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Vai's View: Taufa family shows faith in wake of LDS missionary's death

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

Last Wednesday evening, as Guatemala was being pummeled by rain, Elder Siosua (Josh) Taufa of Salt Lake City and his companion, Elder Rodriquez of Honduras, were just wrapping up their evening of proselyting following their weekly preparation day in the village of Catalina.

Their apartment, which they shared with two other missionaries, was getting drenched from a leaky roof, so Elder Taufa volunteered to go patch it up while Elder Rodriquez remained in the apartment. When he finished a mish-mash job of covering the hole with cardboard, wood and whatever he could find, Elder Taufa started climbing back down when suddenly he lost his footing. Instinctively, he threw out his hands for something to hold and his right hand grabbed a live power line that hung haphazardly on the roof.

Elder Taufa lost his life at age 20 in a foreign country where he voluntarily went to serve, on a roof he was trying to fix so he and his fellow missionaries might have some relief from the elements.

That same evening in Salt Lake City, Elder Taufa’s father, Aiveni, or Ivan, was just returning from a long day at work, a sergeant on Gov. Gary Herbert’s security detail. He walked into his home about 11:30 p.m., interestingly, the same time zone as Guatemala. Ivan popped his head into the family room to say hello to his teenage daughters, Siosiane, Luluku Elisiane and Lavinia, who were still up working on the computer and playing music on their iPods. He then ducked into the kitchen and warmed up leftovers from that evening’s dinner.

When he finished eating, he retired upstairs to their bedroom where his wife, Sulieti, was still awake waiting for him. They greeted each other warmly, chatted briefly about each other’s day while he brushed his teeth before kneeling in prayer and going to sleep.

A little more than an hour into their slumber, they were awaken by a soft knock on their door about 1 a.m. from their girls, who simply yelled, “Mom and Dad, President Kinikini and Bishop Tu’itupou are at the door!”

“As we came down the stairs and saw our bishop and stake president standing at the door, my heart sank,” Sulieti recounted to me. “I first thought, ‘Oh no, is it Aiveni’s parents? Or my dad? (All live in Salt Lake City.) Did something happen to them? Then I thought, ‘Is it our missionary? Is he in some kind of trouble?’ ”

President Elini Kinikini of the Tongan North Stake and Bishop Siosaia Tu’itupou of the Riverside 2nd Ward were invited to the living room where they somberly and directly shared the tragic news that their second child and second missionary son, Elder Siosiua Andrew Taufa, had lost his life in Guatemala earlier that evening. Sulieti let out a cry that brought their daughters running into the room, but Ivan remained stoic and steadied himself by bracing the armrest of the couch.

With the help of their priesthood leaders, he calmed his family’s tears and their anguish.

“I didn’t know what else to do but be a rock for my little family,” Ivan told me.

They gathered and knelt in prayer, with Bishop Tu’itupou offering a heartfelt and solemn prayer in Tongan.

A few hours later, at 6 a.m., without a wink of sleep, the Taufas attended the Salt Lake Temple, where they had been married nearly 23 years ago, for an early morning session.

“Our son had offered his life as a sacrifice and we went to petition the Lord for his grace, his mercy, his healing power through the Atonement, determined to offer whatever else he required at our hands for his sake,” Ivan told me. “We left that morning more soothed and more at peace with our son’s passing.”

Ivan Taufa is a trained killer. Literally.

Powerfully built at 5-foot-10, 240 pounds, he has Popeye forearms and a barrel chest. He could subdue most men with his bare hands, but his real skill is with a gun. He is a decorated marksman who came up through the Salt Lake Police Department as a sniper in the SWAT unit.

About 10 years ago, the head of the department asked him if he could help escort the Tongan king and queen when they visited Salt Lake City since he was born in Tonga and is fluent in the language. Ivan impressed his superiors enough in that assignment that he was invited to join Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s security team. He accompanied Gov. Huntsman to China and all over the country.

When Gov. and Mrs. Huntsman came to Philadelphia a number of years ago to visit their daughter who was a student at Penn, Ivan called me to come join them for dinner at a little Italian place in South Philly called Ralph’s, a favorite of the Huntsmans when the governor was studying at Penn in the 1980s.

When I fought former Major League Baseball player Jose Canseco in a charity boxing match in Atlantic City in 2008, Ivan and his two boys, Marc and Josh, who were in high school then, flew out for the fight. Ivan and his boys were welcomed warmly by the off-duty New Jersey state troopers who worked security in my corner that night.

Last month, Ivan and six or seven of his law enforcement buddies drove up in the middle of the night from Washington, D.C., where they were attending a national conference, to sample all of Philly’s cheesesteak haunts. I met them after my late shift about midnight at Jim’s on South Street, before we headed to Tony Luke’s, then Geno’s and Pat’s. It was 2 or 3 a.m. before we parted ways — Ivan had insisted we all eat at least one at each stop.

We’re cousins, but we’re close as brothers. The Taufas' children are my nieces and nephews.

The two boys, Marc and Josh, are the oldest and very close as they’re only 16 months apart in age. When Marc left for his mission to Panama, it was understood they wouldn’t see each other for almost four years. When they spoke on Mother’s Day last month, they could hardly contain their excitement to be reunited.

On Sunday, Marc accompanied his father to Guatemala to identify and claim his younger brother’s body and return with him to Salt Lake City.

“Marc’s Spanish skills will come in handy and that’s partly why he’s with me,” Ivan told me from Guatemala. They spent their time meeting missionaries, including their son’s companion, Elder Rodriquez, the mission president and his wife, and office staff. They also met the families that Elder Taufa was teaching and had baptized.

This evening, they will arrive with Elder Taufa in Salt Lake City.

The funeral is planned for Friday. I asked Ivan why not hold it Saturday so more people can attend and accommodate those traveling from afar.

I will never forget his response.

“Vai, when I dropped him off at the curb at the Provo MTC 18 months ago, I kissed him and he practically ran inside with his luggage he was so excited to begin his mission. It seems he’s done the same in his new assignment. I feel I should honor his memory best by letting him go so he can fulfill his new call. We don’t want to unnecessarily delay his call any more than we did 18 months ago at curbside of the MTC. We will mourn him and there will always be an empty spot in our hearts but the Atonement will heal us and we will move on. If we live right, I have every right to expect to be with him and enjoy every blessing he would have and we would have enjoyed in mortality.”

My heart is heavy. But I’m encouraged by such devotion and insight that seems to come from true discipleship.

Vai Sikahema is the sports director and anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia and host of the "Vai & Gonzo Show" on ESPN Philadelphia Radio. He is a two-time All-Pro, two-time Emmy Award winner and was a member of BYU's 1984 national championship team.