As a young missionary first arriving in Tonga in 1953, Elder John Groberg couldn't imagine the impact that the small island nation and its people would have on his life and on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, nearly 66 years later — despite still appearing as little more than a period on the map of the world, — Tonga holds the highest per capita rate of Church members of any country in the world and, as Elder Groberg said, the power of the missionary work there continues beyond his imagination.
"I think it shows that anything is possible to the Lord," said Elder Groberg, now an emeritus general authority, in a recent interview with the Church News. "Over the years, to watch the influence as the Church has become stronger and stronger, and as the people become more and more faithful … I think about how Joseph Smith said the gospel would fill North and South America — and the whole world — and it makes me realize that it can and will happen because I've seen it on a smaller scale."
In his first 13 months there, serving with the native Tongan Feki Po'uha as his companion on the island of Niuatoputapu, Elder Groberg recalls baptizing only seven people.
"But it's amazing to me how those seven people, every one of them, has remained active," he said.
Reflecting on the growth of the Church in Tonga and the spread of Tongan members around the world since the time he first stepped foot on the shores of the island nation in the South Pacific, Elder Groberg said, "it's been an amazing thing to watch over the years."
On a return trip to Tonga just a few years ago, while visiting the island of 'Eua, he reunited with Mele Vave, one of the members he and Feki Po'uha baptized.
"Her and her husband ended up having 12 children and basically all of them went on missions," Elder Groberg said. "And to see their posterity — just hers as an example — now numbering into the hundreds, it really shows the power of missionary work over time."
The power of missionary work is that it compounds over time, he said. Especially when it takes place among people with deep cultural respect for God.
One of the unique things about Tonga, Elder Groberg noted, is that they have always been aligned with God. When their first king, George Tupou I, had the opportunity in the mid-nineteenth century to align his nation with one of the great powers of the world — like the U.S., the U.K. or Germany, — he opted instead to align the country only with God. And that tradition of putting God first continues today both in Tonga, and with Tongan members around the world, Elder Groberg said.
Generations influenced by missionary work
For Tony Finau, a pro golfer and member of the Church whose heritage comes from both Tonga and Samoa, "the gospel is everything."
"I was raised that way," Finau said, reflecting on the influence that the Church and missionary work has had on his family throughout the last few generations. "My parents raised me in the gospel, and their parents were very strong pioneers in the Church. I feel like I'm very blessed because of the faith of all my ancestors."
Like many members whose ancestors hail from the islands of the South Pacific, Finau finds strength in the stories of how they sacrificed to have the gospel in their lives.
"I've had to gain a testimony on my own, but having that testimony strengthened by my grandparents and my parents, keeps me going," he said. "Listening to my grandparents and watching them pray is instilled in my mind. I see how faithful they were and that strong legacy that carries back generations, for me, is extremely humbling and is an extreme blessing."
Growing up in Rose Park, Utah, Finau remembers hearing many stories about his ancestors on the islands, but among some of his favorites are the stories of his grand uncle, Feki Po'uha, and his mission companion, Elder Groberg.
"Feki passed away before I was born, so we would just hear stories. My grandma shared many stories of his faith," Finau said, explaining that his grandmother on his father's side, Mele Na'ati Po'uha, was Feki Po'uha's younger sister.
"There's definitely a legacy of faith, starting with grandma and her family," he said. "So, you know, having that legacy of faith from my ancestors and understanding what they sacrificed that allowed me to have the gospel in my life … that is a huge, huge deal to me."
And missionary work is where that all started, he said. "Understanding the story of Kolipoki and Feki, and the impact they had on the islands and what missionary work has done just for me — and then really for everyone that's been baptized into the church and understands the gospel — it's a great blessing."
After hearing the stories of those two missionaries all his life, Finau said he felt lucky to finally become acquainted with Elder Groberg — or Kolipoki as he is referred to by Tongans.
Finau said just two weeks ago he received an email from Elder Groberg, asking if Finau would be willing to help promote his new film about missionary service in Tonga, "The Other Side of Heaven 2: Faith of Fire."
"He knew who I was because of the golf player I am … but he didn't know any kind of relation I had to Feki," Finau said.
Since realizing their connection, Finau and Elder Groberg have taken an interest in one another and have been swapping emails and getting to know one another better.
"Kolipoki is a special person in the Tongan community and especially in the Church in Tonga," Finau said. "So he's a special person and for me to now be in contact with him is special."
As for Elder Groberg, he said he has a soft spot for anyone related to Feki Po'uha.
"I knew all of that family and I'm partial to anyone related to Feki," he said. "(Finau) is a sincerely good member of the Church and … is a good example of the Savior."
Although Finau became a pro golfer just after finishing high school and, as such, never served a full-time mission, he noted that he strives to carry on the legacy of missionary work exemplified by his ancestors in his own way.
"As a public figure, I feel my responsibility… . I feel like I'm on a lifelong mission," he said, noting that it was a tough decision for him to not serve a full-time mission when the time came. "But you know, I turned professional in golf and it felt like golf was my vehicle to missionary work and expressing myself to the world. I'm doing my missionary work through being an example to others. So I think that's the way that I, on an everyday basis, try to live the gospel and open doors to missionary work."
Missionary work beyond imagination
Kolipoki has been an ongoing presence in the lives of many Tongans, said Elder Vai Sikahema, a native Tongan, former NFL player and recently sustained Area Seventy who is well acquainted with Elder Groberg.
Like Finau, Elder Sikahema holds a position of some notoriety, Elder Groberg said, but even so, like many of the Tongan members around the world, "He's just a great example of a person of faith."
Elder Sikahema was around five years old when he first met Elder Groberg, then serving as the mission president in Tonga. In 1967, he accompanied the Sikahema family, along with many others from Tonga, on a trip to the Hamilton New Zealand Temple so the families could be sealed.
As Elder Sikahema described it, there are many memories from that time that are "seared" into his head and that have helped build his faith and testimony over the years.
Besides the sacrifices his parents made to save the money necessary to attend the temple, Elder Sikahema said he vividly remembers the moment he first saw the temple. After days of travel by boats, planes and buses to get to New Zealand, his father lifted him up to see over the crowd of dozens of members with their faces shoved up against the bus window to see the temple come into view as they approached.
"I've had some wonderful, amazing things happen in my life," he recalled, underscoring that those wonderful things have come because of two key foundational efforts — first, the sacrifices of his parents to take their family to the temple, and second, from his own missionary service as a young man.
"All the blessings that have come to me in my life have come as a result, I believe, of missionary service," he said.
Elder Groberg and his legacy on the islands are representative of the power that missionary work can have on individuals and on nations, he added.
"Kolipoki represents, to me, the millions of young men and women who lose their lives in the service of the Savior," Elder Sikahema said. "There are prophets and apostles, and general authorities like Kolipoki who dedicated their lives to certain people. But if you look at just the regular rank and file people of the Church, that's duplicated over and over and over again with people that never speak in general conference and that you've never heard of. They're our sons and our daughters, our nieces and nephews, our aunts and uncles and our grandparents who do this year in and year out, month to month, week to week, and day by day."
That is the wonder of missionary service, he said.
And for Elder Groberg, the growth of the Church in Tonga in the last six-plus decades is a strong testament of how that growth will continue around the world.
"The power and influence of missionary work is just beyond our imaginations," he said.