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.
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