Elder Welch loves to fish. He LOVES to fish. Whenever possible, he will make the drive from his home in Corinne, Utah, to one his favorite fishing spot, Devil's Creek Reservoir, north of Malad, Idaho, and spend as much time as possible fishing it's waters.
The only thing he loves better than fishing for fish....is being a disciple of Christ, and being a fisher for men. "And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Like the apostles of old, Elder and Sister Welch followed Christ's commandment, "And they straightway left nets, and followed him." The Welches sought those who had fallen by the wayside, who were seeking for truth. They did not do so in a pushy or forceful way. They just loved. They loved ALL of us. Many children in Juneau claim the Welch's as their adopted grandparents.
After returning home from their mission in Alaska (they actually served two missions in Alaska) the Welch's planted a HUGE garden in their back yard. Elder Welch tenderly cares for the garden, which he calls his "Missionary Garden," during the growing season. During harvest season they pick, and pick, and pick and pick. Sister Welch cans what the two of them will need for the coming winter, which is about 10% of the garden. The rest goes to feed widows, neighbors, anyone in need, and show a welcoming hand to people the Welch's think might be interested in hearing more about the Gospel. The Welch's don't know how NOT to share....food from their garden, and food for the soul.
I always felt that the Welch's were special, and that I would likely never find anyone who could measure up to their example. Fortunately while serving in Tonga, I have found a few more people, who happen to be senior couples, who are unique like the Welch's. I love these couples so much.
Elder Inoke and Sister Malia Funaki are both originally from Tonga, but have lived in Hawaii for many years. Elder Funaki at one time coached high school rugby, and is retired from teaching psychology at BYU-H.
Elder and Sister Funaki were initially called to serve with the young adults. And, of course, because of who they are, they jumped right in visiting all the wards in the stakes in which they were called to serve, having young adults over for FHE, and loving everyone. In trying to find other ways to help the young adults, Elder Funaki began meeting with some of the young adults and helping them with college applications, tutoring, whatever they needed help with.
The Funaki's looked for other ways to help. They did not feel bound by the perimeters of their calling as Young Adult Specialists. Sister Funaki felt it was important that someone be able to play the hymns in sacrament meeting. Most congregations in Tonga sing without accompaniment. Sister Funaki felt that having someone play the hymns while the congregation sang, would add to the spiritual feeling of the meeting. So, she started teaching piano lessons. Sister Funaki was part of an elite group of three women....senior missionaries.....who were teaching group piano lessons. The initial plan was to help some of the older youth and young adults learn to play hymns for sacrament meeting, or primary, or wherever a pianist was needed. They found, however, that people of all ages started attending classes. It was not uncommon to have 20+ students attending each class, as young as six.
|Sister Funaki dancing at FHE|
The miracle in all of this is that Sister Funaki does not play the piano herself. She reads a little music. But, with her persevering spirit, and desire to help the people of Tonga..HER people...she soon had students playing hymns in sacrament meeting. I studied piano for years. I thought I was really something when I was called to play the piano in primary at age 11...but then I'd only been studying piano for a mere 5 years. Can you imagine being able to play hymns in sacrament meeting after perhaps just six months of lessons? That's exactly what has been happening as a result of these piano classes.
Sister Funaki also felt a desire to help the children near her village of Mu'a to become more proficient in reading and speaking English. So the Funaki's started a small lending library at their home, supplied with used children's books sent from the US. They sit around tables on their covered veranda in the evenings, surrounded by children engrossed in reading. A small number of very trusted children are able to check out a book and take it home with them for a few days. But, most come once or twice a week and spend the evening reading.
The Funaki's assignment changed part way through their mission. They now work with the Bridging program. This is a beta program where returned missionaries who have not graduated from high school come to Liahona High School in the evenings and work on completing high school. The Funaki's teach classes, proctor tests, and encourage their students as they move forward in their education. They are truly a blessing in these young people's lives. The piano lessons and evenings spent reading with the children continue.
Elder Siaosi and Sister Katalina Va'enuku were also born and raised in Tonga, but moved to Utah where they raised their children.
Elder Va'enuku loves to play the guitar or ukulele, and sing. In fact, he loves it so much he found he was spending a great deal of his time away from his family playing with bands anywhere and everywhere. Sister Va'enuku had always wanted to serve a mission, but Elder Va'enuku seemed to be too busy having fun to seriously consider this. But, because he loved his wife very much, he made a promise to her that he would put away his guitar and singing, and prepare himself to serve a mission.
The Va'enuku's soon found their niche. Sister Va'enuku would wake early in the mornings and bake muffins and cakes, which she and Elder Va'enuku would then deliver to people humbled by lack of physical necessities, or inactive members they were helping back into activity, and many interested in finding out more about the Gospel.
During the aftermath of cyclone Ian in 2014, the Va'enuku's ward sent a large container of food....flour, sugar, pasta, oats, etc...... to the Va'enuku's in Ha'apai, where they were then serving. They divided the food up into small boxes which they then delivered to villages all over the islands of Ha'apai. They piled their car full, piled the mission boats full, and hand delivered every box.
When they were reassigned to Tongatapu, they would borrow the mission van on weekends because their small car was just too small, and deliver home baked goods to anyone they found in need. They'd also use the van to drive members and investigators who because of infirmities, or because of distance, were unable to walk to church. And then because of the number of people they took under their wings, even the van became too small. The mission eventually assigned them a van full time because they were so busy driving youth to YM/YW, or investigators to missionary lessons, or to young adult activities, as well as driving missionaries when needed. Always the back of the van was full of food.....baked goods made by Sister Va'enuku, as well as food they would buy at the store, repackage, and divide up among their needy families.
The Va'enuku's mission assignment was complete in March 2015, and they returned to their home in Utah. They felt such a desire to continue serving the people of Tonga, that even before they returned home they were busy filling out new mission papers so they could return and serve another mission in Tonga. By the time they return to Tonga...this time as church service missionaries....they will have spent only two months at home. Their grandchildren are sad that they won't get to spend much time with them, but the people of Tonga will be forever blessed because of their service and love.
Elder Nunia, who is Tongan, and Sister Loueni Huni, who is Fijian, have lived most of their lives in Tonga. They were originally called to serve in PNG, but because of some health issues their assignment was changed to stay at home and serve in Tonga.
|The Huni's (left) and the Va'enuku's (right)|
The Huni's are quiet and unassuming. But, their testimonies and faith are strong and unshakable. Elder Huni has always been a fisherman of fish. On the weekends he would don his flippers, grab his spear, and off he'd go. The fish he caught were then sold at the market. This was the family's main source of income.
Elder Huni continues to be a fisherman of fish, as well as a fisherman of men. After spending the week with Sister Huni finding, contacting, and teaching new converts and fellow-shipping the inactive, Elder Huni dons his flippers, grabs his spear, and heads off every Friday evening to fish. The fish he catches now days is no longer sold at the markets for income. Everything he catches he gives away to those who cannot afford to purchase meat for their Sunday meal.
The Huni's have also exchanged their car for a mission van to help transport their many new friends to church activities throughout the week, as well as to church on Sundays, and, of course, missionaries.
I was talking with Elder Huni one day after I returned home from my mini medical leave in Brisbane. He told me how one night he woke to find himself all alone in bed. Then he heard a noise. He saw Sister Huni kneeling at the edge of their bed, with tears streaming down her face. She had been worried about me, and was pleading with the Lord to make me well. There have only been a couple of times when I knew someone was praying for me....the first Sunday after Jon died, the person giving the prayer in sacrament meeting prayed for us....and Sister Huni. I'm sure there have been other times when prayers have been said in our behalf, but these two times were very personal. I can't express the feelings of humility and amazement I felt on both of these occasions. Amazed that we mattered so much to someone that they would pour their hearts out to the Lord on our behalf. And humility for the same reason. And I knew that because of the faith of those praying for us, those prayers were answered. Forever more I will feel a special love for Sister Huni because of this act of humility and care on my behalf.
The Lord IS hastening his work. The work these couples are doing is evidence of that.
"Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the , and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks."
When I grow up I hope I am even just a little bit like these wonderful couples. They have had an impact on so many lives. But I am most grateful for the influence they have had on my life. They are my heroes.
|Sister Huni, Sister Va'enuku, and Sister Funaki|