After the Southern Hemisphere’s most-powerful cyclone hit the Fijian islands in 2016, a group of dedicated missionaries and volunteers traveled from Montana, Alabama, Tennessee, Iowa, Oregon, and California to begin an extensive rebuilding project that resulted in more than 600 homes built for dozens of Fijian island communities.
Established in 1960, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) trains missionaries and volunteers for overseas journeys throughout the world. The organization shares that YWAM Fiji is part of an international movement of Christians devoted to loving God and loving others.
Emosi Tatukivei, Director of YWAM Fiji, was led to move to Fiji and take a sawmill with him. “That’s how it all started, this project,” Emosi remembers. “I had no clue about sawmills, so I called my friends in Montana and prayed.”
After gathering a team of volunteers, Emosi and his workers began to build a portable sawmill in a garage in Montana. They transported it to Fiji but quickly realized that they would need more reliable sawmills to accomplish their purpose.
“It was a dream of mine to take practical things to other missionaries,” shares Dale Flora, a Montana-based YWAM volunteer. “I feel like I’m not a preacher, but I am hands-on and a builder. I was contacted by the YWAM base in Montana to help with this building project.”
The entire Ronan, Montana, community became involved in the YWAM Fiji project and began gathering tools for building materials. They contacted Wood-Mizer and placed an order for one LT15 portable sawmill to be based in Montana, along with two more to send to Fiji. By the end of January in 2016, the materials and supplies were ready to go. “With the help of Wood-Mizer, God gave us the opportunity to buy our sawmills at a good discount,” Emosi says. The plan was to ship the two mills and materials in late February or early March but there were a few delays.
Then, on February 20, 2016, the second-most powerful cyclone in history hit the Fijian islands. Some of Fiji’s 300 islands endured 177 mph winds for more than an hour. When the violent storm had passed, 42 people had been killed, crops were destroyed, and thousands of homes were demolished.
For YWAM Mission 21 and its volunteers, what started out as a small project purposed for home building was transformed into urgent disaster relief overnight. “It was just God, because we didn’t know that the cyclone was heading to Fiji,” recalls Emosi.
Donations of cash and equipment began pouring in, and both the pace and the scope of the outreach increased dramatically. A 40-foot container full of tools, supplies, and now six Wood-Mizer LT15’s shipped from Indianapolis on March 29. A month later, the container arrived in Fiji. The team was able to immediately begin rebuilding homes and address a need much larger than they could have ever imagined.
The team began its work to mobilize and aid 150,000 Pacific islanders, including the Fijians, in renovating homes destroyed by the cyclone and use the time of construction to share the Gospel with those around them. In total, the YWAM Fiji volunteers have been able to build well over 600 homes, and the work is still unfinished three years later. All of these homes have been built with lumber from Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmills, which are moved from island to island by small boat. In one of Fiji’s 100 inhabited islands, they also completed a village school building among many other building projects.
“Two Fijians would usually be in charge of the sawmill in their own village,” explained Tom Silgund, YWAM volunteer. “We made sure they had a good understanding of safe operation and the basics of maintenance” not to mention the strength and audacity to move 1,300 lb. sawmills around by foot or by boat.
The team milled mostly pine trees that were planted several generations ago. “They were planted with the knowledge that at some point, they would be cut down and used,” shared Tom. “Basically, their grandfathers knew that their grandchildren would be able to use these trees to build their own homes.” The pine trees were hit the hardest by the cyclone, which gave the team plenty of salvaged material to use in the new homes. The team appreciates that the Fijians were able to use their own resources to build homes that may have otherwise gone to waste.
“The sawmills themselves have created open doors for us,” Tom says. “Going into the village and exposing what we were bringing them intrigued everyone. So you had everybody’s attention.” Tom and his volunteers are still working to expand the Fijian team.
“We want to get a team of 6 or 8 Fijians that can move around with the mills and safely teach the operations,” shared Tom.
The YWAM team was able to share not only the sawmills and their building skills, but their bigger purpose of helping the islanders with spiritual growth. “They’re a predominantly Christian nation, so the communication was right there,” Tom continues. “But they got to see a bigger picture — they got to start seeing a bigger world — that we were helping them and actually challenging them to do the same thing for others.”
The YWAM team aims to show how God has spoken to them while providing an opportunity for the Fijians to learn to treat other nations in the world the same way. “We are a self-supporting mission at YWAM,” explains Emosi. “We trust God and believe that He provides.” And His help is sometimes amazingly timely.