Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series exploring the cultural barriers and blessings in the Polynesian culture. Read Part I of the series here.
The tiny, remote island of Niuatoputapu was made famous in the movie, "Other Side of Heaven." It was where Mormon missionary John Groberg almost died of starvation after surviving a hurricane.
Ten years before Elder Groberg served in Niuatoputapu (Knee-you-ah doh-poo dah-poo), Sione and Salote Wolfgramm were sent there as a young couple missionary by Tonga's mission president Emile Dunn. With limited foreign visas, Tongans were routinely called as couple missionaries to serve among their own — even today. The Wolfgramms were from the island of Vava'u, roughly 180 miles away. That distance was usually covered in a day's travel by sailboat.
On Thursday, June 19, 1947, 29-year-old Sione Wolfgramm, his 25-year-old wife, Salote and their three small children, four-year-old Lupi (Ruby), three-year-old Makaleta (Margaret) and nine-month-old Vili (Willie) sailed with a small group of Saints from Niuatoputapu for Vava'u. In Vava'u, the small traveling party would gather more Saints and make the 150-mile voyage further south to Tongatapu, the main island, for a district conference celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Saints' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.
What should have been a day's journey on the first leg of the voyage from Niuatoputapu to Vava'u stretched to three treacherous days at sea because of an unexpected storm, a typical travel hazard in the South Pacific, especially in the winter months of June and July. The Wolfgramms and the handful of Saints from the Niuatoputapu Branch sailing on a 47-foot cutter were tossed mercilessly by 30- to 40-foot waves. Without relief from the elements, Salote Wolfgramm held nine-month-old Vili close, but conditions were wet, cold and unrelenting. After arriving in Vava'u on Sunday evening June 22, the little boy died the following day of pneumonia from exposure.
Tongan custom calls for a 10-day mourning period. But the traveling party still had another leg of their trip to the district conference in Tongatapu and in 1947, there was no way of communicating their circumstances to Church leaders in Tongatapu.
Heartbroken and grieving but determined to fulfill their Church responsibilities, Sione and Salote Wolfgramm buried their nine-month-old son, Vili Manulea, on Tuesday morning, June 24 near their home in Vava'u and boarded a steamer later that same afternoon with their surviving daughters, Lupi and Makaleta, for Tongatapu with the rest of the Saints.
That fateful voyage was for my mother, Lupi (Ruby), a defining moment in her life, even as a four-year-old. Though our culture was profoundly important to my grandparents, they chose to meet their obligation to the Lord notwithstanding Tongan custom or their own personal anguish.
That is my legacy. It is the legacy of Tongan and Polynesian Latter-day Saints. And it is no less powerful to us than the story of pioneer widow, Mary Fielding, praying over her fallen oxen. Or of the Martin Handcart Company crossing the frozen Sweetwater River after burying children on the plains en route to the Great Salt Lake Valley.
I doubt it's widely known in the Church that on Saturday morning, Sept. 22, 1827 — a Jewish Sabbath — the day Moroni finally delivered the gold plates to Joseph Smith, was also, coincidentally, Rosh Hashana. At sundown that evening in synagogues worldwide, shofars were sounded declaring the Feast of Trumpets, the beginning of a series of High Holy Days. The rams' horns trumpets were blown to awaken the listener from "slumber" and to mark the harvest season, the symbolic gathering of scattered Israel. Jews also regard Rosh Hashana as a time of "new revelation." My guess is, an obscure, unlearned boy in 19th century upstate New York was completely oblivious to any of this.
These concurrent events are a perfect example of how some cultural traditions fit seamlessly, in fact, aid and even fulfill prophecy in the restored gospel. All cultures have customs that mesh perfectly with the Church. Our duty, as Latter-day Saints, is to identify and embrace those that do and discard those that don't.
In the interest of educating our people, the Church built schools throughout Polynesia in the mid-1950s, including BYU-Hawaii. Along the way, Church leaders learned our customs, our way of life, our unique rhythms, music and dancing could provide jobs for students to defray the cost of their college education. The Polynesian Cultural Center was borne and is among the most successful enterprises and tourist attractions in the entire Pacific.
The PCC and BYU-H have blessed all people but especially Polynesians. The best of our culture, arts, handicrafts and cuisine are displayed at the PCC for the world to enjoy. Its influence was prophesied by President David O. McKay when he dedicated the school in 1955: "... from this school, I'll tell you, will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally."
We've had a part in fulfilling those prophetic words. Still, we have more to do. Polynesia is relatively small compared to Latin America, Africa and other foreign people seeking to reap the full blessings of the gospel. Recent census records indicate Tonga's population is just over 100,000, there's less than 150,000 in Tahiti, Samoa is roughly 225,000, just under a million live in Fiji, and over 4,000,000 in New Zealand. Polynesia is comparable in number to the state of Utah.
But even in the Beehive State, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not as prevalent as it is in parts of Polynesia. As of January 2010, 54 percent of Tonga and one-third of Samoa are LDS.
As happened in other parts of the world, significant milestones of the Restoration coincided with analogous events in our own history. The first to proselyte Tonga, Wesleyan missionaries, arrived in 1822, two years after Joseph Smith's First Vision. The chief of the island of Ha'apai converted to Christianity in 1831, a year after the Church was formally established in Fayette, N.Y.
As a boy, when it became clear I had promise as an athlete, my grandparents, Sione and Salote Wolfgramm, confided in me that as teenagers in 1938, they heard President George Albert Smith, who was visiting Tonga, declare that if the Tongan people kept the Word of Wisdom, someday their posterity would be known throughout the world for their physical prowess as athletes. Others of their generation, such as Tonga's first native Patriarch, Mosese Muti, also confirmed hearing President Smith's prophecy. Today, Haloti Ngata, Maake and Chris Kemoeatu, Harvey Unga, Deuce Lutui and Sione Po'uha are fulfillment of that prophecy.
We, as Polynesians, have been highly favored of the Lord. Much of that comes from a heritage and traditions that honor sacred things so we've been blessed with pure, child-like faith. I've never met an atheist Tongan or agnostic Samoan. But we aren't immune from the plagues of modern society — pornography, drugs, domestic violence, indolence and crime. Our great challenge is living up to the blessings of our culture.