An Unwelcome Goodbye

I knew that this moment was coming since the beginning of my mission. I knew that at the end of my 18 months I would eventually have to say goodbye. And yet it seemed so far away. Too far away. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. I said goodbye to friends and fellow missionaries, watching them get on their planes and leave forever. Until finally, the months had turned into a year and a half and it was my turn to get on my plane and to say goodbye to those who were staying.

Over the past few weeks I felt a sadness sink deep into my soul. Every now and then as we were sitting in lessons the thought would hit me that I was leaving, leaving these wonderful, beautiful people and I would have to fight back tears. During final farewell dinners, I tried to detach myself emotionally. It was easier and less painful. Goodbyes were often quick, tear-less occasions however internally, I was a soul filled with sadness. I refused to acknowledge my feelings and instead focused my time and energy on being busy as a coping mechanism.

My first few months in Kiribati were difficult. I yearned to be somewhere I couldn’t be- home. And now, to have come to the end of my time and to feel totally different is one of the many miracles of my mission. Kiribati has become my home and the people of Kiribati have become my family. My fellow missionaries were also a part of those people. Leaving them was like leaving part of my soul behind. These are people that I have laboured with, laboured for, served, helped, strengthened, comforted, encouraged, mourned for and mourned with. As I have done these things for them, they in turn have done the same for me. My experience was so much richer and more enjoyable because of the amazing people I met! They will forever remain in my heart and in my memory.

Saying goodbye wasn’t just to friends or family or fellow missionaries. I felt that in saying goodbye, I was saying goodbye to much more than that – a culture, customs, a way of life, an experience, a chapter in my life. I was also saying goodbye to myself. I would never again be Sister Lee, full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I would never again be the very same person that I was.

I will be forever grateful that God allowed me, such an imperfect, weak person to serve Him in such a capacity as serving as a full time missionary. To have met all those that I did meet. To have experienced all that I did experience. To have witnessed miracle after miracle each day. To have been loving tried and tested so that I could be refined. That refinement could have come in no other way. I will never regret it and will look back with love for the time that I was given to serve Him among the saints and the people of the beautiful islands of Kiribati abau ae tangiraki irou.

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Back On Tarawa

Well, it’s September and I’m back on Tarawa. Been back here now for about two months. Sister Boss and I found out that we were both leaving Christmas and it was a shock. I didn’t expect to leave that beautiful island at least for one more transfer. I felt like I was leaving my home and my family. During the three months that I was there I grew to love the members, our investigators, our friends, the place, the lifestyle. It was exactly where I needed to be at the time. I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity that I had to serve there and for all the amazing people that I met, for the experiences and the growth.

But now, I’m back on Tarawa and the timing was perfect. I was able to spend some time with some of my friends who were leaving, finishing their missions and going home. I’m currently working in the Eita 2nd and Moroni Wards and the work is going great! I’ve always heard a lot about Eita and how great it was and it’s all true. The area is special. I feel that every day as my companion and I work. I was with Sister Naivalu (from Fiji) for about a month and recently changed companions. I’m follow-up training Sister Lutui, who is actually my follow-up trainer’s (Sister Tutu’ila) child. And to make the world even smaller, Sister Lutui was a member of my SMYC (EFY) company (L-PHA) back in 2014! Yes, I feel old but I feel blessed. Working with Sister Lutui is great and she reminds me every day to look for the blessings and to be grateful. Time is counting down fast and before I know it this experience will be over so I’m choosing to be happy and make the most of it.

Kiritimati Island

I’m in my third area now – Tabwakea, Kiritmati Island! I’ve been here for about two and a half months. It’s a different experience to Tarawa. In fact, the population here is around 6,000 in comparison to Tarawa with a population of 60,000 on a land mass that is 6 times smaller than Kiritmati. There are 5 branches here whereas in Tarawa there are 13 wards (two stakes) with 2-4 branches. There are 6 missionaries here on this island, including me.

When I first arrived I needed to use the bathroom but there were no toilets at the airport. Yes. No toilets at the airport. So Sister Pilkington drove me a little ways away into the bush, gave me some toilet paper and hand sanitizer and off I went. It’s a different experience to Tarawa indeed but I love it and I feel in my heart that this is where I need to be.

My companion is now Sister Boss (woop woop) and we are working in two branches – Tabwakea 1st and 2nd. There were a set of elders who worked in one of the branches however they were transferred out to cover a different area. So the blessing fell upon us to cover both, and it truly is a blessing! We have been able to meet more members, both active and less-active, and investigators and get to know and help them. They are wonderful and I feel so blessed to be around them and to have an opportunity to work in this area. At first it seemed overwhelming and I was a little at a loss at how to work with both branches and ensure that both were getting equal amounts of attention, love and work but we were able to find a happy medium. The work is going great. We have some really great people we are working with and I can see just how much the light of the Gospel can change their lives for the better, giving them hope in a brighter future. Working with Sister Boss has been a great blessing also. It’s always hard changing areas or changing companions but once you get through that “adjusting” period, you grow to love it just as much as your old area which is what has happened for me.

During my short time here in Kiritimati I have learned so much about myself, about my journey, about my Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ. There have been trials and challenges; some from here and some from home. At times I have cried out in frustration, not willing to drink the bitter cup and questioning why it was given to me. However through these experiences I have learned faith. I have learned patience. I have learned that it is because of opposition and pain that we can grow. I can truly say in my heart that I am grateful for the challenges, the tough times, the pain. Pain seems to have been my friend these past couple of months and it is because of him [pain] that my soul has been carved out, that it might one day be as Elder Neal A. Maxwell says, the receptacle of joy.

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You’re On Fiji Time

A few months ago (April) I was told that I would be transferring from Teaoraereke, Tarawa to Tabwakea, Kiritimati Island. I was so excited but nervous but excited but still sad that I would be leaving my area, but even more excited. Kiritimati Island is the dream destination for missionaries. Ever since I arrived, it’s been a desire of mine to serve there. And it finally came true. I was told that I would be heading to my new area four days before I was due to fly out (“fly out” because in order to get to Kiritmati you fly from Tarawa to Fiji, stay over for a night and day and then fly from Fiji to Kiritmati). Those four days consisted of packing (I could only take one suitcase and had to leave one in Tarawa), saying goodbye and preparing myself for the trip to Fiji. I would be flying alone. Without a companion. By myself. In a foreign country. Alone. It was scary thinking about. I also had to come to terms with leaving my area, my investigators, the people I loved and also leaving my companion (who I had only been with for a short while – about four weeks) who I loved so much.

I did it. Monday came around and I boarded that plane, not without first saying goodbye to the two people who had become my parents while I was in Teaoraereke – Elder and Sister Olson.  Saying goodbye to them was hard. We had become so close and I didn’t want to think about the possibility that I might not be back to Tarawa to say goodbye to them once and for all before they finished their mission in October. But nevertheless, I was excited and the thrill of travelling had taken over me. I was excited for this new adventure and I was ready to leave Tarawa for the prospect of a new land, one that had been described in only positive terms. A land almost like that of the promised one to Lehi and his family.  A land with “milk and honey” or more American cargo from Hawaii.  The plane took off and I looked out of the window watching as the island paradise that I had called home this past year got smaller and smaller. I fought back tears as the reality of leaving hit me. In that moment I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay and be surrounded by familiarity – familiar places, familiar people, familiar missionaries, a familiar way of life. I continued to ponder more on these feelings and realised that around this same time last year I had begun my mission and had felt something similar. It felt like I was leaving home again.

I made a great friend on the plane. I actually forgot his name but we had a great conversation about the Book of Mormon and I was able to bear testimony of the truthfulness of the book. He was surprised that I could speak Kiribati and I was able to explain what I had been doing this past year on Tarawa and how I was able to speak his native language. He was a seaman and was returning to Japan. Many like this man, leave their families for about a year or so and return to visit, staying only for about a month. What a long time away from home for them however this is their life as they strive to provide for their families in what ways they can and making the sacrifices necessary in order to do so.

Arriving in Fiji was a nightmare. Well for me anyway. I drink a lot of water. About 3-4, 1.5L bottles every day and so by the time I had arrived and was waiting in the longest line ever, I needed to use the bathroom. However leaving the longest line ever would mean losing my place in the longest line ever. So I waited and prayed. While in line I met these two really nice YSA from Sydney, Australia. They had recently joined the Church and were in Fiji on holiday. Ned (my friend from Self-Reliance in Fiji) helped them find a motel to stay in and also helped me check in to the most amazing hotel ever, and then took us all to Burger King afterwards! It had been a year. And the taste of a Whopper after so long is something I will never forget. Burger King was Burger King. Amazing. Delicious. Delectable. By the time I got back, I was full but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to try the delicious food that was on offer at the 5,000 star hotel I was staying at. And the food was amazing! I felt like I was in a heaven of sorts. It was an interesting experience though, sitting in that hotel dining room surrounded my luxury and being waited on. I watched all the guests eating, talking and laughing and enjoying their night but I felt in my heart that I didn’t fit in. The food. The luxury. The service. It was all too grand for me and I felt uncomfortable. To go from a third world environment to a five star hotel was a nightmare. Some might think it’s a blessing but I felt like I didn’t belong and I yearned for the world I knew, where I felt comfortable and where I had a place. I looked around and wondered at my feelings. I was surrounded by more people of my own skin colour than I had ever been before this past year and yet their conversation, their culture and their way all felt foreign to me. I was a fish out of water.

After dessert I went back to my room and showered. It was the first time since leaving the MTC that I had a hot shower. I stayed in there for about half an hour just standing under the hot water. I had three more showers the next day. That night I went to sleep alone for the first time in a year and it was so lonely. I didn’t enjoy being alone at night at all. I usually like pillow-talk before I sleep, as my companions will attest, but no one was there to talk too. And so I improvised, eventually falling asleep to the sound of a soft hum from an electronic device attached to the wall.

The next day I was up and out and about exploring Nadi Town. I caught the bus from the bus stop right outside of the hotel. The fare was only $1.00! Arrived and headed straight for the Handicraft Market. Biggest mistake of my life. The store owners were so pushy and assured me that I was free to just look around without any pressure to purchase anything however they followed me everywhere. I was only in that area for about half an hour but by the end of it I was exhausted and wanted to get out of there as quickly as I could. As I was walking down the street these two men approached me. They began talking to me and I didn’t think anything of it. I thought that they were just members or good upstanding citizens trying to help me out. I was wrong. I had told them about my ordeal at the Handicraft Market and asked if there was another one I could visit because I really wanted to buy something from Fiji as a souvenir in remembrance of my one day there.  They suggested a store around the corner and offered to guide me. Just at that moment a nearby man who had been watching the whole interaction had stepped in and began talking with me. He introduced himself and said that he was a member of the Church. At that point the other two men walked away. The man explained that those two were cons and encouraged me to stay away from them and anyone else who might offer assistance. I realised then that I was in a different world than the one I had come from and was in transit to.  The people of Kiribati are so kind, especially to foreigners. They would never intentionally hustle tourists or anyone for that matter. I wanted to go back, back to my island home, back to a world of safety and love. I was so blessed that my friend helped me and I know that Heavenly Father was looking out for me. After that morning’s fun in Nadi Town, I was exhausted and ready to go back to my hotel to eat more delicious food and study Lehi’s dream. And that concludes my Fiji adventures.

Photo Blog 3

Photos from the last few months.

Meet “Betty”, my assistant, a.k.a. Sister Lata (who is from America and is of Samoan ethnicity). Sister Moungatonga left me a few weeks ago and went to rough it in Tarawa Ieta (she’s doing great by the way. We manage to catch up every now and then and she loves Tarawa Ieta – Tarawa Ieta is more of an outer island and one of only two that sister missionaries can serve in). She’s from Los Angeles, California and has the BEST love story ever. Seriously the best. She’s so funny and it’s been great being her companion. She is always ready and willing to carry my camera bag anywhere and everywhere. She loves being my go to girl when I’m trying to capture some shots and she even gave herself the nickname of “Betty”. It’s one of her many aliases. She’s teaching me a lot about love and kindness and every day we’re strengthening the sisterhood between us. I feel so privileged to be her companion and to get to know her.

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This is Anatita. We had started teaching him about a week ago. One day, as we were leaving a lesson we saw him sitting on his buia. He was reading a book of Bible stories. I have the same book (I got it from a member and use it to study Kiribati) and became excited. We talked with him for a little bit and we invited him to hear our message. He invited us to share it and so we hopped onto his buia and went from there. In our next appointment we taught him about The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith. When sharing about the Book of Mormon he was sceptical but said that he would read it. We bore testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon with everything that we could. We all shed tears, even him. He is sincerely seeking the truth, which is evident as we sit and talk with and teach him. Just recently we returned to follow up on his reading and discovered that he had already begun reading and was about to finish the Book of Alma! I was shocked. Pleasantly shocked. He’s going to Abaiang for a few weeks and will be back in the first week of May, so we’ll catch up with him then and see how he feels about the Book of Mormon.

pb1Guess who is back on Tarawa? It’s Elder Jim! He came in from the Christmas Island region and is working in Temaiku. It’s on the total opposite end of the island and I’ll only see him once in every month but it’s better than nothing. I think that’s one of the great miracles of serving a mission – the people you enter the MTC (Missionary Training Centre) with becoming your family. Elder Jim’s doing great and is still being a little heartbreaker. I catch up with Elder Tuikolovatu every now and then but haven’t seen him since Christmas. He’s on Maiana right now, which is an outer island and is doing some great work there.

pb2Sister Tuilotolava is leaving! Right now, she only has one more week left and then she finishes her mission and will head back to the friendly islands of Tonga. Time has honestly gone by so fast. I will always be grateful for all that she taught me during our time together. There were definitely hard times in Bairiki but we got through. She had a strong work ethic and always had a smile on her face despite the challenges.

My mum was kind enough to send a few things in a package and one of them were some facial cleansing masks. Oh how blessed we were that night! The next day my face felt so supple and smooth, like a newborn baby’s bottom. The only downside was that when we put them on we looked like we were characters from a horror movie. They were actually pretty scary to look at, as you can see… but worth it nevertheless.

pb6Sister Lata trying to recreate our facial cleansing masks with a tortilla.

pb5General Conference companion photo! I really enjoyed General Conference this April. I’m not sure if it was because I was more prepared and more earnest in my search for answers to the questions of my heart, but I just felt like I got so much out of it. I felt so much gratitude for the preparation of the various speakers, organisers and all those who assist in the success of this great event. Here in Kiribati, weeks before General Conference (we watch it the week after America does) translators are working so hard to translate the various talks into Kiribati for the two stakes here on Tarawa, as well as the Temaiku District (the Stake Presidencies will take the General Conference recordings to the outer islands over the next few months). It’s a pretty crazy time for them. They play General Conference in the chapel with the Kiribati translation and then have two other rooms in English. We watch both the morning and afternoon sessions one after another, with a ten minute break in between. By the end of it, all I want to do is sleep – a long, never-ending deep sleep. But it’s great and I find that I’m surprisingly more awake than I would usually be during the afternoon sessions at home.

pb7Remember Sister Ukenio? I worked with her for a few weeks in Bairiki before she was transferred to Betio. She was waiting for her visa to work in the New Zealand Wellington Mission. Well, she’s there now! If you see her around, give her some love. She’s a really sweet sister and she will be a blessing to the mission there.

pb8The Battle of Tarawa is quite a significant battle in World War Two history and this building is one of the few ruins that still exists from it. It was used as a communication centre for the Japanese. It’s actually right next to one of our chapels in Betio. A few P-Days ago Sister Lata and I caught the bus to Betio to explore. I wanted to walk up the stairs and have a little look around but there was faeces everywhere so that stopped me right away. I remember watching a few documentaries and movies about the war in the Pacific but serving here, among ruins from one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two is something else. These ruins have a rich history but now they stand more than 72 years later, as a silent reminder as people use them to defecate.

These few photos are from the Japanese barracks a few metres up the road from the communication centre.

Just so beautiful!

pb15Piggy in the bag! We visited the Atanimans (my family from Bairiki) after our visit to Betio and saw that they had a baby pig in a rice bag hanging off a branch. I only noticed it because I was standing next to it and it started to move all of a sudden, giving me a small fright.

pb16We were waiting at the chapel for one of our investigators to meet us for our lesson and I saw this man walk out of one of the rooms. I really loved his necktie and told him so. He was really grateful and saw that I was holding our phone in my hand. He told me to take a picture of him so I pulled out my camera instead. I couldn’t take it with the phone because it’s not very capable. So after I took his picture he told me to put it up on Facebook. I tried to explain that I couldn’t because I wasn’t allowed, so he told me to give it to his niece to put it up. Haha. He really wanted his picture on Facebook. I really did like his necktie though.

pb17We have a new job on Thursdays… teaching the little primary school kids. A week or so ago these little kids from our ward told us about “Taekan Te Aro” which is a time every week where various teachers from different churches come and have story time or churchy time. They asked us if we could come, well actually, they more like demanded that we come. I told them we’d think about it and get back to them. I forgot all about it until they knocked on our door Thursday morning. We ended up going and singing a few primary songs from the Church and reading the Book of Mormon Stories. They’re good kids, just a few bossy ones among them. One thing’s for sure – they’ll definitely help me learn patience.

pb20This is Kantara (our friend from Teaoraereke 2nd Ward) and his fiancé! They just got engaged. In Kiribati culture, when a woman is engaged, there’s a special ceremony where they decorate her hair with hairpins or adornments.

Photos from Easter Sunday

Meet my little friends from Church and from around. Whenever I go past their houses they always enthusiastically wave and scream out “Sisters” or “Mauri”. I know I probably shouldn’t but I love giving them little hugs and kisses every time I see them. But they’re little teases though.

pb25Sister Lee & Sister Lata

The Woman I See

A few weeks ago I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise my own
face anymore. It has changed so much this past year and so has my
body. I became a little bit down about the extra weight I had put on
and overall unhealthy look in my skin, my eyes, my hair and my body in
general. I sat down on a chair and hung my head low. I looked down at
my feet and something began to stir within me. I saw tan lines and
mosquito bite scars and thought about all that my body had gone
through as I’ve been serving. And so came the inspiration for this
piece; this piece that I want to dedicate to the sister missionaries
serving here in Kiribati and women everywhere who may be experiencing
something similar.

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“The Woman I See”

There exists a doctrine in the world that “beautiful” is tanned brown
skin, paper thin, and a face so full of make-up that you can’t see
what it’s actually made of. This doctrine seeps into magazines, movie
screens, advertisements on T.V. and every teenage girl’s dreams. And
every woman’s too.

And so there stands one, in front of some reflective glass, beholding
the face and body of a woman who has spent this year past, in a
different world where to be “beautiful” is none of those things that
seep into every teenage girl’s dreams. And every woman’s too.

And yet the old deep doctrine of the world she thought she left behind
begins to creep into her mind with its “beautiful” lies like that of
grape vines. She gets twisted and tangled, ensnared and starts to
fall; fall into the belief that she’s not beautiful, no not at all.
She has lightly tanned but fair skin, is not paper thin nor does she
cover her face with a mask of make-up every day.

A voice comes to her mind, “But you are beautiful to me,” and so she
wants to believe but cries out in agony, “Father, I cannot see.
Please, would thou help me?” Then her Father whispers to her, “Come,
my daughter I will show thee, the beauty I see, that is truly within
thee.

“See that woman standing there with the darkest brown, dry and brittle
hair. The woman with fat, sun-kissed cheeks and a curvy, well-fed
waist. The woman with scars all over her arms and unshaven legs from
tripping over her calloused feet. With fresh mosquito bites to
complement.

“The woman with lightly tanned but still fair skin, who is not paper
thin, with no face full of chemical cake to cover up her original
make. The woman who has sacrificed so much at my call to seve me
faithfully in a place that is not first world at all. The woman who
has given up her vanity in an effort to give her whole soul to me.
That is the woman I see and who is ever so beautiful to me.

“The woman with plain, torn, faded, hand-me-down clothes. The woman
who I will one day crown with a robe of righteousness as she has
honoured me throughout her diligent and faithful service and the
sacrifice of her body; that is not paper thin; that is not every
teenage girl’s dream. And every woman’s too. That is the woman I see
and who is ever so beautiful to me.

“See that woman standing there with that black badge over her chest,
with my Son’s name imprinted on it, standing out among the rest. No,
she is not perfect but one day she will be as she continues to serve
me loyally.

“And as for her body, it will one day be made perfect too and she will
finally be free of the false doctrine of beauty that exists in her
fallen world; singing a melody of gratitude and praises to me for the
wonderful, unique gift of her physical body. That is the woman I see
and who is ever so beautiful to me.”

And there that woman stands with salty tears in her eyes as she has
finally come to realise that she is beautiful inside. And out. Her
eyes were always open but they can only now see the beauty of the
woman staring back at her, ever so humbly.

There exists a doctrine in the world that “beautiful” is having tanned
brown skin, being paper thin, and wearing a face so full of make-up
that you can’t see what it’s actually made of. This doctrine is poison
and seeps into magazines, movie screens, advertisements on T.V. and
every teenage girl’s dreams. And every woman’s too.

However true beauty is none of those things that are only skin-deep.
True beauty is diversity – of all skin colours, body shapes and sizes,
and personalities. It is sacrificing vanity in an effort to serve a
loving Father in Heaven more selflessly. It is consecrating 18 months
in service of Him, as a missionary, preaching of His Beloved Son ever
so diligently. True beauty is virtue, kindness, chastity and charity
in a superficial world where it’s all about sex, fame and money,
money, money.

True beauty is there in us all if we but choose to see; that true
beauty that Heavenly Father sees in you and in me.

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