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A `DOT' IN THE PACIFIC: `SMALL BUT HAPPY' BRANCH IS ON EASTER ISLAND

Archaeologist-explorer Thor Heyerdahl once noted that the only land visible from Easter Island is above - the moon and the stars.

In fact, according to Heyerdahl, the islanders have to travel farther to find other signs of civilization than any other people on earth. The nearest land to the west of this island "dot" of 63 square miles in the Pacific is Tahiti, some 2,000 miles or so away. The nearest to the east is South America, another 2,300 miles away.It is not surprising that on such a remote and isolated place, a unique culture arose among the people here, tangibly expressed in the great stone statues considered one of the archaeological wonders of the world. The massive, eyeless figures, often weighing 50 to 90 tons, are still shrouded in mystery: Why were they built? How were they moved? What do they all mean? They lure tourists, and tickle the famcy of history buffs and archaeologists.

As fascinating as the past is, however, there is a bit of the present that is also remarkable: approximately 1 percent of the island population are members of the Church.

Of course, when you figure that only about 2,000 people inhabit the island, discovered by Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggerveen on Easter Sunday in 1722, even that percentage translates to only a handful of members. 'We are small, but very happy," said Luis Gonzales, branch president of the 20-plus member congregation.

The branch on Easter Island is part of the Chile Vina Del Mar Mission, but there have been no missionaries stationed here since a Chilean couple left about four months ago. "The distance, the difficulty of proselyting and the fact that the members there have been very effective missionaries were reasons behind the decision," reported Mission Pres. Arch O. Egbert.

And though the islanders understand, they do miss the missionaries. "I have a very good impression of the missionaries," said Pres. Gonzales. "Every one has been sincere and open-minded. I want my son to be a missionary, although he's only 4 now."

Yes, Pres. Gonzales said, they do feel isolated, far from other members. But they make up for it with an extra measure of spirit and faith.

The Church members meet regularly in a little island house, shaded by tropical trees. Some day, according to Pres. Gonzales, they hope to build a meetinghouse of their own.

And speaking of someday, he has a couple of other ideas. "Our ultimate dream is to be married in the temple." Besides that, "if the whole island is converted to Mormonism, it will be a better place."

Many of the island people, he said, tend to be a little selfish. "They have no spiritual life. They think only of themselves."

Though controlled by Chile, Easter Island is as much Polynesian as it is South American. The mild climate, the elegant flowers of all colors, the easy-going pace, the unpaved roads and volcanic cliffs give it a definite tropical-island feel. But the official language is Spanish (although the natives speak a Rapa-nui dialect as well). Clothing tends to be more Western (jeans and T-shirts) than anything.

Tourism is the only industry; the people also live off the abundance of fish in the surrounding waters.

Pres. Gonzales is a native of Chile, who came to the island to work for the government. As director of the Ministry of Public Works, he has been involved in building and improving roads, the airport, a new-museum and other such things.

He is also proud of the new house he recently built for his family. It doubles as a guest house, with four rooms that they rent out to tourists.

His wife, Mara, is a Rapa-nui or a native of the island. They have been married for six years and have two children, a son and daughter. He has been a member of the Church for two years; his wife for one.

They are warm and friendly, very glad to see someone from Utah - even though they speak little English. A tour guide, who just happens to be renting a room from the Gonzales family, is recruited to translate. The langague barrier is overcome with a lot of smiles and hugs, as well.

An impromptu gathering of some of the members is arranged: two families, theirs and the Tepano Sepulveda family; two brothers, Alex and Christian Faundez Franco; and a young shopkeeper, George Hermosilla Astudillo, who is the newest member on the island. They meet at the Church for more smiles and hugs. They are happy to pose for a picture.

These are among the most faithful members, explained Pres. Gonzales - the core group that meets together and shares each other's strength. Among recent activities was baking bread to sell to raise money for a Christmas treat for the children.

When he began learning about the Church, he learned more than he ever expected, he said. "I learned how to understand my wife and family, how to treat others with a better view. I learned what brotherhood means. Be happy, be a Mormon.'

He particularly likes the emphasis the Church places on the family. "The Church is important for the family," he said. "I have my work and my friends, but my family is most important."

Some things are not so different, even on remote Easter Island.