A devastating tsunami struck Southeast Asia 15 years ago on Dec. 26, 2004. At the time, Elder David Walch was serving as the country director for Church Welfare Services in Thailand.
The tsunami, triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, killed more than 200,000 people in a dozen nations, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. The disaster also set into motion what the United Nations called at the time the “world’s biggest-ever relief operation.”
Like the many nations and organizations providing relief, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded immediately, sending water, food, medical supplies, clothing, tents and body bags. Local members in each of the countries — and in Hong Kong — assembled hygiene and personal kits for the victims. They purchased kitchen supplies, tarps and clothing.
Yet, as Elder Walch and his wife, Sister Phyllis Walch, visited the relief camps in Thailand, they discovered the victims were in need of something else. “It was clear to us that what these people needed was to have their spirits lifted,” said Elder Walch after the disaster.
This realization set in motion a most unique Church service project. Each weekend for three weeks, more than 40 members of the Thailand Bangkok Stake and missionaries serving in Bangkok got on a bus, traveled 10 hours to a disaster zone and spent an entire day visiting with and listening to tsunami survivors before traveling 10 hours home. The members and missionaries did no proselytizing.
During their first visit, members distributed 750 ice cream bars; the next week, they took rice cookers. But the most important thing they gave, said Elder Walch, was friendship.
In the camp, members went from tent to tent, giving as many people as possible the chance to tell their story: A mother mourned the deaths of her two adult daughters; a couple shared their guilt after leaving others behind as they ran to save themselves; a fisherman began to calculate his losses — his village, his home, his loved ones, his tools, his boat.
“They were so appreciative for the opportunity to talk,” said Elder Walch.
During one visit, a few missionaries and members found a tent filled with pre-school children and asked if they could stay. The elders organized a game of musical chairs and a circle tag game. Others taught the children the “The Hokey Pokey.”
“For the first time since the tsunami occurred there was laughter. You could hear it,” said Elder Walch. “The surprising thing was that the adults in the area started gathering around to see what was going on that has caused these little children to laugh.”
I thought of this laughter — and the service that spurred it — in April 2018 when I visited Thailand while covering President Russell M. Nelson’s World Ministry. During the visit a capacity crowd of more than 3,000 filled the Queen Sirikit Conference Center to hear the prophet. Elder Randy D. Funk, General Authority Seventy, said the meeting marked the largest gathering ever of Latter-day Saints in Thailand.
“The Church has been in Thailand for nearly 50 years and continues to grow in strength,” said Elder Funk. “The Thai people are very warm and gracious and our members are exemplary in their goodness and service.”
For the first time since the tsunami occurred there was laughter.
After viewing the gathering, President Nelson said that Latter-day Saints in Thailand will not be passive.
“These people are energized. They are inspired. They want to do something about their faith,” he said.
That was the lesson Elder Walch learned while rendering service in the wake of the tsunami that struck the nation in 2004.
After watching Latter-day Saints drive 20 hours to lend a listening ear to tsunami victims, Elder Walch came to understand that there are things words cannot describe or that images cannot capture — things like the smell of death, the sound of sorrow, and the site of nothing where a village once stood. Words cannot capture the story of a mother, whose life was so devastated by a tsunami that she could not find the strength to look at the ocean.
But, he said, he also learned from Church members in Thailand — members that are now preparing for a temple announced in April 2015 — that there are other things as well: the smell of rice, the taste of ice cream, and the touch of a hug. There is the sound of a child’s laughter and the sight of adults so hungry for laughter that they flock to it.
It is what happens when “energized people” do “something about their faith.”