia Moody arrived in Samoa in 1894 to serve a mission. After giving birth to their daughter, Hazel, Adelia died. “A Samoan woman named Taumusua’i took [Hazel] and cared for her while William continued his missionary work and earned money to return home to America,” Brother Macdonald said. Hazel Moody survived and had a family of her own. “More than a thousand of her descendants owe their existence to the loving and determined intervention of Taumusua’i.”
Opapo Fonoimoana, who settled in Sauniatu, was renowned for his faith. When fire threatened the chapel, which was the heart and hub of the village, “Opapo climbed to the top of the chapel and invoked the priesthood, asking God to save this special building,” Brother Macdonald said. “The winds changed, and the chapel was spared.”
Another mural depicts 12-year-old Tom Fenene, who worked to care for the people of Sauniatu during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In his own words, which were found in the BYU-Hawaii library, Fenene said that all 400 people in the village “went down with the sickness, even the missionaries. ... Every morning I went from house to house to feed and clean the people and to find out who had died.” Fenene brought buckets of water from the spring to each house, fetched coconuts from the trees to bring juice to the sick and killed all the chickens in the village to make soup for every family.
The 12 stories formed a historical exhibit that traveled throughout wards in Samoa, which over 5,000 people have seen. Brother Macdonald said, “The stories resonated with many of the attendees of all ages in strong and personal ways. ‘I never knew,’ was a phrase repeated many, many times as attendees learned stories from their homeland.” The exhibit has gone to Australia and will make its way to New Zealand, Brother Macdonald said.
“The stories of the Latter-day Saints, old and new, are part of ... great flows of spiritual energy,” Brother Macdonald said in conclusion. “We contribute to and benefit from these flows of spiritual energy when we help each other to remember that when we take stories to heart, we live in them and they live in us.”