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Our Religious Obligation to be Educated

The first time I came to this campus, I was seven years old. It was nearly 50 years ago, April 1970. I don’t have any baby pictures, that’s a luxury most Tongans my age couldn’t afford. The only photograph of me as a little boy is this portrait taken in a studio in Nuku’alofa for my Tongan passport. My parents had immigrated from Tonga in 1969 to attend school on this campus, leaving me and my two younger siblings with our maternal grandparents until they could send for us.

President Russell M. Nelson has said that the pursuit of an education is a “religious obligation.” That’s a duty for all Latter-day Saints, but remember, President Nelson is not just the prophet of the Church, he’s the prophet for the entire world. It’s a religious obligation for Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and anyone who is a believer.

Here’s what the Lord said about our obligation to learn and be educated: “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130:18-19)

But the Lord also warns us that inherent in the learning process is a tendency to feel superior, elitist or somehow that we’re better than our fellow man. Jacob taught his family this important truth: “But to be ​​​learned​ is good if they ​​​hearken​ unto the ​​​counsels​ of God.” (2 Nephi 9:29)

This morning, I want to talk to you about our obligation to seek knowledge and an education.

My parents came to Laie in 1969 to access my mother’s academic scholarship out of Liahona High School, the Church-owned school in Tongatapu. They only had enough for their one-way fare to Hawaii, so we were left in the care of our grandparents. They naively assumed it would take only a few months to earn enough to send for all three of us. Little did they know the money they’d make dancing at the PCC was intended just to cover their most basic needs – food, electricity, and water. It took them an entire year to save for my one-way fare, so I came alone in 1970. My siblings didn’t come until 1972, so they hadn’t seen my parents for over three years.

Initially, we lived in a little home my parents rented in Hau’ula. One vivid memory I have of that house is that my mother had small, empty Gerber baby food jars all over the house filled with coins. They literally saved spare change to help in our immigration – but I suspect the reason my mother had those jars out so visibly throughout the house was to entice visitors to also share their change. My mother was incredibly smart.

But my dear mother, who passed away about seven years ago, would soon be faced with a dilemma that haunted her for the rest of her life: Choose between her children and her education.

My mother’s dream was to graduate with a teaching certificate, return to Tonga and teach at their alma mater, Liahona High School.

My father had other ideas. He wanted to stay in the States and pursue the American Dream. He prevailed on my mother to drop out of school, apply for resident alien cards, otherwise known as “Green Cards,” immigrate to the Mainland and work to bring my younger siblings from Tonga.

So here was my dear mother’s dilemma: Remain in school but not see her two younger children for another few years. Return to Tonga to be with her children, likely ending any hopes of ever graduating. Finally, Drop out of school apply for permanent visas, find jobs, and work to bring their children from Tonga.

With great trepidation, they chose the third option and with some reluctance, Mom dropped out, they sold what they could, packed up and moved out of TVA. We moved to Mesa, Arizona where my dad had a younger brother living in nearby Tempe. Without college degrees, my parents knew for the rest of their lives they’d be relegated to working menial jobs, often a couple of them, in order to make ends meet. They immediately applied for permanent US residency, which took a couple of years but it happened. Our green cards arrived at about the same time my siblings did, roughly three years. Our piecemeal immigration took 3.5 years for us to be reunited as a family. My parents were literally strangers to my siblings when they arrived from Tonga – so young they didn’t remember my parents at all, which was heartbreaking.

I am keenly aware that some of you are here under similar circumstances. I know there are many enrolled this semester whose families are living in poverty back home in Vava’u or Ha’apai, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Guam, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand or perhaps Vietnam. Maybe you came here alone or perhaps you’re newly married with young kids. Maybe you had to leave your children back home with family while you came to pursue your education.

I hope none of you ever have to face the dilemma of choosing an education or your children. In retrospect, there were probably ways they could’ve made it happen but they just didn’t know how. Today, the Church provides BYU–Pathways, IWORK, the Perpetual Education Fund and a host of other programs for anyone to pursue an education.

Though she never regretted her decision, my angel mother was nevertheless haunted by the fact she was so close to a university degree, yet couldn’t quite reach it. So, since a college degree wasn’t in the cards, Mom would make it her life mission to provide her children with the tools to be educated, with very limited resources. She didn’t have any savings but she paid her tithing faithfully, went to the temple and pleaded with the Lord to help her find a way. The Lord blessed her and us in miraculous ways.

My parents knew nothing about the NCAA or college sports. As I started to excel in football, it suddenly became clear to them that this was an avenue to pursue a coveted college education. Some of the top coaches from elite universities came to our humble home to recruit me. They all sat on my mother’s woven mats because we didn’t have furniture. They all made their pitch on those mats. My parents were intrigued by the American system that determined if you were really, really good at football, the university would pay everything: tuition, books, room, and board. What they call a “full-ride scholarship.” I wouldn’t have to fire dance, play the Tongan NAFA or sell pineapple delights, even if I wanted to. By NCAA law, I couldn’t work. When my father asked Arizona State’s head football coach, Frank Kush, in his broken English, “Coach, what my son need to come to ASU?” Frank Kush replied with a smile, “a toothbrush.” My father didn’t understand.

Until my mother whispered to him in Tongan, “Polosi fulu nifo… he means, Vai only needs his toothbrush.” My father smiled and said, “Oi aue! To to atu aa Amelika! How beautiful is America?”

We now faced a new challenge: qualifying me academically for those scholarship offers. My parents both worked long hours: mom as a factory seamstress and dad as a security guard. My parents were oblivious to my academic challenges. They never attended parent/teacher night because I didn’t bother telling them. Why would I? I was making C’s and D’s.

My mother had a visiting teacher named Barbara Nielsen. Sister Nielsen happened to be an English teacher at my high school and she was also the faculty advisor of the school newspaper. As I was excelling on the field, I was failing in the classroom. Sister Nielsen knew that. So she came to our home and told my mother, “Ruby, I want Vai in my English class. And I want him to apply for a reporter position on the school newspaper. It will help him with his grammar and I’ll teach him how to write. Unless he gets high marks on his SAT, I’m afraid he won’t qualify to any of those prestigious schools recruiting him.”

So, Barbara Nielsen came weekly, not monthly, but weekly. Together we read Dickens’ Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. We read Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” We also did a deep dive into Harriett Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” We didn’t just read these classics, Sister Nielsen wanted to have “conversations” about them. She expected me to follow and understand the plot, be familiar with the central characters, the protagonists and antagonists. She wanted to know my opinion on why the authors cast Pip, Scout and Uncle Tom as the protagonist in their stories… I don’t know!! I’m 16 years old!! I didn’t say it, I just thought it. I could not believe my dumb luck! My English teacher is my mother’s visiting teacher! I was a high school football star but when Barbara Nielsen visited our home, my mother insisted that I sit at her side like a five-year-old. In a word… it was humiliating. You think my mother cared? Not ONE bit.

Today, Barbara Nielsen is in her 80’s. I visited her a few years ago. She is the reason I qualified for BYU. She is the reason I graduated with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Barbara Nielsen is the reason I’m anchoring television news in Philadelphia, the fourth largest TV market in the country. She is why within a generation of my parents’ immigration from Tonga, we have reaped the rewards of an American education.

Because my angel mother didn’t know how to navigate the American college system, she prayed and the Lord sent her Barbara Nielsen. What are the chances that my huge public high school’s best English teacher and faculty advisor of the school newspaper would be in my ward? I believe Ruby Sikahema’s prayers made it so.

At this time in our lives, my father had drifted into inactivity from the Church, so my mother relied on ward priesthood leaders to help raise us. Ned Brimley was our home teacher. One Sunday I was passing the sacrament and I went into the foyer with a tray of water, we had already passed the bread. A woman was just walking into the building late so, I approached her with the tray and she took the water. Mind you, the bread had already been passed. Brother Brimley happened to be in the foyer with his young daughter. As I made my way back into the chapel, Ned pulled me close and whispered, “NEVER PASS THE WATER TO SOMEONE WHO HASN’T TAKEN THE BREAD. THE SACRAMENT IS SEQUENTIAL. I’LL EXPLAIN WHEN I VISIT THIS WEEK.” I did NOT know what the word “sequential” meant but I was intrigued.

Later in the week when Brother Brimley visited, he came with a lesson about how the earth was created in seven days and how God created it in “sequence.” God started by separating light from darkness, the waters from earth, plant life, animals and so forth before Adam and Eve. Then he rested on the seventh day. The creation was “sequential.” He explained the priesthood is also ordained in sequence. Aaronic before Melchizedek. Each office within those priesthoods is sequential, deacon, teacher, and priests. Elder, high priests, Bishop and so forth. It’s sequential. Faith precedes the miracle. Sequential. Baptism is followed by the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Sequential. The sacrament? Sequential. The bread is always blessed and taken before the water. Brother Brimley ended by searing these words into my heart as a 12-year-old deacon: “Vai, God’s House is one of order. He expects you to live your life with order; sequentially. Serve a mission. Go to college. Get married. Then have children. If you have children BEFORE marriage, your life will be out of sequence, out of order and you will have problems. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir Brother Brimley. I do.”

I understood the word “sequential” at age 12 in a powerfully personal and unforgettable way that many of my peers, even ones much smarter than me, could ever know it. Guess what? These lessons stayed with me. In time, when I was on a date with a cute girl, I remembered, “Sequential. College. Mission. Marriage. Children. College. Mission. Marriage. Children.”

I was an adult before I fully appreciated how many incredible teachers were in my ward. We had meager resources yet my mother’s faith opened the windows of heaven.

At age 14, I was assigned as the junior home teaching companion to Marty Klein, who was the librarian at my school. Marty was a Jewish convert from New York, who joined the church with his wife, Mary Ellen after visiting the church exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

The Kleins moved to Arizona so Marty could get his Master's degree at Arizona State. I loved home teaching with Brother Klein because he drove a big Lincoln El Dorado, which had air conditioning. Neither my home nor our family cars had air conditioning. So Marty would let me turn all the vents towards me as he drove and I would crank the air on full blast. If you’ve ever been to Arizona in August, you will appreciate what I just told you.

One night we visited a single mother in our ward who lived in an apartment complex. I’ll call her Sister Smith. When she opened the door, it was clear she had been crying. She invited us in and asked to speak to Marty alone in the kitchen, so I played with her young children in the family room and watched TV. After an hour they both came to the living room. Sister Smith turned off the TV and Marty asked me to give a closing prayer. As we quietly walked to the car, Marty informed me that Sister Smith had requested that her name be removed from the records of the church. He asked me if I understood what that meant. I didn’t. So Marty explained. Then Marty asked me if I was familiar with the word “confidential.’ I said “no.” Marty explained that confidential meant a secret, and what he had just told me would be kept between us, Sister Smith, the bishop and the Lord. For the foreseeable future, Sister Smith’s only contact with the church would be our monthly visits. So he asked me if I would be responsible to make our monthly appointment with Sister Smith, who was willing to accept our visits. It seemed a monumental task in light of her new circumstances. Words can’t describe how Marty Klein empowered me that night in my mid-teens to keep something confidential and with a sacred assignment of making a monthly appointment with this dear sister, whose only contact with the church would be our visits. For the next two years, I called her every month, she accepted our appointments, and we saw her regularly.

I don't know what happened to Sister Smith, but here is a postscript on Marty Klein: 40 years had lapsed and I often wondered if Marty was still alive, and if so, where. I found Marty and Mary Ellen retired and living comfortably in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Sadly, I also learned the Kleins had left the church 20 years ago. I flew to Florida to see the Kleins for a weekend. We attended a spring training baseball game. I told the Kleins I’d treat them to their favorite restaurant. They took me to the Golden Corral. I flew home on a Sunday afternoon, so I asked the Kleins if they would forget whatever happened or whoever offended them for a day and accompany me to the sacrament meeting at Ft Pierce Ward. They agreed. In tears, I told Marty how grateful I am that he saved me as a kid when my dad was not active in the Church. But I was heartbroken he and Mary Ellen were estranged from the Restored Gospel. I introduced them to their bishop.

And guess what? The Kleins went back to Church and when Marty died a couple of years ago, he and Mary Ellen had ward callings and temple recommends. We saved each other when one was weak and vulnerable at different times in our lives. It reminds me of this charge from the Doctrine and Covenants: “And if any man among you be ​​​strong​ in the Spirit, let him take with him him that is ​​​weak​, that he may be ​​​edified​ in all ​​​meekness​, that he may become strong also.” (D&C 84:106)

My parents couldn’t afford private schools or even private tutoring. Yet, Barbara Nielsen, Ned Brimley, Marty Klein and a host of others, answered my mother’s prayers that her children would be educated.

It pained both my parents that they struggled financially and we often needed a food order from the bishop’s storehouse. When we did, Mom insisted we clear our calendars on Saturdays so we could all go work at the bishop’s storehouse. But that created a problem with my high school football coaches’ because we played our games Friday night and they expected us back in the facilities Saturday morning for a light workout and to watch the previous night’s game films. It was mandatory. I was the best player on the team, a team captain and leader so the coaches depended on me to be there. Yet, I was embarrassed having to explain to the coaches that my family accepted church assistance and my mother insisted I spend my Saturday's sweeping floors and stocking shelves at the bishop’s storehouse. Then one day, my mother showed up at school and asked to see Coach Peterson, my head coach. I was mortified. Slowly and with firm determination, mom said, “Coach, you have Vai Monday through Friday. God gets him Sunday. He's mine on Saturday. Is that clear to you?” From that day forward, the coaches showed me the game film on Monday during my lunch hour.

My mother’s prayers were being answered in miraculous ways.

My siblings, Lynette and Kap, traveled from Seattle and Salt Lake to be here. I am so proud of them. Lynette is an English teacher and administrator in Seattle who will receive her Ph.D. in August in education. Kap is an accountant and high school football coach in Salt Lake. Like me, Kap played football at BYU where he graduated in finance and also earned a Master's in Public Administration. Our mother was just as proud that we graduated from seminary, we all served missions, married in the temple and firm in the faith. Another extraordinary thing in our family is that ALL of our children, have either graduated from college or are in the process. All our in-law kids are college graduates. One of my sons, LJ, is here with his wife Kaylie and our three grandsons. Kaylie graduated from BYU in English and expecting number four in June; LJ just graduated from BYU Law School and is studying for the bar exam next month.

Last night, we met with President and Sister Tanner and we want to announce we’re in the process of establishing two scholarships here at BYU­–Hawaii in my mother’s name and also my wife Keala’s mother’s name – the Ruby Sikahema and Dorothy Heder Scholarship. Last year, we created the Vai Sikahema Foundation in Philadelphia and last night, our foundation made the first installment payment towards those scholarships. Once funded, they will in perpetuity pay tuition for worthy students from Tonga and here in Hawaii on the very campus where nearly 50 years ago, my mother had to drop out. I hope it pleases them.

I close with this counsel from Pres. Nelson: “Because of our sacred regard for each human intellect, we consider the obtaining of an education to be a religious responsibility. Yet opportunities and abilities differ. I believe that in the pursuit of education, individual desire is more influential than institution, and personal faith more forceful than faculty.

…Our Creator expects His children everywhere to educate themselves. He issued a commandment: “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” ( D&C 88:118) And He assures us that knowledge acquired here will be ours forever.” ( Where Is Wisdom, President Russell M. Nelson)

My dear young friends, I pray for your success. That with your degree in hand, you will go build the Kingdom, whether here or abroad. Remembering always the BYU motto: Enter to Learn; Go Forth to Serve. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.