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68 missionaries leave luggage in Kiribati to help Fijian nationals return home

Missionaries and Fijian nationals fill the cabin of an airplane.

Three hundred missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints returned home on April 4 from Tonga, Fiji, Marshall Islands and Kiribati due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the returning missionaries, 68 serving in Kiribati were asked to leave all their luggage behind in order for 11 Fijians to board the plane.

“No one questioned or demanded to have their [luggage]. We all knew that the situation of getting our luggage off Kiribati would be a long shot ... I am still in awe of everyone’s positive outlook as I reflect upon the experience,” said Sister Lori Stewart from Arizona who was serving in Kiribati alongside her husband.

Stewart said while waiting at the airport to return home, the mission president gathered all of the missionaries together to share his testimony and advice. “He told an old Chinese story of a man who kept saying after trials in his life, ‘It could be bad or good. Only time will tell,’” she said.

While boarding the airplane, Fijian nationals joined the group of missionaries on the flight. They had a flight on March 23, but it was canceled when Kiribati instituted “national self-distancing.”

She said, “They expressed gratitude and were very appreciative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helping them out and letting them on our flight.”

A lesson on sacrifice

About 15 minutes before the plane was to arrive, the mission president visited them at the gate. Stewart said, “We were all eager to hear from him one more time, but the news he shared was that all our luggage was not going to make it on the plane.”

Jeff and Judy Brock, a missionary couple from Georgia who served as humanitarian missionaries in Kiribati, said the flight was overweight. “In these little airports, they weigh your luggage, and they weigh you. They add it up, and it’s fairly common for luggage and people to be left behind.” That's why 68 pieces of luggage from missionaries on board were left, so 11 Fijians could get home.

According to The Fiji Times, Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said, “This good deed was a profound demonstration of what it meant to put humanity first and to have love and compassion for your fellow human beings, ‘not only in words, but in action.’

An elder and a sister missionary stand at the entrance of an aircraft.

“Thanks to their sacrifice, these Fijians are all safely back in Fiji, where they’ll be reunited with their families after a mandatory two-week quarantine.

“While this virus can shut borders, keep us at home and even take lives, it cannot rob us of our humanity. It cannot diminish the love we hold for others, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or the faith they follow,” said Bainimarama.

Elder Cole Young from Utah serving in Kiribati said he was sad to lose his souvenirs and memories from Kiribati because he wanted to share them with his family.

“Everyone seemed to take it with a really good attitude. It was a major tender mercy that we all felt okay with it,” he said.

Sister Nauvoo Arredondo from Utah had to leave her luggage behind as well. Arredondo said she was grateful she had a carry-on suitcase filled with souvenirs and some important things she brought on the plane.

“It felt like we were saying goodbye to our family again, like leaving for the MTC, but instead leaving our friends and families in Kiribati ... It’s as though I left my heart in [there],” said Arredondo.

The Fijian airline crew who brought them home had to be quarantined for 14 days, said Brock. She said they were aware of the sacrifice the crew was making, and the missionaries all cheered when the crew members entered the airplane. “We knew they would have to be away from their friends and family, just so they could get us home,” she said.

Until we meet again

Jeff Brock said they sang the hymn “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” on the plane in four different languages: Tongan, Kiribati, Fijian, and Marshallese. According to the Brocks, they spent most of the time waiting in the airport singing together to uplift and cheer one another up.

Judy Brock tearfully explained, “I can’t put it in words. It was very emotional to have all these young elders and sisters coming home from a place that they loved in service. It was wonderful to have it end on such a service note.

Missionaries say their goodbyes in the airport.

”It was a very spiritual, heavenly experience. You just felt like the Lord was calling all His missionaries home, every one of them that could come home.”

Elder Kamahiwa Kawaa from Hawaii served in Fiji. Kawaa said he had a strong prompting while waiting in the Fiji airport to say a prayer on the microphone. He said he felt it as soon as he entered the airport. “The feeling wasn’t going away,” he added.

He asked the first flight attendant who was standing at the door. “I asked, ‘Before we leave, can we pray?’ The flight attendant paused and then agreed. After the safety training, he asked me to say the prayer on the microphone.

“We were all feeling anxious … because we were leaving. So, it helped bring the Spirit to the flight and comfort into our hearts knowing that this is part of the Lord’s plan.”