Telling stories and missionary experiences from the life of Sela Feinga and her family through the play “Follow the Light,” performed on campus with an all-Tongan cast, said her daughter, Carol Feinga, brought their family closer together as well as BYU–Hawaii’s Tongan students and the local community.
The play follows the story of a young, struggling Tongan missionary communicating with Sela Feinga through letters. As he expresses the difficulties of being a missionary, she provides him with support and encouragement, even throughout the difficulty of her receiving her own mission call with her husband, Haunga, to a remote island in Tonga when they had a baby.
“I have heard the story time and time again,” said Carol Feinga about the faith-promoting experiences of her family. “But it really does make a huge difference to actually watch it. It really evokes a whole new level of appreciation and humility.”
She said watching and witnessing her mom’s reactions to the play were very special. While her mom visited with the cast and attended rehearsals, said Carol Feinga, all of a sudden, memories and feelings came back to her mom.
“She would be so emotional and cry many times. It took her to another place itself.” Growing up in the United States in Hawaii, Carol Feinga said the play helped her to connect with her culture and her father, who passed away years ago. “Everything was possible because of this faith. Truly, my family is where we are because of my parent’s faith and their sacrifice.”
Helping Tongan students
The Feinga family came to Laie from Tonga, she said. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when they were growing up here, Carol Feinga said her mom and dad would always care for the Tongan students at BYUH. She said they would refer to the students as the “kids.”
Watching the play, she said her mom recalled that time. “When she saw them, it reminded her of her experiences,” Carol Feinga added, and because her mom felt so grateful, she kept planning places to feed the Tongan cast of the play after rehearsals.
A missionary tool
Despite the love Sela Feinga has for the play, she didn’t always like to be in the spotlight, said her daughter with a laugh. “She kept saying, ‘I wish they didn’t do a play about me. Stop rehearsing. Stop the attention’.”
But at one point during the play rehearsals, Sela Feinga stood up in front of the students and bore her testimony of these precious moments in her life that included her husband, who passed years ago. Carol Feinga said the renewed feeling of faith and memories of her mission, inspired her mom to call her sister, her family and cousins, who are not members of the Church, and ask them to come see the play.
She said her mom wanted people to come because she intended to use the play as a missionary tool. Sela Feinga at one point said, “I hope the spirit would reach the people and maybe [take the attention] away from me,” added Carol Feinga.
Turning hearts to the fathers
There was a time during the play where Sela Feinga said she felt like her husband was there, said her daughter, and the experience brought the whole family together in prayer and fasting.
Carol Feinga said her mother’s grandchildren were able to watch the play and feel the spirit. “It was almost like they were watching their grandpa they had never met come alive again. It really connected them on another level.”
She said this experience fulfilled the scriptural promise of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers and their fathers to the children.
She said while no one really said it, she believes the spirit of families was strengthened through the play. She shared two characters in the play based on her brother, Elder Feinga, and her sister, Baby Sina, were not able to come for the play but always Face Timed during practices.
She said when the play was performed in the fall, her siblings “were so bummed that they couldn’t be here to watch it in person,” they decided to come home to Hawaii for Christmas. Carol Feinga explained shortly after their visit, her two siblings, and her brother especially, who had been away for more than 10 years with his family, decided they needed to move back to the island and be closer to their mom.
Both her brother and her sister were able to get jobs on campus. “Mom has all her children here now. She wants them to spend more time with the Tongan students too.” She shared her mom and dad would always have Tongan students over for dinner and would give them all the support they could. Carol Feinga said her mom wants her children to continue with that legacy.
Besides blessing the lives of her family and students, Carol Feinga said the play also had a big impact on the community. She said many Tongan community members attended the performance several times because they were reminded of “their culture, their homes and who they are.”
Several scenes in the play show women coming together and pounding tapa cloth, and Carol Feinga said this reminded people of their culture. “It is a place that allows women to interact with each other and talk stories forever. This is also where a lot of gossip happens,” she said with a laugh.
Origin of the play
When Jennifer Youngblood, a BYUH alumna and USA Today bestselling author, was a student, she lived in the same Laie ward as the Feinga family. While she stayed home sick one Sunday, she said her husband attended a fast and testimony meeting.
When he came home, he told her a story their friend Sina Feinga shared. She said when her parents were called on a mission to the remote island of Fotuha’a in Tonga, she was a baby. When they arrived by boat to the island, the water was so rough her parents were forced to throw her to people waiting on the shore to catch her.
Youngblood said writing the play “Into the Light” based upon Sela Feinga’s story was an answer to her prayers. The idea to write a play started when Youngblood, her husband and two sons decided to move back to Hawaii in 2008, so she could continue her undergraduate studies at BYUH.
“Attending college as a thirty-something-year-old who already had two novels under her belt” was an interesting experience, said Youngblood. She explained for her senior capstone project she wanted to write a play because she was mesmerized after watching a production of the stage play “All My Sons” put on by Craig Ferre, a former BYUH theater and speech professor.
“I had my directive, but I had no idea what I should write about. Nothing really stood out to me until my husband ... announced, ‘I found your story.’” Intrigued by the story her husband shared with her, Youngblood said she approached Sela Feinga and asked if she could tell her story. Youngblood shared Sela Feinga smiled and said, ‘I’ll think about it, Jenny.’
After several weeks, she said Sela Feinga approached her and said she had gone to the temple and received confirmation Youngblood was the one who was supposed to tell her story. “I was honored ... [and] flattered. There are some stories that are great because of the skill of the storyteller. And then there are those rare gems that are great because the stories themselves are so impactful. These stories need no embellishment.”
“Follow the Light”
Years later, BYUH Assistant Professor Kristl Densley worked with Sela Feinga and her family on adapting Youngblood’s play into the version that was performed on campus called “Follow the Light.” Portions of the play were translated into Tongan by Ana Feinga and Nofo Talanoa.
In the play, Sela Feinga received the mission call for her and her husband to go to Fotuha’a just a few months after Sina Feinga was born and after they had made great progress on building their dream garden with a white picket fence.
Kathy Pulotu, a BYUH institutional research & assessment manager and Sela Feinga’s niece, shared the fences Sela Feinga built in the play were very significant to her and her family. “They lived in a space where she always wanted the white picket fence, and they finally got it. Sela Feinga worked hard to make that happen for them, which showed the pieces of their lives that are constant and not ending, like their faith and everything else they did here.”
The play shows although the decision to leave their home and family and take their newborn child to Fotuha’a was difficult, Sela Feinga and her husband received confirmation from God they should serve anyways. Their family and friends were shocked but came to bid them farewell.
The Feinga family experienced many trials during their travels to Fotuha’a, including baby Sina Feinga falling ill, enduring big waves on the boat ride, and having to throw Sina Feinga up to the island. However, the family exhibited great faith in following God’s call to serve.
Additionally, shortly after Sela Feinga’s extended family saw them off to Fotuha’a, the very Tongan missionary Sela Feinga had been writing and his companion met her family in Tonga. The play implied these missionaries were able to teach them.
Meliana Helu, a junior from Tonga who studies history and education, played one such family member, Aunty Vicky, in the play. She explained how the audience helped her during her performances because they motivated her to be herself. “This play was for the audience, but really it was more of a dedication for our ancestors who paved the way for us and those who will come after us.”
Helu explained being Tongan is what makes up who she is and influences everything around her. “Being part of this play is a nice reminder, especially being away from home, of what it really is like to be a Tongan. It was really nice to also have the support of the community."
The message she said she wanted the viewers to take from the performance was the Lord qualifies those he calls. In addition, she said it “literally takes a village to raise a child, and that’s exactly how it was portrayed in the story.”