The Fire of Faith is a treasure of a book. It is the much-anticipated continuation of Elder John H. Groberg’s story as a missionary in the tropical islands of Tonga. His first book, originally published as In The Eye of The Storm, led to the creation of the motion picture, The Other Side of Heaven, a gripping account of his teaching and travel throughout the islands. Amid the adventure of that account – nearly drowning, suffering famine and hurricane – he is divinely enabled to find the “eye of the storm,” a place where he feels the cradling hand of God. Here he was profoundly changed and endearingly connected to the loving Tongan people. The Fire of Faith begins over a decade later when Elder Groberg is asked to return to the islands with his family to serve as Mission President. In May of 1969 President Groberg and family watched as the first astronauts to orbit the moon re-entered the earth’s atmosphere somewhere in the South Pacific close to American Samoa.
“From where I was standing the faint outline of that lone fishing boat was right in line with the area of the capsule splashdown…I was struck with amazement as I thought of those two separate worlds, which in some ways were so far apart, yet this night were so close together…I wondered: Which world am I in? Which world am I more a part of?’ I gazed into the heavens and seemed to feel the answer coming from everywhere: You are in God’s universe. He always has been and always will be over and under and in and through everything. His light permeates all existence and all people, be they American astronauts or Tongan fishermen. Everyone sees by the light of love, understands by the power of prayer, and moves by the fire of faith.”
So begins the account of Elder Groberg’s experiences from 1966 to 1978, including his continued service in the islands as a Regional Representative and eventually his call to serve in the First Quorum of Seventy, both of which kept him connected to his friends in the Pacific Islands.
The sequel is as engaging and inspiring as the first. It is a recollection of powerful impressions, seasons of learning and light. The Groberg family finds their souls ignited by the unusually strong faith that burns in the hearts of the islanders. Transcending time and place by retelling their experiences with tangible imagery and detail, Elder Groberg often describes the sounds, smells and sights that surround him. He makes reference to the calm or tumultuous seas, the smell of pigs roasting in pits, toa trees dancing in the wind, and of course the beloved faces of the Tongan Saints. He once described the “huelo oe la ‘a” (the sun’s afterglow) as a golden light that turned “mud into veins of gold; and a rundown hovel into a beautiful mansion.” The strength of his luminous descriptions draws you into each story, its people and purpose.
As time passes, a sense of peace settles inside Elder Groberg as he watches his family adjust to the rhythm of island life. “The Tongans loved them, and the feeling was mutual…I doubt there can be happy life without love, and the more honest the love, the more fulfilling the life.” While sitting in his office one day, he looked out his open door to notice one of his young daughters squash a cockroach with her barefoot and exultantly exclaim, “Got him!” Another daughter was regularly found sitting under a particular light, “trying to get her hair black like everyone else’s.” The Grobergs knew their daughters were definitely adjusting when one evening at dinner, one of the youngest said, “Please pass the blat.” Unable to say her “r” or “d” sounds, she was asking for someone to pass the bread. They quickly resumed English speaking at family gatherings to ensure their children were fluent in both English and Tongan.
In addition to the joy and humor of becoming integrated in a new culture, there were also the frustrations of leading a very wide spread and expanding mission. Relentless problems arose. Initially President Groberg lacked leadership assistance. He also knew the church needed to forge better relationships with government leaders. At times he struggled with feelings of inadequacy but found strength in the solace of personal prayer and revelation.
Primarily, the book deals with the faith of the Tongan people. Their faith literally prays Elder Groberg safely through treacherous waters to meetings, dedications, healings and blessings. When the life of their newborn son, John Enoch, is failing, it is the innocent faith of the Tongan people that brings Elder Groberg and his wife Jean, a sense of surety that their little one will live. All the islands become invested in the miracle of their little “Tongan boy.”
Not wanting to define their innocent faith as simple, Elder Groberg prefers to call it profound. Were faith simple, he says, by necessity, some other faith would have to be sophisticated. He plainly states that there is no simple or sophisticated faith, only faith or the absence of it. “The real power and influence that bears sway in this world, and which ultimately causes all good to happen, is the humility, the faith, the prayers, the love – indeed the very lives of the meek, those who truly believe in God and act accordingly…The meek continue to fan the fire of faith within them until it consumes all doubt, illuminates all truth, and enables them to accomplish God’s will.”
Gradually, Elder Groberg helps readers see the Tongan perspective regarding issues such as borrowing, law-breaking, and Sabbath observance. He introduces us to the beauty of a very close society – one that greatly contrasts with our Palangi or Western one. As he reconnects with old friends and loved ones, readers witness the sacred spirit-to-spirit communication he so frequently enjoys. “For long periods of time I could not speak I just looked at them…they understood.”
After being in Tonga for some time, the Grobergs are assigned to escort a number of Saints to the New Zealand Temple. For the first time, many of the Saints will fly from Fiji to New Zealand. As everyone straps in for the plane ride, President Groberg sees genuine fear in the faces of the Tongan Saints. To make matters worse, after takeoff, the plane is buffeted and bounced through layers and pockets of storm clouds. The Tongan Saints pray fiercely and clench their fists until the plane bursts through the clouds into welcome sunlight. The woman sitting next to President Groberg gazes out her window for some time, then turns to him and asks, “Are we in heaven?”
“I was going to explain about storms and clouds and airplanes and skies, but sensing her childlike faith and studying her believing eyes I replied: Yes, we are in a part of heaven. God is here with us. He has brought us through the darkness surrounding the earth and will stay with us to His holy temple. You have nothing to fear.’ Her whole body filled with a knowing smile as she gently nodded her head in deep appreciation.”
The heaven theme, introduced in his first book, persists into the sequel.
Elder Groberg consistently alludes to the indescribable sensation of finding paradise in this place that for him becomes the other side of heaven. When the first group of Temple-ready Tongans catch glimpse of the New Zealand Temple, they sing praises to God. “Thanks so much for bringing the Temple from heaven for us.” To them, it looks as if the Temple has come straight from heaven, hovering above the ground like a beacon against the darkness. Readers will sense that heaven does descend upon the islands as Elder Groberg and his missionaries help the Lord “remember those who are upon the isles of the sea.” (2 Nephi 29:7)
After planning for and miraculously carrying out a tremendous 50th Anniversary Jubilee Celebration for the mission, Elder Groberg remembers, “A soft breeze sent a quiet murmur through [the toa trees] on its way to the dark blue ocean beyond. I observed the large crowds of patient, awestruck Tongans and then remembered the brilliance of the costumes and the smiles and the order of the whole evening. I felt I was more in a part of heaven than a place on earth.”
Readers will be moved, touched, and moved again by the greatness of the people of the islands. One can’t help but think aloud – this truly is a marvelous work! As the terminus of his time as Mission President approaches, Elder Groberg reflects, “Little does the world know what is going on here; all this work, all this organization, all this effort, for what? To try to save people. This is the most important work going on in the world.”
Most appealing about Elder Groberg’s writing is his gentle and unassuming style. His tone is sincere, never didactic, always lifting and inspiring, never preaching or condemning. Warmth emanates from each story and transforms our hearts, creating within us a desire to carry a torch to the world. To do so, Elder Groberg says we must put pettiness aside and grasp the fire of faith – a power that is available to all of us. He testifies that the thing of greatest value on this earth is our relationship with our Maker, a thing that is nurtured by faith.
Elder Groberg successfully opens our eyes to the fiery flames of Tongan faith. His book is a joyous read, one that will stay with you for days after you have finished it. The Fire of Faith has the omnipotence of God is in its story, the echo of heaven in its pages.