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Elder and Sister Gong journey from Hawaii to Ireland during RootsTech Family Discovery Day

Fans also treated to keynote address by actor Sean Astin on the last day of RootsTech 2023

With a light Hawaiian breeze causing trees and plants to sway, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited his grandfather’s birthplace for the first time.

“We are here today in the northern part of the big island of Hawaii, in Kohala, where our grandfather, Gung-gung Char, said he was born,” Elder Gong said in the video. “I have never been here. It is great to be here.”

The Apostle’s mother’s grandparents were Chinese farmers who emigrated to Hawaii as contract laborers to work on sugar plantations. The Chars, his maternal grandfather’s parents, came in 1888, and the Lius, his maternal grandmother’s parents, immigrated in 1894.

In the traditional Chinese way, they called his grandfather Gung-gung Char, and his grandmother Po-po Char, “gung-gung” meaning grandfather and “po-po” meaning grandmother.

Standing near the canal that fed the sugar cane fields, with his wife, Sister Susan Gong, Elder Gong imagined his family members putting in 12-hour days under the hot sun.

“It’s remarkable to be on a site that you know your family has been,” he said.

The ancestral visit to Hawaii was shown as part of Elder and Sister Gong’s presentation at RootsTech’s Family Discovery Day on Saturday, March 4.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, right, and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, speak at the final day of the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Gongs followed the RootsTech keynote address of actor Sean Astin, known for his roles in “The Lord of the Rings,” “Rudy” and “The Goonies.” There was also a special guest and musical number.

For their Family Discovery Day keynote presentation, Elder and Sister Gong were filmed visiting several locations in Hawaii where the Church leader has family roots and connections. The couple then toured places in Ireland where Sister Gong’s ancestors once lived.

“We talk about uniting with families,” Elder Gong said. “There are so many different ways to be united with the family, but one of them is to know something about them, to know where they were and what they are like, and to see a picture, and to have a feeling for what their life would have been. It is really what makes our hearts connect in a way because you are not strangers, you are not distant. You are close. You are family.”

Discovering Hawaii

After seeing sugar cane fields, Elder and Sister Gong visited the lava fields — a large, mostly flat area where lava has hardened and become rough terrain. Elder Gong’s grandfather was 8 years old when his family left Kohala and crossed the lava fields to Kona, a distance of 50 miles.

“Can you imagine going across this kind of lava field in the heat of the day, day after day? Yet, it is part of the story. We have never been here before,” Elder Gong said. “When you think of discovery, why are we here? We are here in part because we need to feel what it is like to be on the lava fields and to think of the family moving from a plantation life, which is very hard, to a new life, the hope for setting up a store and a different kind of livelihood. This is part of it.”

Seeing the lava fields reminded Elder Gong of Latter-day Saint pioneers.

“Pioneer heritage includes a physical hardship, a trial, moving across difficult terrain,” he said. “Maybe in a way, this is the Plains, the lava fields for our family. To have that opportunity to connect generations is really quite moving.”

Forty years ago, Elder Gong visited with his great-uncle in Hawaii. His uncle told him of his great-grandfather, who worked 12-hour shifts for $1 a day at the Ewa sugar cane plantation, where nearby there was a pond filled with frogs, Chinese catfish and snails.

Elder and Sister Gong placed flowers at the graves of his family members, which they said was a tender experience. They then visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his grandfather, who was also a photographer, donated 90,000 negatives.

“It’s a tender thing to grow up, to have a sense of your roots,” Elder Gong said.

“Sometimes, we think our decisions affect only ourselves. Discovering our family reminds us otherwise. We are more connected in our generations than we usually think. Often, the more we learn about so-called ‘distant’ relatives, sometimes in faraway places with strange-sounding names, the more we realize we truly are kith and kin, close family.”

Discovering Ireland

From Hawaii the Gongs traveled to Dunlady, Dundonald, County Down, in Northern Ireland, where they connected with a distant cousin who was raising cattle on land Sister Gong’s Irish relatives have farmed for at least eight generations.

The Gongs met James Lindsay. Using the FamilySearch Family Tree app, they discovered they descended from a mutual ancestor named Samuel Lindsay who lived in the early 1700s. James Lindsay’s branch of the family remained in Ireland.

They found Samuel Lindsay’s grave in an old cemetery where he is buried with his four sons and other family members. One of the sons, William Lindsay, is Sister Gong’s great-great-great-grandfather. He died in 1840 at age 72. She placed a small bouquet of flowers next to the old headstone.

While in Ireland, Sister Gong also learned more about her great-grandmother Mary Ann Cunningham.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Susan Gong walk with distant relative James Lindsay on land farmed by their ancestors, during a 2023 RootsTech Family Discovery Day presentation. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The great potato famine, which started in 1847, led her ancestor Thomas Cunningham to immigrate to Loughborough, England, to find work. There he married Mary Franks in 1853 and the couple had two children, a son and daughter. Sadly, within three years, their young son died, followed by Mary’s death in 1858. Thomas then contracted tuberculosis and he died when Mary Ann was only 7 years old. After some difficult years, she found The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and journeyed with relatives to the Salt Lake Valley in 1873.

The Gongs visited the small town of Athenry in County Galway, Ireland, an area that recently discovered DNA evidence suggests might have been Thomas’ home. A local Latter-day Saint, Brian Maloney, showed the Gongs the area believed to be the Cunningham homestead.

Learning more about her ancestors and seeing where they lived was a moving experience for Sister Gong.

“Clearly, people had to work hard and make sacrifices and keep trying when things were very, very difficult,” she said. “That perspective makes me grateful for who they are and for what they have given me and for the privilege and the opportunities that we have. That engenders a sense of responsibility to go and do likewise.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, speak at the final day of the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A walk on the Golden Gate Bridge

One of Elder Gong’s favorite stories is of his father, Walter Gong, who as a 14-year-old boy walked with his father across the Golden Gate Bridge on opening day, May 27, 1937. That day, 200,000 people walked across what was at the time the world’s longest bridge span.

“I still try to imagine what it meant to my grandfather and father to share that moment in history,” Elder Gong said. “Perhaps their spirit of adventure influences our family to this day.”

Last July, the Gong family celebrated the 100th anniversary of Walter Gong’s birth by walking the mile and a quarter across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. 

“I think my father must have smiled at the thought of five Gong family generations sharing that experience — his father; himself; his son, me; my wife; his grandson and his wife; and his great-grandchildren all together,” Elder Gong said.

“Family traditions help connect generations,” Sister Gong said. “From early in our marriage, we have tried to honor heritage, culture, tradition and family stories from both sides of our family.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Susan Gong speak from the islands of Hawaii during the 2023 RootsTech Family Discovery Day keynote presentation. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

‘Faith of our fathers’

Elder and Sister Gong concluded their Family Discovery Day journey back in the historic Honolulu, Hawaii, Latter-day Saint tabernacle discussing family history with individuals of various ages, backgrounds, homelands and life experiences.

The presentation ended with a stunning music video featuring singer Alex Sharpe of Celtic Woman singing the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” and imagery of Ireland and Hawaii.

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“Our time in Hawaii and Ireland has been deeply meaningful for us, making new friends and meeting family, tracing our history, creating memories in the places where our ancestors lived,” Sister Gong said. “This has brought us closer to those who made possible our lives. There’s a special spirit in this endeavor.”

“I love the fact that family discovery adventures do not have a beginning or an end,” Elder Gong said. “These adventures continue in both directions, uniting family past and uniting family future. Each person’s lived experience and testimony can enrich our understanding of the covenant belonging we share with those we love.”

Elder Gong shared his apostolic witness of the Lord Jesus Christ and testified of the importance of making and keeping covenants and doing temple and family history work.

“May we become a welding link in our generations,” he said. “May we connect with our ancestors and bless our current and future families, the families we have and the families we want. The trials and accomplishments of our ancestors can bless us with faith and strength today. Their love and sacrifices can increase our perspective and gratitude. ... This is the faith of our fathers, our heritage of faith in every footstep.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stands in front of the Laie Hawaii Temple and shares a message about the power of uniting families past, present and future, during a 2023 RootsTech Family Discovery Day presentation. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

6 ideas for continuing the journey

Following the presentation, Elder and Sister Gong invited the online and in-person audience to continue moving forward in the journey of self-discovery, wherever that may be.

“Hopefully, you have had some new thoughts or feelings about specific approaches, directions, or next steps as you seek to discover your family,” Elder Gong said.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, speak at the final day of the RootsTech conference in the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

They offered six ideas to help:

  1. Capture your own story.
  2. Help capture the stories of loved ones.
  3. Create or re-create and pass down memories and traditions that have meaning for family.
  4. Visit locations that are important to your family history.
  5. Upload and share memories, photos and other items to FamilySearch.org.
  6. Bring family members to the Lord Jesus Christ through covenants in the house of the Lord.

“We know something special happens to us and to our family members when we come to God and Jesus Christ through temple ordinances and covenants,” Elder Gong said. “No wonder President Russell M. Nelson calls gathering Israel and uniting families on both sides of the veil the greatest cause in the world.”

What actor Sean Astin said at RootsTech

Astin can remember many occasions when he was a young boy and his mother told family stories.

The actor and director, now 52 years old, admitted to the RootsTech audience during his keynote address how he now feels some guilt and embarrassment for not listening or not taking more interest in his family heritage.

Actor Sean Astin speaks with emcee Kirby Heyborne.
Actor Sean Astin speaks with emcee Kirby Heyborne at the final day of the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Fortunately, he said, his daughter has taken an interest in family history and has done extensive work to find and document their family story. She has traced Astin’s family line back to the Roman emperor Charlemagne.

Astin’s daughter asked if while he was at RootsTech he could ask the Latter-day Saints to find out more about a certain ancestor she is stuck on. FamilySearch obliged and provided Astin with his family history, and he looks forward to reading with his daughter. The actor says he is very interested in his family tree now.

“The emotion of it hit me today,” Astin told media representatives after his keynote. “I don’t think it has ever hit me before. Shame on me. This idea that history is alive in us, and what your great-great-great-grandparents did actually might have meaning for you.”

Before going on stage, Astin sent a text message to his daughter asking her why she loves genealogy. He read her response: “It’s a way to learn about the ancestors that live on through me. We are the key to our ancestors’ eternal life ,and through my children, in a way, I will live forever. So it is important to honor that.”

Astin said he wrote back, joking, “What’s the real reason,” sparking laughter. Then he turned serious again.

“I think we all repeat certain generational patterns, and learning from my ancestry is the biggest cheat sheet to solving life’s greatest problems,” he said.

FamilySearch has created a page where people can find out if they are related to Astin at familysearch.org.

Actor Sean Astin speaks with emcee Kirby Heyborne at the final day of the 2023 RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.
Actor Sean Astin speaks with emcee Kirby Heyborne at the final day of the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Surprise guests

The last general session of RootsTech came with a surprise. Adassa, who plays the voice of Dolores in the Disney animated feature film “Encanto,” appeared on stage with Chad Truman and performed with the One Voice Children’s Choir. FamilySearch also helped Adassa, a Latter-day Saint, to find the names of her great-grandparents.

Chad Truman, Adassa and the One Voice Children’s Choir perform at the final day of the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When is RootsTech 2024?

With the global conference drawing to a close, FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood announced the dates for RootsTech 2024. The event, which will be both online and in person, is scheduled for Feb. 29-March 2, falling on leap year.

“So remember, you are going to ‘leap’ to RootsTech 2024,” Rockwood said.

People attend the final day of the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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