NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga — In this land of deep spirituality — where 60 percent of the population claim Church membership — more than 10,000 Latter-day Saints welcomed President Russell M. Nelson "home" on Thursday evening.
Under cloudy, wet and windy skies, the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked Tongan members to read the Book of Mormon and gather lost Israel.
“We love you,” he said. “We miss you when we are away from you. You are precious to us and to the Lord. He has special feelings for his covenant people on the isles of the sea.”
Looking out among a vast congregation where all but a few thousand seats were totally exposed to the elements, President Nelson said Tongan Latter-day Saints have learned to live with both the blessings and hazards of water. “You know what it is to be in deep water and rough water. As you go through rough water and face challenges of life, hold on to the iron rod of the gospel.”
Comfort and hope
The May 23 devotional was the sixth stop on President Nelson’s Pacific Ministry Tour — a nine-day, seven-nation assignment.
Kicking off the tour with a devotional in Kona Hawaii, President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson — traveling with Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong — visited Apia, Samoa; Sydney, Australia; Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand; and Suva, Fiji. After leaving Tonga, they will complete the trip on May 24 in Papeete, Tahiti.
President Nelson's message had special meaning for Mateo Lautaimi.
A year ago, Lautaimi’s house was destroyed in Cyclone Gita, which left two dead and at least 200 more without homes in Tonga.
Just a few months later, Lautaimi’s wife died of a sudden illness, leaving him to raise their three young daughters. When he learned, however, that President Nelson was coming to Tonga, he said his heart began to heal. Pain and sorrow were replaced with great hope, he said.
Moments before speaking to crowds gathered for a devotional, President Nelson greeted Lautaimi and his three daughters: Konisenisi, Bryanna, and Sipinga.
He embraced Lautaimi and asked him to live the gospel and to stay true.
“I was overwhelmed,” Lautaimi said, noting that President Nelson told him his “wife is smiling at us.’”
The short interaction with President Nelson was a “word of love from our Heavenly Father,” said Lautaimi. “His true love is the Savior’s love.”
‘Protected by heaven’
The first Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Tonga in 1891. But the Pacific island nation has a rich and deep spiritual legacy that began long before missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived.
Wanting to protect his land from Western colonization in 1839, Tonga's Christian King George Tupou I offered a simple prayer: "O, God the Father, I give unto you my land and my people and all generations of people who follow after me. I offer them all to be protected by heaven."
Tongan legend tells of the king bending down, picking up soil, and tossing it in the air as a symbolic act of conveying his land to God.
The significance of the moment more than 50 years before Latter-day Saint missionaries would come to this South Pacific paradise in 1891— is celebrated by Tongans in song, dance and poetry, and is spoken about from the pulpit and in hymns.
The only Pacific nation to remain independent of western colonization, Tonga's national motto reflects the nation's spirituality: "God and Tonga Are My Inheritance."
Tonga is now home to one mission, one temple, 21 stakes an 65,000 Church members and still values religious liberty. A second temple — to be built in Neiafu, as announced by President Nelson in the April 2019 general conference — will join the existing, operational temple here in Nuku'alofa.
President Nelson said during a VIP reception before the devotional that much has changed in the four decades since he first visited Tonga.
"But some things don't change: The love of the Lord for the people of Tonga, the faith of the people of Tonga, the music sung by the people of Tonga will never change."
The royal palace
Before the evening devotional, President and Sister Nelson and Elder and Sister Gong met His Majesty King Tupou VI and Her Majesty Queen Nanasipau’u in the Royal Palace.
"Religion ties people to God and a higher way of life," President Nelson said after emerging from royal palace.
"It's important for us to be able to thank leaders for the privilege of religious freedom in their country," President Nelson said. "It's a really precious aspect of governmental relations to allow the people to have the ability to practice the religion of their choice."
The two leaders also spoke about education and living a healthy lifestyle during the 30-minute meeting. Joining the Nelsons and Gongs in the meeting were Elder O. Vincent Haleck, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church's Pacific Area, and his wife, Sister Peggy Haleck.
The group met together first, then split, with the king meeting with the men and the queen with the women.
The queen has a “heart that is focused on the people of Tonga and who has the ability to make a difference,” said Sister Nelson.
She is focused on strengthening young men in the Kingdom of Tonga, Sister Gong reported.
“I could really feel the depth of concern in her heart for this next generation, and her concern that men be able to be prepared for the roles that are theirs,” said Sister Gong. “They need to be able to be stewards of the land and to be leaders of their family with love and gentleness, that they will be able to carry on the traditions of her people through out the next generation.”
Sister Haleck said she felt the goodness of the queens heart. “She loves her people. She wants to see the very best in Tonga not only today but Tonga in the future.”
Interviews were conducted with the Nelsons, Gongs, and Halecks inside the palace gates; it has been more than a century that anyone not of royal blood has been given permission to be interviewed inside the gates.
In her devotional remarks, Sister Nelson recounted meeting the king and queen of Tonga and "how I was impressed with their goodness."
"This visit," she said, "is already one of the treasured experiences of my life."
During his devotional remarks, Elder Gong spoke of King Benjamin and asked the congregation to also look to the temple. "We have the opportunity this evening to listen to the gentle voice of the Lord," he said.
Sister Gong spoke of her uncle Ken Lindsay, who lived in Tonga for six years and lauded Tongan bananas, singing and fish. Although he recently died, Ken Lindsay recorded a message for Sister Gong to share with the Tongan saints.
Even in the wet, windy conditions "in which we meet, ... we feel your faithfulness," said Elder Haleck.
During the devotional Sister Haleck told the congregation gathered under dark, wet skies that there are lessons she has learned from them over the years. "Besides your welcoming smile, faithful spirits and amazing voices, I have come to know you as gatherers of Israel."
This gathering, she said, "should mean everything to you."
Bishop 'Alifeleti Kalonihea was grateful for the opportunity to bring family to the "once-in-a-lifetime" devotional. "It's an honor for us and a blessing. it doesn't matter if it is wet or bad weather, we still listen to our prophet, our living prophet."
Bishop Alonihea's wife, Losaline Kalonihea, said she was excited to go home and be a better example. "I am speechless," she said. "I am so grateful to see the prophet and hear what he preached to us... I learned so many things from him."
As the devotional ended and the rainstorm accelerated, Kesmi Eep stood and watched the crowds leave the park. Completely wet, he smiled. "I have no regrets," he said.
Bishop Tohiminiti Latu and his wife, Anna, took their children to the Tongan airport Wednesday evening to greet President Nelson and his traveling party.
"I am very happy," said Bishop Latu. "I know the prophet came to bless all the families here in Tonga."
Members in Tonga show faith as they gain an education and work to become self-reliant, he said. Earning a living in Tonga is hard. "Members show faith by giving all they have," he said.
Palolo Tohiminiti said the feeling at the airport changed when President Nelson's plane landed. "It's a feeling that is so very special," she said.
—Tad Walch of the Deseret News contributed to this report