With winds up to 175 miles per hour, Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Fiji on Feb. 20 and 21, 2016, in the nighttime hours between a youth cultural celebration and the rededication of the Suva Fiji Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The powerful category 5 storm left 44 people dead, knocked out power, destroyed clean water sources and crops and flattened entire villages across the Pacific island nation. A total of 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and approximately 350,000 people — roughly 40 percent of Fiji’s population — were significantly impacted by the storm.
I was in Fiji to cover the rededication of the temple. Three days after the storm, I traveled with Alipate Tagidugu, president of the Nausori Fiji Stake, and with a senior humanitarian couple (optometrist Dr. Rick Nielson and his wife, Sister Ann Nielson) to villages in the outer islands.
In Nasautoka Village, I met Unaisi Liku and Manoa Seavu, who had weathered the storm burrowed under the floor boards of a wood home on the hillside overlooking the village. With the couple, I climbed to the site, and they showed me how they found refuge with their children nestled next to the earth under the home — which lost most of its walls and roof.
After they shared their story, we took photographs and then I looked down the hillside, across the small village. As I surveyed the scene, President Tagidugu’s words from a few minutes earlier returned to my memory. “Before, this was all green,” he had said, speaking and pointing to the once-lush Fijian landscape. “Now it has turned to brown — just like a desert.”
Then I noticed something else. President Tagidugu had gathered the men and was organizing a response to the cyclone. I heard him speak of ruined crops. He told the men: “The first priority for members is shelter. The second is food.” I remember thinking that it was interesting that he brought the villagers nothing physical but was leaving them much, much better than he found them.
Elder Nielson then caught my eye. He told us in the car that he had received a special assignment from the Pacific Area welfare director to document damage and needs in the outer villages. He was talking to the villagers and writing something on a paper. I knew he had been charged to record deaths and injury, document how many homes had been lost or damaged and how many of our members and others had been impacted. He had to determine if the village had clean water and crops so the area could organize a humanitarian response.
Then I looked at Sister Nielson. I smiled as I recalled our first stop earlier in the day. We had visited Davetalevu Village, where our members sought temporary shelter in the Church’s meetinghouse. When we arrived, Sister Nielson looked at the children outside the meetinghouse and then at the car. Elder Nielson and I exchanged a mutual look. He articulated what I already knew. “She is going to give away our lunch,” he said.
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Now from the hillside I watched her again. She went from damaged structure to damaged structure, talking to the people. It didn’t matter if they were members or not. It didn’t matter their age. At each home she offered a smile and a hug. Hope rippled from her small acts of kindness.
I had to resist the urge to kneel down right there on that hillside and thank my Heavenly Father for my membership in His Church.
The work of each individual in the village that day was needful and essential and life-saving. Without the data provided by Elder Nielson, the Church could not make a swift and appropriate humanitarian response. Without the leadership provided by President Tagidugu, the priesthood quorum could not have worked together in a needed, organized rebuilding effort.
And Sister Nielson spread hope. If the Savior had walked in the cyclone-devastated Nasautoka Village that day, I think He would have been with her — interacting directly with the people, lifting, strengthening and sharing His love. He would have drawn the children to Him, as she did.
Last weekend — during this time filled with physical, economic and emotional hardship — I watched members of The Church of Jesus Christ come together again, this time to sew and collect masks for front-line health care professionals treating COVID-19 patients.
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The masks were made for Project Protect — a charitable, community initiative organized by University of Utah Health, Intermountain Healthcare and Latter-day Saint Charities in an effort to create 5 million clinical face masks and other types of personal protective equipment.
As I watched cars line up at one of the five drop-off locations, I thought of the individuals and families who had taken fabric home earlier in the week and sewn the masks.
Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, said so many people wanted to help with the effort that many could not get into the website and sign up.
This type of response is something that happens all across the world, all the time, and “not just in a pandemic,” she said.
It happened a few years ago in Nasautoka Villege in Fiji.
Watching car after car — filled with members of The Church of Jesus Christ and so many others in the community — pull up last weekend in Utah, Sister Eubank spoke of an elderly woman who prayed over every mask she sewed — pleading for protection for the person who would wear it.
That woman shares something with President Tagidugu, Elder and Sister Nielson, Sister Eubank and each of us who seek to serve in the Savior’s name.
“It isn’t just cloth and sewing,” Sister Eubank said of the woman. “It’s actual faith that’s being transmitted.”