A special mission softens war’s blow

Former missionaries still carry love for Japanese they served in Hawaii

BOUNTIFUL, Utah — Bitter feelings, spawned in a soldier in life-or-death battles with the Japanese enemy on Iwo Jima during World War II, turned to the love and compassion of a missionary working with Japanese people in Hawaii. That is the story of Elder Keith Renstrom, one of the missionaries who served during the brief tenure of the Central Pacific Mission.

The mission was created after formal missionary work was suspended in Japan during the mid-20th century. One of the problems was military conflict, including World War II.

But the work among the Japanese people in Hawaii continued and peaked in 1946 when President Melvin A. Weenig was called to preside over the Central Pacific Mission. The mission was discontinued in 1950 as missionary work in Japan had resumed and the effort in Hawaii combined under the renamed Hawaii Mission.

Some of the missionaries who served under President Weenig continue to meet in annual reunions. More than 30 — including family and friends — attended the latest in Bountiful, Utah, on March 30, where they again shared testimonies, experiences and their love for the Japanese people they served in Hawaii.

Among the faithful Japanese members who were converted in Hawaii and added strength there during difficult times were Elder Adney Yoshio Komatsu and Elder Sam Koyei Shimabukuro who went on to become General Authorities, and Sister Chieko Okazaki who served as a counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency. Elder Dee Jay Brady, who served in the Central Pacific Mission, said many more served as mission presidents, particularly in Japan, and in other leadership positions.

What made the Central Pacific Mission unique was that it overlaid the then-called Hawaiian Mission, its missionaries working particularly with people of Japanese descent.

Brother Renstrom served faithfully in the Central Pacific Mission from 1948-1950, but not until after going through a dramatic change of heart. His feelings toward the Japanese people were embittered as he battled as a U.S. Marine on several islands in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima where he was wounded. Killing, and having others trying to kill him, was a fact of life for him.

He took those feelings with him when he attended Church during some time he spent in Hawaii as a soldier, "stunned" to find the congregation made up of Japanese. He said it was difficult to stay.

Then he heard the testimony of one of the missionaries in the branch, Elder Kyoshi Sukiyama, who spoke of the trial with his family and the sacrifices he had to make as a Japanese to become a Christian and join the Church.

"As I sat there listening to him talk," Brother Renstrom said during the missionary reunion, "I thought, 'Who do you think you are, Keith Renstrom? Jesus Christ forgave those who killed Him and they haven't killed you.' "

From then on, his heart was prepared to share the gospel and befriend many Japanese.

Peter Nelsen Hansen was another Central Pacific Mission missionary who suffered through World War II in the Pacific before serving the Japanese in Hawaii. He has passed away, but is well remembered by Brother Brady. Elder Hansen was his first companion and told Elder Brady of being captured by the Japanese in the Philippines at the start of the war and being held prisoner for the duration. Brother Brady remembered that Elder Hansen lost the use of his legs as a prisoner and, though rehabilitated before his mission, still struggled to walk.

"His attitude about the Japanese people was just amazing," Brother Brady said. "He had no animosity. He loved the Japanese saints there in Hawaii."

Holding the Central Pacific Mission association together through the years has been Sister Anita Davis, Bountiful 22nd Ward, Bountiful Utah Stone Creek Stake. She and Brother Renstrom traveled to their mission at the same time and she served as secretary to President Weenig. She spoke with great gratitude for her mission experience.

Another young man, Ralph Davis, whom she met in the ward from which she was called, also went to the Central Pacific Mission. Upon their return home, they were married and continue to include fond mission memories in their loving companionship.

As she hovered with care over the reunion she organizes each year, she radiated the same sweet spirit and love that her fellow missionaries spoke of many times while reminiscing about their mission experiences. Besides her efforts with the reunion, Sister Davis and her husband publish the "Central Pacific Memo" twice a year to keep former missionaries connected.

The other person revered by the remnant of the Central Pacific Mission is President Weenig. He was an active part of the association through the years until his death in 2000. More important, he was the effective spiritual leader over a mission that not only blessed the lives of many Japanese members in Hawaii, but paved the way for them to become a great blessing to their fellowmen in Japan and throughout the world in ensuing years.

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