The month of July means summer time with family picnics and lazy days at the beach. Earlier this month we celebrated the birth of our country and this living government we call democracy.
My thoughts also turn to my birthplace, Guam. On July 21st, this United States island territory will celebrate its Liberation Day. It was the day it was liberated from the Japanese invading forces during WWII when the United States won back it’s captured soil from the enemy.
With this backdrop, my story begins.
Back in the late 1980’s, my young family sat down for Sunday service at the Talisay, Guam Chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My two young daughters fidgeted in the pew while my wife tried to calm the youngest one.
The ceiling fans whipped the cool air that flowed through the chapel that sat up on a hill. I looked up at the pulpit which was placed in front of a beautiful wall of rock stacked one on top of each other. It looked like it was going to be another beautiful Sunday.
I could hear my stomach growling reminding me I was fasting ( part of the monthly ritual where church members fast two meals and then give the money that they would have spent for those meals to the Church to help the poor in the congregation). I wanted to make sure that I don’t forget to get our family donation into the Branch Presidency or I will not hear the end of it from my wife.
On this day of fasting, part of the worship service is given to members of the congregation to come up at will to bear their testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives. I must admit if certain of the monthly regulars go up and start talking, I may be fighting just to stay awake.
As I was trying to think of ways of napping while keeping my open eyes, I saw a dignified figure walking towards the pulpit. I suddenly was wide awake…and surprised.
It was Josefa De Los Santos.
I have never seen her come up to bear her testimony. She was a very sweet older woman we knew in the congregation. My wife taught her daughters Sunday School.
She started to speak into the microphone, her soft voice amplified and clear. It was the kind of voice that made you want to listen. The voice of a mother.
Her eyes seem to look into a scene far away from inside the chapel. She spoke about the occupation of Guam during the war by the Japanese. Her family lived in the village of Agana. She was a young girl and she spoke about the fear her family lived under during that oppressive regime.
There was always hunger. Her father and older brothers did what they could to get food from meager, subsistence gardens they grew in the jungles and the occasional chicken or two. However, they were often recruited by the Japanese for forced labor to build airfields and roads.
One day, while she was at home, Japanese soldiers broke into her home and brought her sisters and her to join her mom in what was the village center. Soldiers surrounded her dad and a brother.
They were beating them. They were suspected of hiding U.S Navy man George Tweed. He had been suspected of hiding in the jungles of Guam radioing messages to the U.S. Armed Forces.
They refused to answer any of their questions. Her family was loyal to the United States. Whether or not they knew his whereabouts was not the point, her father and brother were not going to compromise the American soldier in any way.
They were shot to death. Josefa, her sisters and mother were made to witness it. Typically, they would have been killed also. They were spared death but not the horrible grief.
Shortly another brother was taken and on a nearby beach was buried alive when he refused to answer their questions.
After speaking about such a harrowing story, Josefa looked at each member of the congregation with moistened eyes and said, “Brothers and Sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ has taught me the miracle of forgiveness. I forgave those men long time ago who killed my father and brothers. Our family has never regretted their sacrifice and I honor their memory.”
She left the pulpit and then walked slowly back to her pew. No one moved for some time. I felt we were caught in a sacred silence. I just heard the most moving sermon of my life.
July brings back memories of Josefa and her family’s sacrifice for the American soldier. More importantly, it reminds me of the power of faith and ultimately forgiveness in helping us face life’s greatest trials.
(Note: George Tweed, U.S. Navy Radio Man, was rescued from Guam after hiding 31 months during the Japanese occupation. Many local native Chamorro people risked their lives and even sacrificed them for his safe return)