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Two sister missionaries, unable to return home due to COVID-19, foster faith by attending BYUH

landscape shot of two sister missionaries holding up shakas and smiling on BYUH grounds with green grass and palm trees behind them
Dorothy Tonga and Asena Kisepi before they were released from being missionaries.

Unable to return to their home country of Tonga due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sisters Dorothy Tonga and Asena Kisepi, missionaries at the Laie Temple Visitor’s Center, have been attending BYU–Hawaii as students and full-time missionaries since Winter Semester 2021. On Oct. 8, Tonga was released from full-time service, and Kisepi was released the following Sunday.

Tonga shared, “The only difference we feel is we don’t wear our name tags anymore, but we strive to serve the Lord no matter what circumstances we are in.”

Kisepi said, “I knew this day would come, but I know my name tag will be embedded in my heart. Once a missionary, always a missionary.”

Sister Tonga, who started her mission in December 2018, said the ordeal has been hard but spiritually rewarding for the both of them. “Balancing academics and spirituality is very difficult. But we both learned God wouldn’t give us anything we would not be able to overcome. With that mindset, it has really helped us to find joy in this weird, unique situation we’re in.”

Strength from beyond the grave

portrait shot of two sister missionaries standing in the Stake Center chapel at BYUH wearing masks and one of them holding a Book of Mormon
Both of the sister missionaries lost family members while serving.

Sister Tonga, a freshman majoring in biology, shared they both have family members who passed away while serving their missions. Sister Kisepi, a freshman majoring in computer science, shared of her father’s passing and how it has strengthened her faith during her mission. “I have a strong testimony of the temple and I can feel my father’s spirit [whenever I am on] the temple grounds.”
Sister Tonga said her faith helped her to grasp the passing of her grandparents. “I said to myself, if God takes any of my family members while I’m away, I’ll be okay with it.” She said she took both of their names to the temple for proxy baptisms and learned “no sacrifice is too great when it comes to the people you love.”

Connect and relate

Sister Tonga said attending school as a missionary has given her more empathy for college students. “I feel like the Lord put us in their shoe. I now understand it is hard being in college, and even raising families. There’s so many things you have to worry about. Being a student missionary has helped us to connect with other people.”

Sister Kisepi said, “Being able to relate to the [students] is very important. We can help them with their spirituality [since] we’re going through the same things as them.”

Sister Tonga said the pandemic has caused tribulations for everyone in different ways. She said this perspective allows them to look outside of themselves and better serve the students. “Knowing other people are struggling has helped us to not focus on our own situation, but to look outward and see there are other people who are having a harder time.”

landscape shot of two sister missionaries holding one Book of Mormon together out in front of them and smiling on BYUH grounds
Sister Tonga and Kisepi said they decided to start attending school after receiving encouragement from their families.

Cris Wilson, a sophomore from California majoring in vocal performance, said the sisters’ friendly and fun countenances helped him to feel welcome at BYUH. “Being Polynesian, I felt like a fish out of water because I grew up in California and I don’t speak Samoan or Hawaiian, but they helped me to feel comfortable with who I am.”

Wilson shared he has grown closer to them through work and church functions and even found out during a family history lesson he is distantly related to both of them. “I work as an usher for the night show, and Sister Kisepi would help us with ushering. Sister Tonga was training to become a dancer.”

Elder Guy Redder and Sister Karen Redder, senior missionaries from Idaho serving at the Laie Temple Visitor’s Center, expressed their joy in meeting Sisters Tonga and Kisepi at the start of their missions.

“They were very outgoing, had strong testimonies and were very dedicated to missionary work,” said Elder Redder, expressing his admiration for how much they have persevered through their ordeal.

“Anytime we talked to them, we’d tell them we’re praying for them, and they would always stay positive and say, ‘The Lord is in charge. He’s in control. All will work out fine.’” He said the sisters have considered their situation an opportunity to continue serving the Lord.

From serving to education

When their parents encouraged them to attend BYUH since they were serving in the area, Tonga said they both agreed it was a good idea. “[At first] we thought it was impossible, but nothing is impossible with the Lord.”

portrait shot of the backs of two sister missionaries wearing backpacks and walking down the hallway of the BYUH Stake Center
Dorothy Tonga and Asena Kisepi walking to class.

Sister Redder explained how she and other visitor’s center sisters occasionally acted as “surrogate companions” to Sisters Tonga and Kisepi while they attended their respective classes. “On the first day of school, I went with Sister Kisepi to chemistry and the teacher looked at me really weird and said, ‘I didn’t know missionaries could go to school.’”

Sister Tonga said despite not being together, their families have been engaged in their own acts of service. “They’re basically living their best life. No matter what situations they’re in, they’re content, happy and grateful they’re still alive and breathing, which has helped us to be grateful in our circumstances.”

She said they’ve found joy in fulfilling their family’s wishes to receive an education.

“I believe the big reason we accepted the opportunity to go to school and [previously] be missionaries at the same time is because we know since we can’t be with our families … we’re able to feel as if we are home by doing what our families would want us to do.” •