These have been exciting days in the small South Pacific nation of Samoa. It recently celebrated 50 years of independence.
For many Samoans it has been a double celebration: the same year Samoa gained its independence, the first stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the country was organized.
As the Church has grown in Samoa, its members have worked to build relationships with other religious denominations.
One of the ways in which these relationships are established and strengthened is when members of different faiths live, work and study together, helping break down biases and misunderstandings.
Alapati Taula is an example of how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints values its neighbours and friends in religiously diverse communities.
Alapati is an 18-year-old Latter-day Saint from the village of Alafua on the island of Upolu. He attends the Alafua Ward in the Pesega Samoa Stake. He also attends a high school owned and operated by the Catholic Church.
Alapati comes from a family of auto mechanics and taxi drivers and has a keen interest in further developing his knowledge and skills as a mechanic.
To pursue these interests, he decided three and half years ago to enroll at the Don Bosco Technical Center — a school specializing in vocational training.
One of the traditions of the school is to enter the fautasi (long canoe) race that is held annually as part of independence day celebrations. Perhaps the most unusual thing about Don Bosco's fautasi crew is its leader — Zita Martel — who is Samoa's first female fautasi captain.
During this year's independence celebration, there were two qualifying heats of seven canoes each and a final race for the top ten fautasi canoes.
The highly anticipated final race began Tuesday 5 June at sunrise off the coast near the capital city of Apia. Thousands lined the shores along the route and many more around the country watched the televised race or listened to radio broadcasts of the event.
The winning fautasi was the Segavao III from Don Bosco — a wooden canoe more than 50 feet long and manned by a crew of 43 rowers. Among the predominantly Catholic student crew was Alapati Taula.
"Captain Zita inspired us," Alapati says, "by encouraging us to be humble and to be happy while we were training and racing. She told us to find happiness in the work, even though it was very hard."
To prepare for one of the biggest sporting events of the year, Alapati and the rest of the Don Bosco fautasi crew lived at the school for four weeks, studying during the day and training in the afternoons and evenings.
"I decided to go to Don Bosco because I am very interested in studying auto mechanics," Alapati said recently. "It's a great experience to be on the fautasi crew during my last year."
He adds: "For nearly four years I thought I was the only Mormon boy at the school. Then one day during the fautasi training, another member of the crew was asked to pray. He prayed like I pray. Afterwards, I asked him if he was a member of the LDS church and he said he was. I found out that there were a few other Mormon students at Don Bosco."
Alapati says he has a great deal of respect for his teachers and gets along well with his fellow students. He also says attending Don Bosco Technical Center has strengthened his faith.
"When other students learned that I was LDS, they asked me questions and I had to be able to explain what I believe. So I have had to study what the Church teaches and really understand what I believe in."
Alapati says he is getting ready to serve a full time mission for the Church. He plans to begin working on his missionary application papers before school ends in November when he will have already turned 19.
Being on the fautasi crew has already contributed to Alapati's mission preparation. "Being on the fautasi crew has taught me to believe that good things can be accomplished when you work for them."
"It taught me how to get along with other people even when we have some differences. I learned that while I am racing, problems occur and that patience and focus and work is needed. It taught me to keep my eyes on my leader."
Alapati believes one lesson in particular will be helpful on his mission and in his future work as an auto mechanic: "Find happiness in your work, even when it is hard."