PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — A year has passed since four devastating tsunami waves — each 15 to 20 feet high — crashed into Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa, leaving death, shock and destruction on the South Pacific island.
And although Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) concluded its operations there in late July, American Samoans will not soon forget the dozens of yellow-shirted volunteers who — like the tsunami — came in waves from across the United States to rebuild their homes and share Jesus’ love and the gospel.
It was Sept. 29, 2009, when the tsunami waves — created by a powerful earthquake measuring 8.0 to 8.3 — hit the U.S. territory without warning. The tiny island, home to 65,000 people, is located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, a six-hour flight from Honolulu.
“The tsunami … changed our lives,” said Elise Tafao, director of missions for the South Pacific Baptist Association and pastor of Pago Pago’s Happy Valley Baptist Church. “God used this disaster to pave the way for many ministry opportunities. In spite of lost lives and displaced families, the disaster relief ministry brought hope and comfort to many families. It’s proven to be a blessing. The people here now know we’re Southern Baptists, not Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Tafao said the Baptist association is grateful for the 80 North American Mission Board (NAMB) and SBDR volunteers who spent at least a week serving in American Samoa. They came from Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah/Idaho, Virginia and Washington.
Terry Henderson, NAMB disaster relief consultant, said SBDR volunteers began landing in American Samoa on Oct. 13 and worked on 25 different homes, doing block-work, masonry and rewiring.
“We had five volunteers per team … (and) qualified for FEMA grants by agreeing to train five to eight American Samoan apprentices on each team,” Henderson said. “FEMA required us to rebuild hurricane-proof homes meeting Florida’s hurricane building code.”
Henderson called the American Samoan relief effort a “great success” but said mush more work remains.
“We also helped support the local SBC churches on the island, and helped them to be more recognized in the community,” Henderson said. “Before our response to the tsunami, our SBC churches had been in the background, compared to local Mormon and Congregational churches. That’s no longer the case.”
NAMB Mission Service Corps missionaries Randy and Ronda Corn of Horse Shoe, N.C., spent two tours on the island and, at the end, closed down the ministry July 29 during a six-week stay there. In addition to the Corns, other Southern Baptists serving as “incident commanders” in American Samoa over the last year were Russel and Clara Hohmann of Ogden, Utah; Larry and Elaine Koch of Taylorsville, Ky.; Leon and Sara White of Alabaster, Ala.; and Ed and Loretta Green of Rio Rancho, N.M.
“The needs there are still great, and we only made a dent,” Corn said, although SBDR volunteers recorded 2,571 volunteer days, ministered to 670 children — many who lost parents — purified more than 9,000 gallons of water and prepared 1,200-plus meals. SBDR volunteers and missionaries made nearly 1,800 ministry contacts, 180 gospel presentations and led 28 people in making salvation decisions.
Half of the people on American Samoa continue to live in FEMA-provided 15-by-15-foot tents or with other family members, Corn noted.
“These are expatriates who are not American Samoan citizens, so they get no help from FEMA. Without help, they’ll be living in those tents until the tents rot.”
Corn’s wife Ronda said her 11 weeks on the island were not enough.
“I hope God allows us to go back someday. We’re still in contact with the people there. It was such a rewarding experience. We were so blessed. The people of American Samoa are a very thankful and gracious people. They love you to death and you can’t help but love them back.”
Henderson, Corn and Tafao reported that appreciation for Baptist ministry now extend to the island’s governor.
“We have a real foothold there,” Corn said. “But there’s still work to be done. It’s still a great opportunity for Southern Baptists. The pastors there now need encouragement, and that’s what we tried to do on our last trip. It was amazing to see what a pat on the back or a ‘thank you’ would do to make the pastors light up.
“It would still be a great place for a church to go for a mission trip. A group could work with one of the eight churches there, do backyard Bible studies and sports camps. Construction workers could go and continue to rebuild and repair homes. A lot of people there still need help.”
One early casualty of the tsunami was the original Pago Pago Seafarer Center, a NAMB-supported outreach that ministers to seafarers — primarily international fishermen — docked in the harbor.
The center, which was a total loss, had doubled as home for NAMB MSC missionaries Joeli and Tupe Sovea and their three children.
But a new center, about 15 minutes inland from the original site and slightly smaller, is slated to hold its grand opening with a prayer dinner for local pastors of all denominations on Sept. 25.
“The renovation of this new location is being made possible by generous gifts from our SBC family — individuals, foundations, families, churches and other seafarer ministries across the U.S.,” Sovea said. Sovea said his children Joel-Samuel, JoHannah and Joreignna now are “doing fine” a year after the tsunami.
“The children have recovered well from the tsunami’s emotional effects,” he said.
The children knew friends who, with their families, were swept away by the deadly tsunami’s waves. Sovea, a missionary for the past three years in Pago Pago, is back to visiting the crews of international fishing boats, manned by fisherman from Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Pacific islands.
On Sundays, he often conducts services on the ships’ decks for sailors unwilling or unable to attend church on the island. Sovea’s ministry also provides the sailors with tracts in various languages, free meals and toiletries.
The center provides up to 100 homesick sailors a month with a place to come and relax away from their ship. Seafarers are able to make free phone calls or access the Internet to contact their families back home. Sovea said the center can always use Southern Baptists’ prayers and support, from finances to toiletries as well as literature and Bibles in English, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Indonesian, Ukrainian and Spanish.
Right now, he said, the center also is in desperate need of a new or used 8-15 passenger van.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.)