On a small coral atoll in the central Pacific – where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II took place more than 50 years ago – the first stake in Kiribati has been created.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve created the Tarawa Kiribati Stake on Sunday, Aug. 11. The day before, he dedicated for the preaching of the gospel the Pacific island groups of Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Wallis, Futuna and Vanuatu – all within the boundaries of the Fiji Suva Mission.Elder Perry also dedicated the Church-owned Moroni High School at Bikenibeu on Tarawa Atoll on Aug. 9. (See article about the school on pages 8-9.)
Before sunrise on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 10, Elder Perry, accompanied by about 25 Church leaders on Tarawa, gave the dedicatory prayer of the seven island groups at Red Beach on the island of Betio. It was at Red Beach where the U.S. Second Marine Division landed in 1943 to retake the island from the Japanese. What occurred was a 76-hour battle for a piece of coral land less than 300 acres, resulting in the deaths of 4,700 Japanese troops and construction workers and 1,056 Americans.
Elder Perry, as a young Marine, later became a member of the Second Marine Division and was with the division on Saipan. He told the Church News he chose Red Beach as the site for the dedicatory prayer because of his "great feelings for what some of my Marine buddies went through" in reclaiming the island.
In his prayer of dedication, Elder Perry said, "We have selected this site for our prayer where death and destruction reigned a few decades ago, in contrast to our message of peace, hope and goodwill for all of thy children here on earth."
Continuing, he noted, "Thou hast kept these islands isolated from the worldly things that bring contention among the people, where their understanding of the gospel truths that thou has ordained for thy children here on earth will be simple and plain.
"Our hearts go out to thee in gratitude, dear Father, for the great truths of the everlasting gospel that have been established here on these islands."
The day after the seven island groups were dedicated, Elder Perry organized the stake on Tarawa, located near where the international date line crosses the equator. Tarawa, composed of several small islands, is one of three Micronesian coral atoll groups that comprise the island republic of Kiribati, which stretches out for more than 2 million square miles in the central Pacific. The restored gospel was introduced on Tarawa only about 25 years ago, and missionaries began serving on the atoll in October 1975.
Today, there are some 4,600 members of the Church in Kiribati, out of a population of about 70,000. Two-thirds of the republic's total population live on Tarawa, and 2,400 of those are members of the Church and make up the Tarawa stake. Atunibeia Mote, 33, director of personnel at Moroni High School, was selected as the stake's first president. The stake includes wards at Bairiki, Bikenibeu, Eita and Teaoraereke, and two on Betio, with branches at Bonriki and at the school. The islands in this 12-mile stretch of the 34-mile long Tarawa Atoll are joined by a narrow, paved causeway.
"The conference was held at 6 o'clock in the evening on the basketball court of the [Moroni high] school," explained Elder Perry after he returned home. "They brought out every chair they could find, and the rest of the people sat down, with their legs crossed, on the concrete for two hours and didn't budge. As the sun was sinking into the West, a nice breeze fanned the congregation and it was delightful."
Elder Perry said the school, which he called a "very bright spot on the island, has brought a priesthood leadership base to the island that is very strong." He noted the stake president "is a product of the school," who returned to work there after serving a mission.
In his dedicatory prayer of the school, the apostle said, ". . . the light of the gospel will continue to bless the lives of the youth who will be privileged to attend here. Surely, they are a chosen generation to be prepared for the work that thou hast in mind for them to do.
". . . May the students be carefully prepared for the great role they have been called to fulfill in building thy kingdom, that out of these classes which are held in these buildings will come priesthood leadership and auxiliary leadership for thy ever-expanding kingdom."
While in the Pacific, Elder Perry, who was accompanied by his wife, Barbara, also held meetings on Saipan, Guam and Fiji, where he organized the Lautoka Fiji Stake, the third stake on Fiji.
Elder Perry said visiting the islands of the Pacific was a choice experience. "There is such a community feeling among the Saints on these islands. It gives you such an uplift. When you meet with them, you can't help but have tears in your eyes. I just fell in love with the people. To think we would have this kind of representation today as members of the Church on these islands is absolutely amazing.
"The Lord must have a great love for the people of the isles of the sea because He mentions them so many times in the scriptures," Elder Perry emphasized. "I think the promises He made are being fulfilled now as we see the growth of the Church in these island nations."