In March of 2015, Cyclone Pam — a Category 5 severe tropical storm — tore through the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The storm caused extreme damage to the islands in its path killing 11 people and injuring many more.
At the time, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was serving as presiding bishop. In search of ways to help the people in the storm’s wake, the presiding bishopric along with the Pacific Area presidency determined to provide a sawmill on one of the most affected islands.
“We set up a sawmill operated by Church members,” Elder Stevenson recalled. “They gathered all the deadfall — from the coconut trees that went down on the island — and cut them so they could be transported back to where the sawmill was located. The workers were able to mill those logs into wood that could then be used to reconstruct many homes.”
Just over two years later, the Church leader — now an apostle — met with the people of Vanuatu for the first time during one of four stops during his recent visit to the South Pacific from Aug. 18 to 27. There he heard firsthand accounts from Vanuatuans how the sawmill did more than just simply cut wood — it also provided a way for people to rebuild their lives, both temporally and spiritually.
“That sawmill has blessed the lives of many, many people,” Elder Stevenson told the Church News. “Through that process, a number of people have learned the trade of carpentry or milling, and many others who are now making a living as a result. I met one man who was specifically blessed by learning this new vocation, and described how, because of this, his family was able to pay a full tithe and has since been sealed in the temple.”
In addition to Vanuatu, Elder Stevenson’s visit to the Pacific Area included meetings with members, missionaries, and local Church leaders in Adelaide, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Tahiti, French Polynesia. His wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson joined him, as well as members of the Pacific Area Presidency: Elder O. Vincent Haleck, Elder Craig A. Cardon and Elder Ian S. Ardern, General Authority Seventies. Sister Peggy Haleck, Sister Deborah Cardon and Sister Paula Ardern accompanied their husbands.
Despite the varying experiences and perspectives in each location, he said the people have greatly benefitted from the many blessings that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers those who embrace it.
“At some point, we will each face challenges in our lives,” Elder Stevenson said. “As we maintain a gospel perspective and look at our challenges through the lens of the gospel, we will find answers which bring us happiness and joy.”
In each country he visited, Elder Stevenson spoke of the great love and appreciation Church members have for President Thomas S. Monson.
“Everywhere we went, the members were all aware of President Monson’s 90th birthday,” he said. “They asked that I extend their love, prayers and birthday wishes to him upon my return.”
Church presence on the island of Vanuatu began about 40 years ago. The last time a member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited there was in 2003, when President Gordon B. Hinckley held a meeting with the members. Today, the island now has one stake and three districts with over 8,000 Church members.
“Upon arrival, we were welcomed by an incredible, traditional greeting which included a band of local instruments and dancing. … It was captivating and wonderful to see these men … many whom were local priesthood leaders, perform a historical and ‘ferocious dance of warriors.’ ”
In addition to meeting with members, missionaries and youth in Vanuatu, Elder Stevenson met with two influential political leaders — His Excellency Tallis Obed Moses, president of the Republic of Vanuatu, and Hon. Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas, the prime minister of Vanuatu. Elder Stevenson thanked these leaders for allowing Church members to exercise their faith.
“It was truly a unique opportunity to meet with government leaders,” he said. “They were both deeply complimentary of our Vanuatuan members and our contribution to their country.”
While meeting with President Obed, they discussed the important responsibility which parents have to nurture and raise their children to become good citizens and future leaders.
“The government can vote in legislation to try to control or minimize crimes but those laws cannot stop the increase of crimes in the country,” said President Obed. “The churches have an important role to play in order to help our citizens to become God-fearing people.”
Prime Minister Salwai expressed the critical nature of two Christian principles in which forms the basis of the constitution of Vanuatu: traditional values and faith in God.
“Christianity teaches about loving our neighbor as ourselves,” Prime Minister Salwai said. “Our traditional beliefs teach us to respect one another. So, these are the two main fundamental principles that we will continue to cherish and protect in the years to come.”
“It caused a great deal of interest among the people of Vanuatu that we were meeting with the senior leadership in their country, so much so that an hour-long press conference was held a day after the visit. We discussed some of our teachings and the various humanitarian outreach efforts in Vanuatu,” Elder Stevenson said.
“One major focus of development in Vanuatu is to educate the rising generation,” Elder Stevenson said. “For example, we have an afterschool study program for both members and non-members that assists students in their daily school work and provides their young people with greater opportunities to continue progressing educationally.”
Elder and Sister Stevenson spent their first three days in Adelaide, Australia. A special highlight of this visit was meeting with stalwart youth at a multi-stake devotional. He counseled and encouraged them to enjoy the blessings of a bishop, maintain a gospel perspective and spiritual balance in their lives, and to remember that the Lord will help them with ‘tools’ to combat Satan’s many deceptions.
“Tools such as reading the Book of Mormon, parents, prophets, prayer, seminary attendance, For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, and being worthy of a current temple recommend,” he said.
While there, he also presided and spoke at an adult members devotional, mission meeting, priesthood leadership conference and special stake conference. Due to the great distance for some missionaries and priesthood leaders to attend, they joined via satellite broadcast.
During his brief stop in Auckland, Elder Stevenson toured the recently dedicated Temple View complex, as well as the Missionary Training Center in New Zealand.
“It was one of the largest groups to ever attend the New Zealand MTC with about 80 missionaries,” Elder Stevenson said. “It was a thrill to visit Temple View and to see the facilities that were recently dedicated by President Eyring. When I served as the presiding bishop, the bishopric had the responsibility for the design and construction of these sites, so it was wonderful to see how the buildings which were once the Church College of New Zealand were being utilized for a new purpose. One of these buildings is the only dedicated Church History Museum outside of Salt Lake City.”
“The Church in Tahiti is strong,” he said. The Church has more than 25,000 members in nine stakes and three districts in French Polynesia.
“The first missionaries to French Polynesia arrived in 1843,” Elder Stevenson said. “People there know of the Church, and it is the second largest sect on the island. When you travel around the island our meetinghouses are dotted everywhere.”
A highlight of his visit to Tahiti included a special cultural celebration where 2,000 people enjoyed an impressive presentation of dance and food.
Elder Stevenson also met with Archbishop Jean-Pierre Edmond Cottanceau, the archbishop of Papeete, French Polynesia. The meeting proved a “mutual appreciation” for the work that is being done in the area by both churches.
“He was warm and grateful, and recognized so many places of alignment when it comes to caring for the poor and needy and developing Christlike attributes,” Elder Stevenson said of his visit. “We agreed on the importance of teaching young people to build moral values and to develop a sense of right and wrong.”
Just as diverse as are the countries in the Pacific Area, are the area presidency members: Elder Haleck from American Samoa, Elder Ardern from New Zealand, and Elder Cardon from Arizona. Elder Stevenson reflected, “They bring a dynamic combination of backgrounds and culture which blend well together for the overall connectivity and traditions of the people they serve. It was a joy to be with them and see the wonderful work they are doing in this beautiful area of the world.”