The mission president, Karl Tilleman, began the conversation with a question that was, in fact, a challenge. 'How's your faith, Elder?' Elder Coles sat up a little taller in the chair. 'I don't know. I think it's doing okay,' he offered, tentatively. Then, the president assigned him to his new area of proselyting. Elder Coles reflected on his reaction some months after the experience: 'When he told me the assignment, I just couldn't believe it. I was honoured and I was really humbled by it.'
The missionary had been assigned to serve on an island just off the southern tip of Alaska - Haida Gwaii [formerly Queen Charlotte Island]. Not only is the island remote from mainland Canada, but also it has the only known participating Church membership with just one individual.
'President Tilleman gave us the assignment to go in and start a branch on the island. We drove for 24 hours, then we took a seven-hour ferry ride to arrive at the island,' said Elder Coles. The weather didn't help. Storm clouds and rain greeted the pair of elders to Haida Gwaii. 'We didn't have anywhere to go and had nothing to do. So we stayed in a cheap motel our first night and the next day we found a place to live and a got a cell phone.'
Soon the elders located the local 'branch' of the Church. It consisted of the one active member who had been attending meetings by Skyping with a congregation on the mainland.
'On our first Sunday, we had a sacrament meeting in our member's kitchen with just the three of us. We took the sacrament and bore testimony about how the work was going to move forward,' Elder Coles recalls. The next day the elders went to work by doing what missionaries do when the Church needs building: they knocked on doors.
'As we were tracting, we kept running into all of these people who had fond memories of going to Alberta while in the Indian Placement Program and living in members' homes in a Church environment. We could tell the difference in their lives because of the influence that the Church had had and the way they conducted their lives,' says Elder Coles.
'When we first arrived, we went to a village on the island. This lady pulled up in her van and she came out with tears in her eyes, just crying. She came to us and just hugged us. She was so happy that the Church was finally back on the island and she knew what had been missing from her life.'
In addition to this providential meeting, the elders found Sister Wendy Malesku, who had previously considered having her named removed from the records of the Church. By the time the elders appeared on her doorstep, 'she had had a lot of experiences that humbled her, she was teachable and she had realized that the gospel was what was missing from her life.' She became one of the 15 members that the elders located and reacquainted with the Lord's church. 'There were lots of reactivations and we baptized two people.'
Another member was Maureen Wesley, whose nick-name is 'Mook.' 'I was approached by two missionaries when I was 14 years old living on the First Nations reserve in Skidegate [on the island].' As with many other First Nation children, Mook was baptized and later had the opportunity to enter the Indian Placement Program to receive an education. 'Baptism was a wonderful opportunity,' recalls Sister Wesley. 'I was also excited about going away to school.'
While she lived with the Stone family and attended school, Mook learned of the unseen benefits of the Indian Placement Program. 'I learned that there was more to the program and the Church than just going to school. One Sunday, I bore my testimony for the first time and I almost fainted. I knew the gospel was true and I cried a lot.' Over time, Mook developed friendships with several Church members her age. 'They helped me understand the gospel better. We attended seminary together. All we did there had to do with the Church.'
By the time she reached the last year of her high school education, Mook took a summer job at the Waterton Lakes Golf Course in southern Alberta. While working in the restaurant as a server, she noticed a familiar, white-haired gentleman with a broad smile. Upon recognizing that it was President Ezra Taft Benson, Mook ran to greet him. 'I felt most privileged,' she recalls. Several months later, Mook again met President Benson following an address at Brigham Young University. 'He said, 'I met you in Waterton!' He even remembered my name!'
When a marriage failed, Mook decided it was time to return to Haidi Gwaii. An empty void in her life gnawed inside her. 'I knew that I needed the Church, but there were no meetings at that time in Haidi Gwaii.'
Then in the summer of 2012, she spotted two suited young men speaking to her uncle across the street. 'I became so excited that I jumped out of my car, wearing only my pajamas.' The missionaries, Elder Coles and Elder King, called me that night and came to my house. It was as though the sky opened up and the sun started shining.'
Soon the new missionaries conducted church meetings at members' homes. 'It was a whole new world. I felt a change instantly; it became wonderful again to be alive”, recalls Mook. As soon as the missionaries began conducting meetings in members' homes, Church membership grew. 'On Haida Gwaii there are no fonts, no swimming pools, so the ocean is it. We are all baptized in the Pacific Ocean.'
One of the first to be baptized in the new era was Mook's grandson, Gabriel. 'It was a very stormy day,' Mook recalls. 'The waves were smashing on the shore.' With that emphatic experience, the gospel seems to have stuck with Gabriel. One day not long after his baptism, his friends were planning 'something bad.' Gabriel announced: 'I have to go now. I hope you choose the right!'
Early in 2013, David and Sharla Mansius arrived and he became the branch president. “At first, I wasn't happy with the idea of a senior missionary as branch president,” Mook remembers. “But now I say that was the greatest thing for Haida Gwaii. We could have church on a regular basis and it brought us closer together. It's all because Elder Coles and Elder King wanted to go to Haidi Gwaii,' she declares. 'Everyone on Haida Gwaii knows them. They gave everyone a Book of Mormon. Because of them, our kids have changed, our home has changed. I know I have changed, too.'
'It really was a 'without purse or script' pioneer experience,' recalls Elder Coles. 'I just say, 'Thanks be to God.' It was not of our doing. It was all inspired and I was just grateful that I could be along for the ride.'