‘God is aware of us’: How one sister missionary found peace and hope after the tragic death of her father and brother

Sister Sela Kata spent several weeks juggling hope and faith, grief and loss, family support and missionary service — all more than 2,400 miles from home

Sister Sela Kata of the Washington D.C. North Mission rushed out to retrieve her smartphone from her car Saturday morning, June 10, after inadvertently leaving it there overnight.

Anxious to celebrate her mother’s birthday that morning, she found herself instead numbly staring at text messages and emails — a serious car accident the night before … four family members involved … back home in California … her father and brother hospitalized with life-threatening injuries … two other brothers unharmed.

It started days of heart-wrenching family communications, including the death of her father, Taniela Ahoafi Kata, on Father’s Day, June 18, and the June 21 passing of her brother Heneli, who died from their injuries sustained in the accident.

A 23-year-old Oakland, California, native and oldest of 11 siblings, Sister Kata spent several weeks juggling hope and faith, grief and loss, family support and missionary service — all more than 2,400 miles from home.

But given the choice to remain serving, return home for funeral services or even consider an allowance to conclude her mission service early, Sister Kata recalled something her father told her the last time they were together — March 2, 2022 — when Taniela and Moui Kata were seeing off their daughter at Oakland International Airport, as Sister Kata left for the Provo Missionary Training Center.

“‘If anything happens to your mother or me while you’re on your mission,’” she recalled her father saying, “‘stay and complete what the Lord sent you to the Washington D.C. North Mission to do.’”

That moment was one of many interactions — call them touch points, connections or path-crossings — that provided Sister Kata with comfort, counsel and context over the next several weeks.

“God is aware of us, and He places specific people in our lives to help us on this journey.” Sister Kata recently told the Church News, repeatedly referring to and testifying of the plan of salvation. 

“The gospel makes so much sense — the dots just start connecting, and I see all these things connect. It’s really God’s plan, and we’re just a part of it.”

Sister Sela Kata of the Washington DC North Mission.
Sister Sela Kata of the Washington DC North Mission. | Photo provided by Sister Heather Clarke

Missionaries and a family death

When a full-time missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experiences a death in the family, the General Handbook provides guidance in Section, “Death of an Immediate Family Member”:

If a member of a missionary’s immediate family dies, the missionary may choose to return home temporarily for the funeral. However, the missionary is generally counseled to remain in the field. When possible, he or she may view the funeral services via internet streaming.”

In Sister Kata’s case, the July 1 funeral service was six weeks from her projected Aug. 12 release date, meaning her mission president — President Todd P. Clarke of the Washington D.C. North Mission — could arrange an early release for her.

Meeting with her on Father’s Day, the day of her father’s passing, President Clarke offered that option. “She looked at me with wet eyes,” he recounted, “and she said, ‘President, the Savior has blessed my family so much that there is no way I can go home early — even a few weeks. I need to stay. I want to stay. I know the plan.’”

Added President Clarke: “I’ve never seen such great faith and love for the Savior. Her faith has lifted me during this time and increased my faith in the plan and love for our Savior.”

A teaching touch point

An early connection for Sister Kata came in May, when Elder Vaiangina Sikahema, a General Authority Seventy and counselor in the Church’s North America Northeast Area presidency, visited the Silver Spring Maryland Stake for a weekend stake conference assignment. He asked the stake president — President Grant H. Willis, who had been a young man in Elder Sikahema’s New Jersey ward when the latter served as bishop 25 years earlier — to set up a teaching appointment with local missionaries.

Sister Lily Doyle and Sister Sela Kata take a selfie in Silver Springs, Maryland.
Sister Lily Doyle, left, and Sister Sela Kata, right, of the Washington D.C. North Mission take a selfie in the spring of 2023, when they were serving as companions in Silver Spring, Maryland. | Photo provided by Sister Heather Clarke

Elder Sikahema and President Willis joined Sister Kata and Sister Lily Doyle to teach Sebastian, an economics graduate student, about the Restoration. “I assumed President Willis was why the Lord sent me there, but it turns out it was the missionaries we taught with,” said Elder Sikahema, who like Taniela Kata is a native of Tonga.

During the lesson, Sister Kata felt prompted to share a Book of Mormon scripture — 1 Nephi 1:1, a verse she had never before used teaching that topic.

“We all know what that scripture says — ‘I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father ...,’” recalled Sister Kata.

“I think Elder Sikahema being there was like me being in the presence of my dad. … He was like a father figure, like my dad, and throughout that lesson, all I talked about and testified of was the gospel and how blessed I am with good parents that taught me to always rely on the Savior and His gospel.”

Elder Vaiangina Sikahema, the Silver Springs Maryland Stake president, Sister Sela Kata and Sister Lily Doyle teach a lesson.
Elder Vaiangina Sikahema, second from right, joins Silver Spring Maryland Stake President Grant H. Willis, right, and Sister Sela Kata and Sister Lily Doyle, foreground, in teaching a lesson on the Restoration in May 2023 in Silver Spring, Maryland. | Photo provided by Elder Vaiangina Sikahema

Last conversations

In a June 5 family phone call, just days before the accident, Sister Kata talked with her father and her brother for what would be the last time. She hadn’t spoken in person with her brother since he left on his mission in May 2021.

Sister Kata remembers the encouragement from Heneli, who just six weeks earlier had completed his service in the Utah Salt Lake City West Mission. “My brother said: ‘You’re almost at the end, Sister Kata. Keep pushing through. You’re almost there.’ And he said, ‘I love you, Sis.’ And I said, ‘I love you too, Brother.’

“And then he handed the phone to my dad, and my dad said, ‘Work hard, you’re blessing the family.’ And then he said, ‘When you come back, we’ll go visit Tonga.’” He hadn’t been back to Tonga since he came to America 20-plus years ago. And he had always wanted to go back with his family and see the village that he grew up in.

“Those were the last words I heard from my brother and my dad.”

The Kata family in January 2020 in Oakland, California.
The Kata family gathers for a photo in January 2020 in Oakland, California, on the day oldest son Tevita, center, spoke in church before leaving on his mission. Back row from left to right: Taniela Kata and Moui Kata, the parents, along with Sela, Tevita, Anaise, Molomona and Heneli. Front row from left to right: Teisa, Olive, Mele, Kelikupa and Halaevalu. | Photo provided by Sister Sela Kata

After finding out

Before phoning her mother after learning of the accident, Sister Kata paused to compose herself. “Before the call, I just broke down, and I didn’t want to call them while I was crying,” she recalled, saying her mother was trying to do the same, asking: “‘Sister Kata, how is the work? How are you doing?’ I think she was trying not to get into that subject.”

Talking about the accident and injuries, Sister Kata heard — and still remembers — her mother’s reassuring words: “Whatever happens, I know it is God’s will, and I know that everything is in God’s hands.”

Despite the uncertainty — would one or the other be miraculously healed or both taken? — Sister Kata committed to the mindset of “whatever God’s will is, just be OK with it.”

A touch point with mission leaders

When Sister Kata texted her mission leaders about the accident and injuries, President Clarke and Sister Heather Clarke immediately called and met with her. “It brought back a flood of memories for me,” President Clarke said. “Just over 10 years ago, I lost my father and my brother in a plane crash. I knew a little bit of how Sister Kata was feeling. My heart broke for her.”

Sister Sela Kata, Sister Heather Clarke and President Todd R. Clarke of the Washington D.C. North Mission.
Sister Sela Kata, left, is photographed with Sister Heather Clarke, center, and President Todd R. Clarke, right, of the Washington D.C. North Mission on July 5, 2023. | Photo provided by Sister Heather Clarke

When Sister Kata’s stake president, President Tevita H. Saluni of the Oakland East (Tongan) Stake, reached out for permission to contact her, he learned of that connection. “I felt the Spirit at that very moment telling me about the Lord’s tender mercy — He sent Sister Kata to the mission where President Clarke would preside so he can be with her at this particular time, for he understood the pain and what she’s going through.”

President Clarke’s own loss and Sister Clarke being one of 10 siblings connected with Sister Kata. “I’ve always wondered, ‘Why did I come to this mission at this time?’” she said, adding the answer. “I think of how God is in the details of our lives. In the experiences and events of our lives. It is often because there are people who need us.”

Another mission mourns

The D.C. North mission wasn’t the only one grieving a loss. President Justin R. Spencer and Sister Kristen Spencer and those in their Utah Salt Lake City West Mission mourned for Elder Heneli Kata, who finished his service there on April 25, 2023, less than three months before his passing.

“Elder Kata was loved by every missionary and all who knew him,” said Sister Spencer, noting his musical talents, humility and advocacy for anyone in need. “He loved the Savior and the opportunity to bring others to Him.”

Added President Spencer: “He was so kind to everyone and had a unique ability to lift the spirits of a missionary that was feeling down. ... I’ll never forget the giant bear hugs he would give me after our interviews.” 

Elder Heneli Kata with his mission leaders of the Utah Salt Lake City West Mission.
Elder Heneli Kata, center, poses for a photo with President Justin R. Spencer, left, and Sister Kristen Spencer, right, of the Utah Salt Lake City West Mission on April 25, 2023, at Salt Lake International Airport. He had finished his mission service and was returning home that day to his home in Oakland, California. | Photo provided by Sister Kristen Spencer

President Saluni recently reviewed his notes from the release interview he held with Heneli. “I simply wrote down ‘very faithful and SOLID,’” said the stake president. “Indeed, that’s what Heneli is — a very faithful and solid disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Funeral services

On Friday, June 30, Taniela and Heneli Kata were honored at an ʻapō, a traditional Tongan funeral ceremony where all gather to sing and say their last goodbyes, which can be an all-night event on the islands. About 800 people — Latter-day Saints and Tongan community members alike — participated in the ʻapō, held in a local Christian church in Oakland, California.

“Brother Taniela Kata is truly a man of faith, and he loved the Lord,” said President Saluni, calling the Kata family the epitome of a gospel- and home-centered family. “As I listened to the family speaking at the Friday night ‘apō, I received confirmation from the Holy Ghost that their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel is unwavering.”

The family viewing and funeral services — held Saturday morning, July 1, at the Virginia Avenue meetinghouse where the family normally attends — drew some 800 mourners, with another 100-plus in hallways and outside.

Elder Vaiangina Sikahema stands by the casket and pallbearers at the funeral for Taniela Kata and Heneli Kata in Oakland, California.
Elder Vaiangina Sikahema, right, pauses by a casket with pallbearers following the funeral services for Taniela Kata and Heneli Kata in Oakland, California, on July 1, 2023. | Photo provided by Elder Vaiangina Sikahema

Assigned to preside at the funeral, Elder Sikahema provided another touch point besides the shared Tongan heritage. The full-circle connection linked him, the grieving family and their daughter-sister missionary. “It was a tender, sweet experience,” he said.

Elder Sikahema noted the Kata family wearing white clothes for the Saturday events, a conscious break by some Latter-day Saints from the centuries-old Tongan culture and traditions of survivors and mourners wearing black clothing along with the ceremonial ta’ovala, or woven mat.

Watching from afar

Sister Kata watched the viewing and funeral services via videoconference, feeling like her father and brother were sitting beside her. “I felt their spirits throughout the whole funeral service,” she said.

Seeing her deceased father and brother dressed in white — along with the other family members — gave her a feeling of peace and joy, as she thought of the family’s temple sealing, experiences with covenants and ordinances and being greeted with open arms by her parents in the temple’s celestial room.

“I know it will be the same in the next life,” she added.

Now in her final weeks of service, Sister Kata says, “staying here, I can feel how proud my dad is for me.” She also recognizes an increased testimony in the gospel, the plan of salvation and the gathering of scattered Israel on both sides of the veil.

“I have only weeks left to share that testimony of the plan of salvation with others, helping them know that they will see their loved ones again,” she said. “And I know that’s what my dad and brother are probably doing on the other side — they’re sharing the gospel, and I’m here helping them on the mortal side.”

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