Jeff and Heidi Swinton, the mission directors at the Laie Temple Visitors’ Center, said they will miss their time serving with the sister missionaries, but said they were grateful to serve in an important area where they could introduce international people to the gospel.
According to Elder Swinton, “This Visitors’ Center is the mouthpiece. The temple can’t speak. People can’t even go into the temple, so we have to be the marketing arm of the church to share it and the people at the PCC [Polynesian Cultural Center] can’t talk about the church, so we are the only ones who can really be open about why we are here.
“BYU-Hawaii had a significant goal in educating 2,700 to 3,100 students from all around the world. The Polynesian Cultural Center has a purpose to preserve cultures of islands, but the church really isn’t in the business of preserving cultures of islands. Why do they have the Polynesian Cultural Center?
“Well, No. 1 is to provide employment for the students at BYU-Hawaii. No. 2 is to draw people to this side of the island so they get on the trams and come feel the spirit on the temple grounds. What’s the purpose of the Visitors’ Center? It is the crux of inviting people to feel the spirit and be interested in learning about the gospel. Everything else is sort of a gateway.”
The Swintons shared the influence a Visitors’ Center can have by spreading information about the gospel with others. Elder Swinton said, “We believe whoever walks on the ground, whether they come into the building or not, feels something.
“The church has told us about 30 percent of all the people who have joined the church had their first contact with the church at a visitors’ center. This is a door opener to people. This place has turned out to be a door opener to a quarter of a million people here. We will never know how many of them ultimately go the next step.”
He shared his testimony about the importance a Visitors’ Center has on spreading information about the gospel. “We really feel in our hearts that this Visitors’ Center plays a critical role when you have a quarter of a million people on these grounds and feeling the spirit. They go home with pictures of the temple, pictures of the Christis, pictures of themselves with sisters, and they will go home and see someone walking in their neighborhood wherever they are in the world with a badge on, and they will remember what they felt when they were walking on the grounds of the Visitors’ Center. This is the Lord inviting people to come to Christ.”
According to Sister Swinton, “We have worked extensively in a lot of church assignments and we have had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things, but what is unique about this experience and what I think I am going to take away from it is the opportunity to work one on one with so many people and to teach the gospel. Not just to visitors who come to the Visitors’ Center, but also to our missionaries from Korea, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines and America.
Helping people become aware
of the visitors’ center
Elder Swinton said by the end of May 2016, there was a time when the tour buses would bring people over to quickly take photos then leave. Elder Swinton said this bothered him and his wife, so they told a bus driver to go ahead and park and the tourists were welcome to use the restrooms. “Boy, that was a key. One bus driver said, ‘Restrooms, may I come in?’ and within 10 minutes, he was sitting in front of the Christis, listening to the message.”
He continued to describe how a lot of the tour buses brought over people who were tour groups from mainland China and people who didn’t have religious freedom. “They love the temple grounds of course. We find the Chinese people have a unique love for taking pictures of everything. Particularly those who are not Chinese, but have their picture taken in front of everything. Over the past year, we have had over 40,000 people from mainland China come here in the little buses that come park in the parking lot here.”
Sister Swinton shared how since going and talking to the bus drivers and helping them know they were welcome to look at the temple grounds, bus drivers from different groups came and brought people from a variety of different countries.
“Once you start working with the bus drivers and let them know they are welcome, and we worked really hard at that, even to the extent they were concerned that our senior missionaries who wore white shirts and ties were security guards and frightened them. So we switched and started wearing aloha shirts. It’s far more approachable, because that’s the way the island is.”
The Swintons also discussed the concern they previously had with people not using the tram from the PCC to the Laie Temple. “We changed the whole paradigm of that because all these people were walking by, but didn’t have any idea what this tram was all about. So we created a street contacting mentality. We pass out pass along cards in four different languages to invite people to take the tram.”
The tram typically starts at 3 p.m. and runs every 20 minutes to 6:40 p.m. Brother Swinton said, “We now send sisters at 12:30 p.m. to hand out the cards and help people know it’s offered by the LDS Church and ask people to consider taking the tram during the day.” He explained the problem being there were only two running trams and two drivers. “If you have more than 30 people, only 30 could come in at a time.”
Brother Swinton shared how they looked for a solution to the transportation problem. “We looked around the parking lot at the cultural center and saw white buses that were owned by a man who owned a limousine transportation company who contracted with the PCC to bring people from the hotels and different locations in Honolulu and primarily Waikiki to bring them to the luau and shows.”
He said he asked the owner what the drivers did during the time they were waiting for the shows to start. The owner responded ‘probably eating or sleeping.’ Elder Swinton asked if he could hire the drivers during that time.
He said, “We negotiated a deal and now we rent extra buses. So we have two trams and as many buses as we want at the peak times when we want more people. Instead of taking only 30 people, we can take maybe 110 people every 20 minutes.”
Sister Swinton commented on how the PCC helps draw people to temple grounds. “It’s missionary work, and the Lord prompts you to try this and try that and it all came that way. I think it was just waiting to happen. We worked very closely with the PCC, and they have been wonderful to us.
“We Invite them to get off and sisters are here to greet them. One of the problems we faced when we started doing this was we didn’t have enough sisters. I mean, how do you cover it? How do you put sisters on four vehicles and still have sisters there to invite people and have enough sisters here to receive them? We had a complement of 26 sisters when we arrived. That is how many we were entitled to have. We had about that time I think about 22 here and several of the sisters were serving elsewhere, rotating out in other parts of the mission. We talked to the Mission Department, so they could see what was happening. The increased our compliment now to 38, but we now have 39 missionaries. We now have enough sisters to be everywhere they need to be.”
Sister Edington from Las Vegas, who served with the Swinton’s for seven months, commented on their work saying, “They have made huge changes. I feel it’s always been tradition based and they were not afraid to knock down a lot of things to improve.
“There have been different things we have done with teaching online in the teaching center. The changes made there effectively reached more people and definitely the changes with the PCC thing are huge, like having more buses come. Since the Swinton’s have been here, more people have taken tours to the Visitors’ Center from the PCC.”
Sister Swinton said, “Anytime we can help people draw closer to Jesus Christ, whether they are members of the church or whether they are not even sure they believe in Jesus Christ, we feel our responsibility to introduce them and invite them to come unto Christ. That is what it is all about. Our part in the community is to kind of play that role.
“We do a lot of things here that we invite the community to. We have concerts, programs, all of which were designed to get people into the Visitors’ Center so they will feel something… and to have an opportunity to look at some of the exhibits, and if they’re members, to be reminded of what they know to be true. If they are non- LDS, and the majority of our visitors are non-LDS, most of the people who come walk in say, ‘What is this place?’”
Sister Swinton shared how people will always ask about the temple while driving along the highway and said she knows that is when they have been touched. “What we try and do is not only teach a principle, but before they leave, have them fill out a guest card with their home address, phone number, and hopefully check the box that they will be willing to talk to us on the phone or continue talking to missionaries who could visit them in their own area.”
A Humbling Experience
Before their calling as Visitors’ Center directors, the Swintons said they never really had interest to go inside one of the centers. “We have been humbled. We missed a lot because we didn’t come in. That was a mistake on our part,” said Sister Swinton.
Elder Swinton continued, “This Visitors’ Center has a magnificent impact and now a quarter of a million people have been here. The highest year they ever had was 135,000. For the past 12 months, we have had 257,000.
“It has helped us gain an increased respect for this place. This is sacred ground. We often asked ourselves the question, ‘Why did God build the first temple outside the state of Utah on a rock out in the middle of the Pacific?’
“I guess he could see some things that other people couldn’t see. When this ground was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant, he said, ‘May all who walk upon the grounds which surround this temple in the years to come feel the sweet and peaceful influence of this sacred and hallowed spot.’”
changes in Missionary Work
The Swintons said the church is making changes in using new resources in missionary work. Elder Swinton said, “The idea of knocking on doors is a thing of the past because people aren’t opening their doors.
“We are knocking on the computer as people are opening the computer. Last month we sent out 2,200 referrals to local missionaries at this Visitors’ Center: 2,200 referrals where people agreed through communication with our sisters to have local missionaries come and share a message.”
Elder Swinton explained how the internet can facilitate missionary work. He said Mormon.org can be used globally to provide people with a free Bible, and missionaries can use different resources in helping people become more aware of the gospel. When the sisters see these kinds of requests, “The goal is not to have the Bible sent to them but have local missionaries bring it to them. The next goal is, ‘By the way, we have another valuable book of scripture called the Book of Mormon. Would it be all right if missionaries brought that with them too?’
“If they can get the people to agree to allow local missionaries to come to their home to deliver the product and leave them a message about Jesus Christ, that is what we call a referral sent. Sisters push a button and everything they have entered into the computer about that person is sent as a text message to the cellphones of the missionaries serving in the area where that person lives.”
Advancements in technology also allow missionaries to connect with people around the world in a convenient way. Elder Swinton said, “Just in the last couple of months, we now have webcams. Our sisters now have been given authorization.
“The church has sent out a new letter to all the missions in the world saying we are introducing an idea called collaboration where sister missionaries in visitors’ centers can continue to teach people online and coordinate through teaching with local missionaries - and stay connected to the local missionaries and the people. Although they are not standing in the living room presenting a lesson, they can be teaching the lessons online or with Skype.”
He continued, “Although they are not going to the baptisms or in the living room teaching, they connect with these people, keep in contact, and they answer the questions. While the missionaries are teaching them at a local level, these sisters are answering the questions they have and staying connected with them.”
Difference Between a Mission
President and a Director
Elder Swinton, who previously served as a mission president in Southern England, said he did not expect to serve as a director for the Visitors’ Center. “We were sort of surprised, and I have been surprised at my perception of the importance of Visitors’ Centers.
“When we were in England, we started a Visitors’ Center on the London Temple grounds, but it wasn’t in a location where thousands of people stopped by. The London Temple was rather isolated.”
The couple said before arriving in Hawaii as the Temple Visitors’ Center directors, they had toured the grounds, but never went inside the Visitor’s Center. Elder Swinton said at the time it wasn’t important to them. “In a way, we joked that we have been punished and sent back to spend two years.”
Serving as directors of the Visitors’ Center is “different than being a mission president,” he said. As mission president, he and his wife would only see their missionaries twice a transfer with missionaries serving miles away from the mission home. “Here I am not their president. They still have a mission president. But when they are called, their call letter says, ‘You are assigned to the Hawaii Honolulu Mission with your primary responsibility to serve in the Laie Hawaii Temple Visitors’ Center. You are to report to and take counsel from your visitors’ center director and your mission president.’
“I come now with having the experience of being a mission president, and I work every day hands on with the sisters. You become so much more close to them. So much more attached. It becomes a little emotional. We hate to see them go home.”
Sister Swinton explained why their connection to the sisters is so strong. “We live with them. We live in this little compound up on the hill by the temple where we all live by each other, and so if they need anything, they are knocking on my door. That connection is so different from any other assignment. We are just with them all the time - all day long.
“There is this community of missionaries where we are all part of the same whole. We are all working together, and it’s a unique assignment in that way. Every visitors’ center is different. They all have a different group that they draw from, but this is a particularly satisfying one because we are so close to each other and we have so much in common. We just get up in the morning, do the Lord’s work, and go to bed at night. It’s been a great blessing.”
Elder Swinton said, “Our goal for each of these sisters is not how many people they baptized. Our goal is to send them home having learned everything the Lord would have them learn in these 18 months of their service, so they are better prepared to go home and be wives, mothers and church leaders and build upon what they gathered here.”
Sister Swinton said, “We learned when the Lord asks you to do something, that’s what you do and you give it everything you got.” The couple said they are not thinking about what they will do when they return home. They are still focused on running the Visitors’ Center to run and working with the missionaries.
They said they had five sons and never raised any girls, so working with the sister missionaries was a brand new experience for them. “We are sort of learning how to be parents of girls. In a lot of ways, we are parents here. We are trying to help them along their paths of life,” said Sister Swinton.
The Love of Service
Sister Swinton said she enjoyed her time serving at the Laie Temple Visitors’ Center and described it as being different than what she had expected.
“I really appreciated that it’s not a lot of big meetings and not a lot of big organizations as much as it is one-on-one time with individuals and helping them grasp the significance of the doctrine and helping them to really appreciate and draw upon the atonement in their life,” she said.
Brother Swinton shared, “It gives you an opportunity to bear witness so you know the spirit can touch their hearts. You don’t have very much time. We only have a short time with people, so we have to make the most of that time with our guests and with our sisters.
“We get to watch them grow and develop through the mission. We plan trainings that will help them, spend time with them and take them to lunch. You really get to know people. It’s that one-on-one I have really enjoyed with this particular assignment, which I feel really made the difference.”
Sister Elden from Colorado who served with the Swinton’s for 14 months, said, “Looking at the Swinton’s life, you see so much success and so much devotion they paid to the church. They have had struggles in their life. They have had difficulties, but they always understood that their calling comes from God.
“They always value their relationship with God. They have done the same here, and it’s been really cool and valuable as a sister missionary to be able to work closely with them and see how as a companionship, the two of them are always putting God first. Every decision they make has this perspective of eternal consequence in their relationship but also in the Lord’s work here at the Visitors’ Center.”
Another missionary, Sister Edington, said, “No matter what in their life, they are putting God first in front of any other relationship. They are so focused on their work and passion about what they do, and they are really willing to sacrifice anything in their personal life to just get the work done here and improve it.”
When the Swintons return home to Colorado, they said they will continue to serve and do whatever the Lord requires them. Sister Swinton, who has written documentaries on the Prophet Joseph Smith and the movie “The American Prophet” shown on PBS, said she hopes to write more documentaries.
NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Jan. 2018 print issue.