I sat on the edge of heaven today.
A former student, Michelle (Clawson) Uhi, invited me to attend church in her LDS ward (congregation) today, during which her recently returned missionary son reported on his mission. I accepted gladly because I have fond memories of Michelle and wanted to share this proud moment with her. I didn’t give much thought as to what to expect because all LDS services are pretty similar and we always feel comfortable in any ward we attend, but I was not prepared for what I experienced.
Michelle is from Ramah, a little town of about 400 people in the western mountains of New Mexico. I taught there from 1983 to 1986 when Michelle was a pretty, bright-eyed and happy girl in my class. Ramah was my second assignment in CES and I was still very new to teaching. My poor students suffered from my lack of gospel scholarship and my ego got in the way a lot, but they were good kids and I tried my best so I think it ended up being a very good three years.
I don’t know a lot about the details of Michelle’s life after Ramah, but I do know that she attended BYU-Hawaii where she met her husband and that they eventually ended up in Salt Lake City where they’ve raised their family. We came back into touch a few years ago when Michelle found me on Facebook and reached out. Today was the first of her invitations that I have been able to accept due to my health and pressures of my profession and I am so happy that I did.
Although members of any culture are welcome in any congregation and most choose to worship in their geographically-established wards, the Church has established language-specific wards for those that need or prefer to worship in certain languages. For some the language barrier is a real problem, for others it is more of a culture thing. What I didn’t know about the Uhi family is that they attend a Tongan-speaking ward.
My first clue was when the congregation began filing in. Tongans are among the most beautiful people I know and I soon found myself awash in a sea of dark skin; full, thick hair; happy smiles and god-like statures. At first, Debra and I were the only Palangi in the chapel. Several ward members made an effort to make us feel welcome and we did. Even with this clue, when the meeting started, I was a little surprised to hear the officiator speaking Tongan. And even after that I was not prepared for what happened next.
I got about four words into the opening hymn before I burst into tears. It was not a manly cry with a few tears welling in my eyes; I was crying openly, heaving quite little sobs. The spirit that emanated from the joint voice of that congregation was no less than heavenly. I know it is a stereotype, but Tongans can (and do) sing. The tone was deep and rich and heartfelt. There was beautiful harmony. There was joy. There was the Spirit. I tried to sing in English, but between the message of the song and the beauty of the voices I gave up, closed my eyes and cried some more.
The rest of the meeting was wonderful. Since it was really their fast and testimony meeting, Elder Pasi Uhi spoke just briefly. He spoke eloquently in English, Tongan, French and Tahitian. Others bore testimony in Tongan and President Uhi (Pasi’s father) was given the last ten minutes of the meeting which he, in typical Tongan style, humbly shared with two members who had been waiting to share their testimonies. He then finished the meeting in English. I understood about 20 percent of what was spoken and sung today, but 100 percent of what the Holy Spirit taught.
And here is what he taught me.
The power and strength of the Lord’s people rests in families. I am sure the Uhi’s have family struggles. As long as we live in the world we can never expect to be free from its temptations and influences. We are mortal and will, until made perfect through the grace of Christ, be subject to mortality’s weaknesses. But I had a powerful feeling today that this family is dealing with vicissitudes of life better than most because of their love for the Savior and dedication to their family. I pray that they will be blessed and that their children will appreciate the wonderful effort and sacrifice made by their parents and act with gratitude.
The Church may have money in the bank, real estate, business holdings and farms around the world, but none of that compares to the rich resource of the family. The devil is at war with the family, attacking it in ways subtle and not so subtle. The family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. If we are wise, we will defend it, promote it and make God’s will for the family our will. We will accept and use any help he sends.
WE, THE FIRST PRESIDENCY and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. From The Family: A Proclamation to the World 1995.