Friends of God in the “Friendly Islands”
In 1932 a sailing vessel brought some priceless seeds to Tonga. The skipper of the boat gave the booklet “Where Are the Dead?” to Charles Vete. Charles was convinced that he had found the truth. Some time later, the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses approved Charles’ request to translate the booklet into his native tongue. After completing the task, he received 1,000 printed booklets and began distributing them. That is how the seeds of truth about Jehovah’s Kingdom began to be spread in the kingdom of Tonga.
ON A map of the South Pacific, you can find Tonga just west of where the international date line meets the Tropic of Capricorn. Its largest island, Tongatapu, is located about 1,250 miles [2,000 km] northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. Tonga is made up of 171 islands, 45 of which are inhabited. The famous 18th-century British explorer James Cook named these secluded isles the Friendly Islands.
With a population of about 106,000, Tonga is composed of three island groups—the main ones being Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Vava’u. Of the five local congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, three are in the most populous Tongatapu group, one is in Ha’apai, and the other is in Vava’u. To help people become God’s friends, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a missionary home and a translation office near Nuku’alofa, the capital.—Isaiah 41:8.
From the 1930’s, Charles Vete was widely known as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, although he did not get baptized until 1964. Others joined him in the witnessing work, and in 1966 a Kingdom Hall with a capacity of 30 was built. A congregation of 20 Kingdom publishers was formed in Nuku’alofa in 1970.
Since then, the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s words can be clearly seen in the islands of Tonga: “Let them attribute to Jehovah glory, and in the islands let them tell forth even his praise.” (Isaiah 42:12) The Kingdom work has continued to prosper, helping many to come into a relationship with Jehovah. At the district convention in Nuku’alofa in 2003, there was a peak attendance of 407, with 5 being baptized. Indicating the prospects for growth, 621 persons attended the Memorial in 2004.
Leading a Simple Life
Away from the capital, however, there is still a noticeable need for Kingdom proclaimers. For example, the 8,500 people who live on the 16 inhabited islands of the Ha’apai group need to hear more about Bible truth. Ha’apai consists mainly of low-lying, palm-covered islands with long, white sandy beaches. The ocean water has remarkable clarity, visibility often extending beyond 100 feet [30 m]. It is an extraordinary experience to swim among the coral reefs and the more than one hundred species of colorful tropical fish. The villages are generally small. Houses, although modest, are built to withstand tropical cyclones.
Breadfruit and mango trees provide shade and food. Collecting and preparing food takes up a large part of daily life. Besides pork, the islanders enjoy the prolific harvest of the ocean. Family plots produce root crops and vegetables. Citrus trees grow in the wild; coconut trees and banana plants are abundant. Local knowledge of medicinal herbs, leaves, bark, and roots is passed on from one generation to another.
Of course, Ha’apai’s most delightful asset is its friendly people, who fit into the tranquil environment. Simplicity is a way of life here. Most women are involved in crafts—making baskets, tapa cloth, and mats. While working, Tongan women sit, talk, sing, and laugh together under a shady tree, often with children and babies playing or sleeping nearby. And it is generally the women who at low tide harvest the reefs for shellfish and other edible sea creatures, as well as the crunchy seaweed that makes a delicious salad.
Most men spend their days gardening, fishing, carving, boatbuilding, and mending fishnets. Men, women, and children travel between islands in small, covered fishing boats to visit relatives, get medical attention, and trade or sell produce.
No Place Too Remote for the Good News
It was in this idyllic setting that two missionaries and two pioneer ministers arrived during the Memorial season of 2002. Some occasional contact had previously been made, and people in Ha’apai had received literature published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, even studying the Bible with the Witnesses.
The four visiting Bible teachers had three objectives: to place Bible literature, start home Bible studies, and invite interested ones to the observance of the Lord’s Evening Meal. All three objectives were attained. Ninety-seven people responded to the invitation to attend the Memorial of Jesus’ death. Some of them traveled in open boats despite heavy rain and strong winds. Because of the bad weather, many stayed over at the Memorial venue for the night, returning to their homes the next day.
The Memorial speaker’s situation was no less challenging. “I don’t have to tell you how daunting it is to give two Memorial discourses in a foreign language on the same evening,” recalls the missionary who was the speaker. “You can guess how anxious I was. What a help prayer proved to be! I recalled words and sentence structures that I was hardly aware that I knew.”
As a result of the evangelizers’ cultivating existing interest in the Ha’apai islands, two married couples from that area were baptized. In one case, the husband took an interest in the Witnesses’ literature while he was training to become a minister in the local church.
Although poor materially, this man and his wife used to make a sizable financial contribution when their names were called out at church during an annual fund-raising service. A Witness who had previously visited had invited the husband to open his Bible and read 1 Timothy 5:8. The apostle Paul wrote: “If anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” This Bible principle touched the husband’s heart. He realized that by acceding to the church’s excessive demands, he was failing to provide the basic needs of his family. At the next annual collection service, although he had the money in his pocket, he could not forget 1 Timothy 5:8. When his name was called out, he courageously informed the priest that his family’s needs took precedence. As a result, the couple was publicly belittled and berated by the church elders.
After studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, the man and his wife became publishers of the good news. Says the husband: “Bible truth has changed me. I am no longer cruel and harsh toward my family. I no longer drink excessively. People in my village can see the difference the truth has made in my life. I hope that they will come to love the truth as I do.”
The Quest Used in the Search
A few months after the Memorial of 2002, another sailing vessel brought some priceless cargo to remote Ha’apai. The 60-foot [18 m] yacht Quest from New Zealand plied its way through the islands of Tonga. On board were Gary and Hetty, along with their daughter Katie. Nine Tongan brothers and sisters and two missionaries accompanied them on two voyages. The local Witnesses helped in deftly navigating the boat, sometimes through uncharted reefs. These were not pleasure cruises. Those on board were there to teach Bible truth. They covered a wide expanse of ocean in visiting 14 islands. The Kingdom good news had never been preached in some of those islands.
How did the people respond? Generally, the seaborne preachers were met with a combination of curiosity, warmth, and traditional island hospitality. Once the islanders understood the purpose of the visit, they expressed deep appreciation. It was clear to the visiting Witnesses that the island people respected God’s Word and were conscious of their spiritual need.—Matthew 5:3.
Many times, the visitors would sit under tropical trees surrounded by people who had numerous questions on the Scriptures. After nightfall, Bible discussions continued in the homes. The people on one island called out to the departing Witnesses: “Don’t go! Who will answer our questions when you leave?” One Witness noted: “It was always hard to leave behind so many sheeplike people who were hungering for the truth. Many seeds of truth have been planted.” When the Quest arrived at one island, the Witnesses found everyone dressed in mourning garb. The town officer’s wife had just died. He personally thanked the brothers for bringing a message of comfort from the Bible.
Some of the islands were not easily accessible. Hetty explains: “One island had no convenient landfall, only cliffs rising several feet straight out of the ocean. Approach was possible only with our tiny rubber dinghy. First, we had to throw our bags to the many willing hands on shore. Then, as the dinghy rose up to the ledge of the cliff, we had to jump before it dropped down again in the ocean swell.”
Not all on board were intrepid seamen, however. After a two-week sail, the skipper wrote with regard to the return trip to the main island of Tongatapu: “We have 18 hours of sailing ahead of us. We cannot do it in one stretch because of the seasick ones. We are pleased to head home but also very sad to leave behind so many who have now heard the Kingdom message. We leave them in Jehovah’s care, with his holy spirit and angels helping them to grow spiritually.”
Islands Full of Promise
Approximately six months after the departure of the Quest, two special pioneer evangelizers, Stephen and Malaki, were assigned to preach in the Ha’apai island group. There they joined the two recently baptized married couples in teaching the Bible. Lively discussions on doctrinal matters are taking place, and the publishers are making good use of the Bible.
On December 1, 2003, a congregation was formed in Haʹapai, the fifth in Tonga. Among those attending are many children. They have learned to be attentive. They sit quietly and are eager to share in audience-participation parts. The circuit overseer noted that “their knowledge of My Book of Bible Stories shows that parents are taking seriously their responsibility to inculcate Bible truth in their children.” Clearly, those islands are full of promise for increased harvest of yet more friends of Jehovah.
More than 70 years ago, when Charles Vete translated the booklet Where Are the Dead? into his native tongue, Tongan, little did he realize the extent to which the Kingdom seed would take root in the hearts of his countrymen. From those small beginnings, Jehovah has continued to bless the ever-expanding proclamation of the good news in that corner of our globe. Today, it can truly be said that Tonga is among the remote islands of the sea that are turning to Jehovah, so to speak. (Psalm 97:1; Isaiah 51:5) The “Friendly Islands” are now home to many of Jehovah’s friends.
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Charles Vete, 1983
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Making tapa cloth
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The “Quest” was used to spread the good news in Tonga
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Translation team, Nukuʹalofa
[Picture Credit Lines on page 9]
Making tapa cloth: © Jack Fields/CORBIS; background of pages 8 and 9, and fishing: © Fred J. Eckert