Feature Stories

I’m a Pioneer: The gradual conversion of a Tongan schoolboy

The author’s father, Viliami Fotu.

As Latter-day Saints prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Pioneer Day on July 24th this year, LDS Living recognizes that in addition to the sacrifices of the early pioneers, there are many modern-day pioneers across the globe who have built the Church in their nations or in their families. In this new series of articles, we wish to recognize these present-day pioneers and remember all who have helped make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what it is today.

We sat in Dad’s old pickup truck, rattling down the road on our third trip this month for compost, early on a Saturday morning. Dad was driving me to get more soil to fill the new asparagus garden bed I had just planted. I love car rides with Dad. In them, we are each other’s captive audiences, and we can finally sit within stories. The story I was looking for that morning was Dad’s conversion story.

When he grew up in Tonga, a tropical island-country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, dad’s immediate family was not LDS. There was a terrible rift between himself and his brother and father when he told them he would go on a mission. He had left not knowing if he could come back to his father’s home. My knowledge of that story came in bits and pieces. It isn’t a celebrated “pioneer” story in my family, told with protagonists and villains. It was mentioned and then avoided with the hovering emotional toll of the loss and grief of people who loved each other all hurting. The morning of the truck ride with my father, I was on the search for a pioneer story of simple blocked characters and easy victories.

Steeped in my Western worldview and framed tightly in the romanticism of the climactic “moment of conversion,” I asked my dad about his motives of baptism. I expected a personal miracle, or maybe revelation thick in gratitude of some ethereal, life-changing sermon. What I got was a simple statement: “Because the Church school had more food.” I stared at him for a moment across the console. He looked to his left before casually changing lanes, unaware of my stunned disappointment. Where was the exposition, the rising action, and climax? It was late enough in the day that the purer, light-yellow rays of sun peeked over Timpanogos Mountain, cutting through the sweet pastels of early morning. We had the windows rolled down.

“That’s your conversion story? That the church school had more food?” I was a little underwhelmed. Dad shifted his hands on the steering wheel so he could hold out one hand and use a finger from the other to point.

“Like this,” he said, indicating that the meat cut at the Church school was as big as his palm. “Atele’s meat was only this big!” His voice raised in pitch as he pointed to the second digit of his index finger. “Atele is a government school. They expect the students to do all the hard labor on the plantation.” He shook his head and put on his blinker to enter the freeway. We stayed quiet as the drum of freeway sounds filled our truck cabin.

Utah is a very different place now from the one that Dad encountered when 40 years ago he crossed the ocean and stepped off a plane into a desert, land-locked state. It has changed from what it was when I grew up surrounded by orchards and horse pastures. Back then, an early Saturday morning on the freeway could mean that our car was one of the few that speckled the road. The day I asked about Dad’s “pioneer” baptismal story, we waited in a queue to get on the freeway.

When Dad first came to Utah from Tonga, he came as a young missionary to enter the MTC. His mission call was to serve in Oakland, California, but upon being on BYU campus, he knew he would return to Utah Valley. Quickly filling out a form, he entered his name for BYU family housing, a notoriously long list for the hugely coveted living space for university students studying at BYU. Years later in his first undergraduate degree, he would walk into BYU family housing with his wife and newborn. By that time, his was the name at the top of the list of reserved spaces for students.

When my mom told the story, she held her hands out and widened her blue eyes: “What a weirdo, right? This island boy leaves his country for the first time, doesn’t even have a girlfriend, and starts planning a future that in his mind includes a family in a totally different nation.” She put her hands down and looked just above me, remembering. “At that time, we had just had Leli, and we didn’t know where we would live. He said he had an idea and then took us to the on-campus married housing, and I thought, ‘This guy is off his rocker.’ But sure enough, there was his name at the top of the reservation list. I mean”—Mom rested her chin in her hands and looked back at me—“Who plans like that?”

Dad does.

His decision to go to Liahona, the Church school, was motivated by that same pragmatism. “Liahona hires workers to work the ’uta,” Dad explained, referring to plots of land, often referred to as plantations, owned by families—or, in this case, a school where the main food (bananas, coconut, taro, manioke) was grown and harvested.

“At Liahona, every meal had meat. I had to learn how to wear sandals. I remember,” he laughs, shaking his head, “I was so nervous the first day. I hung back behind the group of Liahona students so I could see if I was wearing the sandals right, and then I had to switch which side the buckle went on!” He stayed smiling but then drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Liahona was a Church school and so it was well-funded and connected.” He paused and added offhandedly, “And could get me to America for higher education and more opportunities, through the Church.”

Some days I can decolonize my mind in real-time to value paradigms outside the ever-prevalent purview of charismatic punchlines and prisma-colored zeniths, but that day I had to pause and remember that the people who followed Christ throughout the scriptures physically thirsted and hungered. They had somatic needs as well as spiritual ones. Some of the most moving moments of Christ’s ministry on earth were through serving people’s physical welfare before calling on them to accept his spiritual blessings. That Dad’s conversion was instigated by a baptism motivated by physical need is a theme throughout all of scripture. Hiding or erasing this reality privileges a very specific way of being that cuts access to stories that validate spiritual and cultural gifts, effectively limiting the perception of the identity and ability of God.

Dad’s baptism story is different from his conversion story. While the baptism was a pragmatic decision and a moment in the water, his conversion came over a lifetime of staying true to the promises he made to God when as a small boy, seeking a full tummy and an education, he was baptized. The promises he made to God on that day were true to him, and he has kept them all his life—and in return, God has shaped his life, converting him more and more in every new turn his life has taken. Dad made every careful plan, every out-of-reach dream, every calculated risk dependent on the power of that conversion and how it would nurture his life.

Dad’s baptism story doesn’t have the pizzazz of a miraculous life turned 180 degrees in repentance. It is just a story of a child from a beautiful island who followed a promise he made to his Heavenly Father. My father’s pioneer story shows that being a pioneer isn’t a product so much as a process. And conversion isn’t an act—it’s a life.

We drove the rest of the way to Provo, sometimes quietly enjoying the space where morning meets a Saturday afternoon, talking story. Eventually, we picked up the compost and brought it home, where Dad helped me unload it into a rusty wheelbarrow and place it into different spots of my garden. He worked with me for hours, ever patient and encouraging in my ambitious plans where years from then, the asparagus and raspberries would come up unprompted.

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