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Reinventing Laie

Jena Peterson - June 30, 2010

The presence of the Church in the Pacific centers around a powerful trifecta: The Laie Temple, Brigham Young University – Hawaii, and the Polynesian Cultural Center. For the locals it’s a place to worship, for youth it’s a place to gain an education, and for a worldwide audience, the students have a phenomenal opportunity to share the mission of the Church.

During any given semester, more than sixty countries are represented in Laie. Students arrive from as far as Cambodia and the Ukraine to join the Polynesian population that has come to work and go to school. For students from areas where education is unavailable or unaffordable, the set-up in Laie is ideal: they are able to pay for tuition, books, room, and board by working at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC).

Every year, more than 700 BYU-Hawaii students supplement their educational expenses by working at the PCC. Since the Center opened in October 1963, nearly 17,000 students have worked there, amassing over $171 million in total financial support.

The Center gives students a variety of work assignments that strengthen their educational objectives and they are able to hone their English language skills by interacting with thousands of visitors each working day.

Recently the trifecta has undergone some significant changes. The temple received a renovation and the night show at the PCC, the highlight of the Center's productions, was completely reinvented. Each project went forward with some very important goals in mind: to help proclaim the gospel and redeem the dead.

A Temple Overhaul In 2008, the 89-year-old temple closed its doors for a needed renovation. Quoting from a letter from the First Presidency dated September 22, 2008 announcing the closing of the temple, "This is necessary to return the Temple to its original beauty, and to bring it up to current Temple standards."

There have been three additional upgrades over the last 50 years: a new finish was added to the outside in the 1960s, the north and south wings and audiovisual in the 70s, and an elevator in the 80s.

For the renovation beginning in 2008, the temple underwent a refurbishment that included all new finishes with the exception of the historic murals, improved handicap accessibility, a replacement of the roofing system and exterior windows, removal and repainting of the exterior, repairing of concrete details, a new front entrance and lobby, replacement of the baptismal font and a new baptistry entrance, all new mechanical, electrical and audiovisual systems, an expansion of the fire sprinkler system to the entire building, seismic upgrades, new exterior lighting and handrails, all new carpet and stonework, and new lockers and furnishings. The exterior look of the temple remained essentially the same.

What has not been affected is the structural integrity of the building, a product of the temple's token miracle. A favorite local story tells of this miracle - when the original temple builders received exactly what they needed at a crucial time in the building of the temple. In the early 1900s, construction on the temple halted when lumber ran short. The contractor, Ralph Wooley, said some prayers and two days later, a freight ship got caught in a severe storm and stranded on a nearby coral reef. The ship's captain thought that if he could unload the cargo, the ship would float off the reef. He told the Saints they could keep his cargo if they would help him unload what turned out to be enough wood to complete the temple.

The wood became the formwork for the concrete that made up the floors, ceilings, walls, and roof. For the concrete, the Saints used native crushed lava rock and coral, and reinforced it with steel. Wood was only used in the millwork, so while there was some termite damage, it was minimal - the structural integrity of the building has stayed intact.

"It is always interesting to perform a remodel on a 90-year-old building," said John Stoddard, project manager for the Temple and Special Projects department of the Church. "Considerable time was spent beforehand reviewing archive photos and reading material to capture the historical feel of the Temple."

Workers have uncovered various items including what they believe is an original 1918 light bulb, a concrete trowel that was buried in the old baptismal font concrete, and an old ink well bottle.

"There is a sense of reverence in working on a building of such history that makes you feel a very real part of those who sacrificed for its original construction," said Stoddard. "Then there is the awesome responsibility of just working on a Temple where you know it will be a major blessing to those who will use it for years to come."

The men overseeing the renovation wanted the remodeling to bless temple patrons. "We know that Temples are to be held to a higher standard than regular meeting houses and the Laie Temple fell short of that over the years," said Stoddard. "Finishes just get old. With this renovation, that standard will be returned and those patrons to attend the temple will surely be able to recognize that this is the House of the Lord."

The Church announced an open house for the temple between Friday, 22 October 2010, until Saturday, 13 November 2010, excluding Sundays. The temple will be dedicated in three session on Sunday, 21 November 2010.

A New Horizon Another remodeling last year took Hawaii by surprise. After running for 14 years, the night show "Horizons: Where the Sea Meets the Sky" retired and "Ha: Breath of Life" took the stage. The very nature of the new show was so different from anything the PCC had done before that fans and former dancers got very nervous.

First off, the night show had always been only a dance show, never a play. "We're dancers, not actors," some of the students said, laughing at themselves. Horizons had been working flawlessly and there wasn't an apparent need to change - certainly not to a discipline in which they had no experience.

But when producers began to envision a new night show, they wanted something that would tell more of a story than the traditional night show. Delsa Moe, producer for "Ha: Breath of Life" and former assistant director for "Horizons," said they started with four goals.

First, the show had to be different from anything in Hawaii. Second, the new show had to be something that would bring audiences back. Third, the cultural values of each nation represented had to be evident. And fourth, the production needed to be an avenue for sharing the gospel, but gently.

"The way to make it different was to leave them with something more than cultural information. People would want to come back if they left wanting to be better than they are," Moe said. "We had to figure out a way for that to happen."

The producers brought in David Warner, recommended because of his success with the Nauvoo Pageant and Salt Lake City's "Light of the World" production. He set them to work identifying the core values of each of the six cultures. The PCC represents the Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Fijian, and Tahitian cultures, and each one comes with its own traditions and customs.

"A lot of fasting and prayer and temple attendance went into it," Moe said. After three days laying out the values of each culture, a plot started to form and a story popped out.

"It's a very predictable story, but surprising in its universal appeal," Moe said. The story follows the life of a boy, Mana, from the time he is born to the birth of his own son. "The truths resonate with every person. A worldwide audience relates emotionally right away, but it's new because it's Polynesian."

Each Polynesian culture uses their history, legends, and customs to portray a scene in the story, and the plot moves from island to island. The team worked to form each scene with dance from the islands, but it was so new, they weren't sure if it would work.

"We knew it was the right approach, but we didn't know how to deliver it," Moe said. "Then, just at the moments when we were discouraged, we'd be in rehearsal and someone would tear up. That's what kept us going."

After one section was ready, the producers tested it. They dropped the scene in the middle of the existing Horizons show and waited for the reaction. "The response was incredible. The audience loved the new scenes." And because the doctrine of the family and eternal life are woven seamlessly into the storyline, the performance was able to share gospel principles without preaching.

In one response, a man said, "For the first time ever, my wife and I talked about how we could be better parents for our two kids."

Missionary Tools at Work The experience people have watching the night show is just one of the many gentle examples they see at the PCC. The Center is made up of villages representing Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Hawaii, Aotearoa, and Tahiti. Two-thirds of the 1100-person staff is made up of students from BYU-Hawaii. They work in a number of positions, hosting guests and demonstrating aspects of their culture.

The students know their important role and revel in the opportunity to be examples. "I love how I get to interact with others," said Michael An Chong, a student from Samoa. "We have people come from all over the world, and I get to show them my heritage."

One of Michael's favorite jobs has been as a tour guide. "My role is to make them happy, and at the end of the tour I ask them how their day was, and every now and then they say, 'I feel something different here.'"

That "something different" often leads guests to a tour of the Laie Temple Visitors' Center. The PCC offers a free shuttle and tour guide to interested guests and is the temple's largest source of visitors, hosting over 900,000 since 1990. The Visitors' Center has sent over 44,000 referrals from these tours to missionaries across the world.

The PCC also helps to produce another asset for missionary work: stellar missionaries. "I can't even count the number of calls and e-mails I've had from mission presidents who say that some of the very best missionaries they have in their missions are students from BYU-Hawaii who have worked at the PCC," says Von Orgill, president of the PCC. "Interacting with people has become so natural for them that being a missionary is second nature. They make friends in an instant."

Whenever possible, President Orgill makes it a point to enhance students' work experience with training related to the field they are studying. "Everything in this community is about them," he says. "The Lord brings them here in preparation for what they’re going to do in the future. It's marvelous to see who is here at the right time."

Many students have the opportunity to work in areas of the PCC that are directly related to their major, such as accounting or management.

"In all cases, the students are applying the concepts and theories that they learn in the classroom on the job here," says President Orgill, "so it really is preparing them for the work they will do in the world as well as their roles as leaders in the Church and their communities."

That work was envisioned by President David O. McKay. In 1955, he stated, "From this school, I'll tell you, will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally."

Visitors' responses demonstrate that the fulfillment of the prophecy is on track. After visiting the PCC, a former ambassador to the U.S. said, "The spirit of love, the spirit of mutual understanding, the spirit of living in harmony and peace - this is something I think the Polynesian Cultural Center is now clearly manifesting, and the effect of that impact will go far beyond the Center itself."

With over one thousand dignitaries visiting the PCC every year, the influence the students have is reaching the world in a powerful way.

"The relationship between the Cultural Center and University is a unique relationship which gives us a very good idea on how to direct our culture and learning in the future," the former Chinese Vice Minister for Minority Affairs said. "Of all my impressions, the most important part is the religious freedom that exists here. We must learn from this. Hopefully, this will be brought back to our country."


--- Rebuilding Rooms Another significant project in Laie is the prospect of a new hotel. The 49-room Laie Inn, at 45 years old, had been scaring off patrons for the last 15 years, namely, the first presidency. During one of President Gordon B. Hinckley's stays, he actually caught a rat in his room.

The new hotel will accommodate not only guests of the Laie Hawaii Temple, the PCC, and families of BYU-Hawaii students, but will also serve as a hands-on classroom for students majoring in hospitality and tourism. The hotel, which will most likely be a Marriott, will work with the university's business school. Nothing official is signed just yet, and the hotel won't be breaking ground for about another year, but Michael Johanson, director of communications for the university, says the prospects could mean a tremendous opportunity for students.

"There will be coordination and a strong academic connection with the new hotel and our hospitality and tourism management program," Johanson says. "It will give real-life industry experience here on a very popular Oahu tourist location."

The Laie Inn was razed in November 2009. Plans for the new hotel call for 228 rooms and will sit on the site of the former Laie Inn, likely displacing the adjacent gas station and McDonald's restaurant.

Where to Stay In the meantime, the closest property for guests is the Turtle Bay Resort, a seven-minute drive north of Laie. In addition to guest rooms and suites, beach cottages and ocean villas comfortably accommodate families. The resort features golf packages, surfing lessons, horseback riding excursions, and spa treatments at the Spa Luana.

© LDS Living, 2010.