Westminster College students gathered to celebrate as Asian American and Pacific Islander month for a poetry reading called, “To Be Young, Tongan, and Mormon in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought” April 24 in Gore 232.
However, speaker Moana Fololini Uluave-Hafoka didn’t only read her artfully written prose that won her the Oprah Winfrey essay contest in high school. She also delved into the dichotomy of what it’s like to be a minority within the majority culture.
Kari Lindsey, coordinator for the Student Diversity and Inclusion Center and a Westminster alumni, introduced the local poet.
Uluave-Hafoka was born and raised by two Mormon parents in the Salt Lake Valley and said she never knew any other religion. She said she served a two-year Mormon mission and teaches Sunday school at her local ward.
According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), over 60% or roughly 6 million people in the state of Utah identify as members of the church.
However, Tongans are the minority within the Mormon majority, Uluave-Hafoka said.
“Pacific Islanders within context of Mormonism are a ‘rare breed,’ held up and pushed down at the same time,” Uluave-Hafoka read from her book of poems.
There are only 57,000 Tongans in the United States, and the largest congregation of them are in the state of Utah, Uluave-Hafoka said. She said 60% of them are also low-income.
Growing up, she noticed stereotypes of Tongans being “aggressive, gang-bangers, student-athletes, and prone to getting ‘knocked-up’ at a young age,” she said.
Furthermore, she experienced a culture shock every day when she took the bus from the West side of Salt Lake to East High School, and that was the only time she’d see Salt Lake City’s famous LDS temple, she said.
“To be young, Mormon and Tongan means to live in the sidelines of Mormondom,” she said.
Uluave-Hafoka and her family have never been to General Conference, and she said Pacific Islanders are generally separated from the rest of Mormons. She said there are four Tongan wards in the state of Utah, and their leaders speak only Tongan.
“The church does not operate outside of the confines of sociological trends, but within them,” she said.
Uluave-Hafoka told Westminster students that those who do not identify as LDS are not the only minorities within the state. There are also minority identities within the LDS faith.
“It was a lifetime before mainstream Mormonism recognized there was no longer an entirely white presence in the pews,” she said.
Westminster sophomore, Sanskriti Timseena, said Uluave-Hafoka’s account of her heritage within the LDS Church was particularly moving.
“I had never witnessed anyone explore the intersections of Mormonism, migration, and integration so exquisitely,” Timseena said.
The poet told Westminster students that she was encouraged to forget familial ties, land and tongue, and that the Book of Mormon teaches clinging to their heritage leads to “complete and utter destruction.”
“For decades now, we [Tongans] have been praying west of the temple, in the shadows […] waiting to be liberated from sin,” she said.
This all might be true, but this does not mean Tongans don’t believe the faith, Uluave-Hafoka said.
“Nobody can tell me how to practice my faith,” she said, explaining that it is important for her to stay devout to her religion.
Now with a family of her own within the Mormon church, and a Sunday school teacher at her local ward, Uluave-Hafoka said finds room to express her personal celebration of the faith.