Tanna Island, in the Tafea Province of Vanuatu, is a 45 minute flight - or a very long boat ride - to Efate Island, where the mission office for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is located.
During the global pandemic, travel to Vanuatu was severely restricted, making it difficult for the Church in the area to send out or receive missionaries. Eventually, Tanna Island had no full-time missionaries and missionary work was forced to slow down.
In early 2022, as life began finding normality again, Vanuatu's mission president, Mark Messick, was delighted to receive a request from Tanna’s District President: 'Send missionaries as soon as possible!'
President Messick learned that while Tanna was without full-time missionaries, local members of the Church and returned missionaries on the island continued to teach the gospel to their friends and neighbours, and they had around 85 candidates ready to be interviewed and baptised. President Messick immediately arranged to send his Assistants to the President (APs) missionaries to Tanna.
The plan was postponed because Tanna's live volcano started rumbling. Then, a small cyclone hit the island, causing widespread damage - further solidifying Vanuatu's status as number one on the World Risk Index for the likelihood of natural disasters. Just as Tanna began to recover from the cyclone, a sudden outbreak of COVID-19 shut all of Vanuatu down, and once again, travel was restricted.
It wasn't until the middle of August that President Messick was finally able to send his APs to Tanna to interview the baptismal candidates and prepare them to join the Church. By then, President was worried that the long wait had deterred some of them, that their interest might have waned.
But when Elders Silas Toa and Brian Moses Nalin arrived - armed with a stack of paperwork for the baptismal interviews - they found the opposite to be true. Not only were all 85 still eager to join the Church, but their numbers increased by 29. Now, 114 candidates were faithfully waiting to be interviewed and baptised. The Elders embarked on their tour of all eight of the Church’s branches in Tanna.
After they interviewed and baptised six people at the first branch, Elders Toa and Nalin headed to Sideseawi, an isolated area tucked high in the mountains. They had no way to contact the Sideseawi branch president but knew he was expecting them at some point, so the missionaries drove their truck as far as they could then continued on foot for the remaining 3-hour trek. When they finally arrived, the branch president was nowhere to be found. The Elders had hiked all that way in vain.
Then the big rain fell. Everyone in Sideseawi knows that when it starts to rain hard, getting off the mountain is treacherous. Elders Toa and Nalin rushed back to their truck, knowing every second counted before the local rivers swelled and became impassable. They made it to the truck in time to drive through the first and second rivers, but they knew the third river would be a challenge.
Sure enough, their truck got stuck partway. They tried to push it – no luck. They called the District President, and soon help arrived, but the truck still wouldn’t move. The river rose and flowed so swiftly that the helpers had to get out and move to safety. Then, Elder Nalin spotted something else that worried him. He saw that the waters in next river over – which converged with this river – had become torrential and threatened to break through.
In his mind, it seemed to Elder Nalin that an invisible force was holding that third river back, as though buying time for them . . .but he knew it wouldn’t be for long. The torrent was racing.
Elders Toa and Nalin are examples of the finest possible young men from Vanuatu – responsible and excellent in every way. To them, a truck is of almost incomprehensible expense, especially in a country where families can barely afford to educate their children, much less buy a vehicle. The Elders were determined to preserve the Church’s truck at all costs, but now the water was up to its door handles. They called their Mission President. “What should we do?”
President Messick’s response was: “Thank you for calling. Now get out of the truck and save yourselves. I don’t care about the truck; I care about you.”
As they rushed out of the truck, Elder Toa climbed into the back seat to grab their scriptures and the 114 interview papers they needed for the baptisms. He couldn’t see them anywhere. Then a voice yelled, “The water is coming! Get out of the truck!” and Elder Toa slipped out of the back door just as the truck was swept downstream.
As soon as the Elders realised that their scriptures and the 114 interview papers were still in the truck - which was now well out of sight – they used the power of the priesthood and commanded the truck to protect their precious documents. “That’s what you can do with the priesthood,” the young men said later, with absolute confidence. “You can command.”
Elders Toa and Nalin managed to pull themselves out to safety, and there by the side of the river, they knelt and prayed. As they prayed that the truck would be safe and that their scriptures and interview papers would stay dry, the missionaries felt a peaceful assurance that all would be fine. Then, they walked the rest of the way off the mountain.
The next day, the Elders received a call from the District President. Sideseawi’s branch president had found their truck, 250 meters downstream. When the Elders arrived to retrieve it, they discovered not a dent or a scratch on the body of the vehicle, despite its journey in the river, past trees, rocks, and debris.
The inside of the truck wasn’t so fortunate. It was drenched. The engine suffered electrical damage, and everything in the cab – pamphlets, manuals, books – was soaked beyond repair… except for the Elders’ scriptures and the 114 interview papers. These sat in plain sight above everything else, completely dry.
While the truck was being repaired, Elders Toa and Nalin resumed their tour on foot. At their next stop, they interviewed and baptised 48 candidates before continuing right across Tanna Island. “When you get tired of walking,” one of them told a fellow missionary, “You walk with your heart.”
Their hearts and a priesthood miracle helped these faithful Elders reach and bring all 114 candidates safely into the Church of Jesus Christ.