Three returned missionaries at BYU–Hawaii spoke of the importance of understanding culture in missionary work. They noted respecting and learning a new culture on their missions helped them feel happy and shared stories and gave advice for prospective missionaries at BYUH.
Called to serve
Seniloli Komaisavai, a junior from Fiji majoring in intercultural peacebuilding, was called to serve in the Australia Adelaide Mission in 2015. He said that, at first, the location did not excite him and he did not want to work in Australia.
A few years before receiving his call, Komaisavai and his mother worked in Australia. Eventually, Komaisavai said he discovered their manager had underpaid all of his employees.
“Seeing my mother struggle for hours in the sun on several acres of land day after day, only to be scammed in the end, was such a demoralizing experience for me,” he said. Disappointed and discouraged he said he vowed to never fly to Australia again.
After receiving his call, he said he went straight to his room and complained to Heavenly Father because the farm his mother had worked on was in his mission. “I didn’t realize why the Lord had called me there until much later,” Komaisavai said. He recalled feeling the Lord wanted him to return to the farm and work as hard as he did in the field. “He called me to serve, and I accepted it whole heartedly.”
Dalvin Keil, a junior from Western Samoa majoring in computer science, said he felt excited and overwhelmed when he was called to serve in the New Zealand Auckland Mission in 2018.
Growing up, he said New Zealand was on top of his “must visit” list. When he was called to New Zealand, he was overjoyed and excited to preach the gospel, he said. Being familiar with the food and serving in his native tongue made him feel like it would be the best two years of his life. “And it was,” he said.
Immanuel Susi, a senior from Oregon majoring in hospitality and tourism management, was called to serve in the Philippines Cebu-East Mission in 2016. “When I opened my mission call, I was overpowered by the Spirit,” Susi said.
He explained his parents were born and raised in the Philippines. “When I was called to serve in my parents’ homeland, it was a blessing and a miracle I did not expect.”
Susi stated he was the first member of his family to be baptized in the Church and the first to go on a mission. “It wasn’t even a full year after my baptism that I got my mission call. The only thing I knew was that I was called on by God to serve as a missionary, and I was super excited,” he shared.
His parents were disappointed with his decision to join the Church and serve a mission, he said, but knowing there were people waiting to hear the restored gospel message motivated him. “I wanted to find those families who wanted to be eternal.”
He prayed every day for his parents’ hearts to soften and for them to embrace the gospel, Susi recalled. “To finish off my missionary journey, I was able to be sealed to them for all time and eternity in the Philippines Cebu Temple.”
Be prepared to adjust
“Growing up, my parents would always try to teach me Filipino culture through language, food and stories, but it wasn’t until I was in the Philippines that I could experience everything firsthand,” shared Susi.
A family they were teaching invited Susi and his companion over for dinner during a Christmas holiday and spent all of their money and food to provide them dinner, he recounted. The dinner was simple, but meaningful, he said. “There was only one candle in the middle of the room, and it was the only source of light in the house.”
He would never forget the time he spent with them, he said. “They were not even members at the time, but they went out of their way to make us missionaries feel welcomed. That night, I saw the light of Christ in their eyes and the Spirit was very powerful.” Komaisavai remembered when he was called to serve among the Aboriginal Australians and their communities in the heart of Australia, also known as “the Bush,” he shared, “Everything was new and unfamiliar.”
Eventually, he said he fell in love with the people and their culture. “You learn so much from them because their culture is so rich. We did everything together, from hunting for food and eating together, to talking story under the stars at night.”
Keil stated it took him two or three months to adjust to Maori culture in New Zealand. He attended Maori institutes and marae, or meeting houses, he said. “I got to hear the people speak their native language and witness their traditions, their culture and their ancestors’ genealogy.”
Despite not understanding everything about the culture, Keil said he would always respect and admire it.
Susi said he appreciated the Filipino community’s sympathy and willingness to share. “People in the Philippines are always giving,” he explained. “Giving snacks, rides, time and energy to strangers and the people they love. They are so willing to give anything they own if they believe it will make someone happy.”
He said it was amazing how everyone was always willing to contribute to ensure that everyone was fed. Susi said serving guests and making sure they’re satisfied and happy comes first in Filipino culture.
Keil shared learning the tika tonu haka, or war dance, and knowing its roots is something he still treasures today. “The haka is performed for those who are about to embark on a journey,” he explained. “I enjoyed performing the haka because it helps me feel the spirits of our ancestors and allows me to connect with them.”
Through his mission, Keil said he learned people don’t need much to live a good life or to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. He cherishes the culture and the people of New Zealand because they made him feel like family and at home, he recounted.
Komasavai said sometimes people tell themselves they are not good enough or their life choices disqualify them from something worthwhile. “That isn’t true. Even at night, the moon is outshone by the thousands of stars, implying that even the major setbacks in our lives will always be overshadowed by the many decisions we have yet to make,” Komaisavai explained.
Advice to future missionaries
Susi said the most valuable piece of advice he could give someone considering serving is to be ready now, not tomorrow. “If you are thinking about serving a mission, do it.” He said it is important to be prepared to preach and invite others to accept and live the gospel.
Komasavai advised, “To those who are considering serving a mission or making a major life decision, let go and listen to the Lord.”
Keil said, “Learn to accept your mistakes and learn from them. Most importantly, lose yourself in the work. There is no greater joy on the mission than to do the Lord’s work, no matter where you serve.”