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How a Samoan Mormon Became a Global Interfaith Activist

Ruth Broyde Sharone


Laura Ava-Tesimale, 47, remembers the moment she became an interfaith peace activist. “When it happened, I was changed forever. I prayed fervently to God. Tell me what to do, where to go, whom to meet.”

Born in Tutuila, American Samoa, in the village of Pavaiai, Laura was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) primarily by her grandmother, in Samoa, then Hawaii, and finally in California. She started working when she was ten and in high school juggled a full-time and two part-time jobs to help her family. She credits a strong work ethic to her culture and faith. Her grandmother, “Pele” Fenika Lafoia Ava, her surrogate mother since she was eleven months, “was and will always be the greatest influence in my life,” she says. “Pele was the embodiment of Fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way, to love all unconditionally, respect all, and serve all.” 

Faaaloalo, which means respect, and being a servant leader, Tautua in Samoan, govern a Samoan’s behavior in our culture. Faaaloalo dictates a code of conduct in your relationships with other people. Parents teach their children that what the child does reflects what the parents teach in the home. From an early age we are taught to put God first – muamua Le Atua – to take care of our family, and to protect the family name and honor, no matter where we live and travel.”

But people are people, and Laura is open about her grandfather being an abusive alcoholic. Her grandmother decided to rescue her and her older brother, Johnny, from their volatile home. She took them from Samoa to Hawaii and later to the mainland. Johnny got involved with a gang in Santa Ana, as a teenager, and is serving a prison term of 31 years for murder.

At 19, Laura married “Mike” Foimai Tesimale, 11 months after he became a U.S. Marine. He had served two years as a Mormon missionary in North and South Dakota and spent four years in the military before beginning a 25-year career in the aerospace industry. Meantime Laura rose to become a successful manager in the mortgage lending business, ascending the corporate ladder and earning a six-figure income – a coup for a woman who couldn't afford to go to college.

Laura and Mike were parents to two daughters, Brittany and Nicole, and life was good. Then came 9/11, a tragedy that launched Laura’s interfaith engagement. She recognized immediately that her days in the corporate world were numbered. “I wanted to begin a new life devoted entirely to service and interfaith peace building,” she said. “I wanted to use the money Mike and I had saved, living frugally, and utilize my business management skills to support charities and causes around the world, primarily to help women, children, and disabled victims of poverty, war and natural disasters.”

Her fortieth birthday gift to herself was taking her daughter Brittany, then 15, to volunteer with fourteen others from Be The Cause at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India. Once there, Laura became a friend and benefactor of Manav Sadhna, the organization housed in an ashram where Gandhi once lived, guided by Gandhian principles of integrity, simplicity, hard work, and cleanliness. Founded by three Hindus, Jayesh and Anar Patel and Viren Joshi, it had launched a unique program to feed, clothe, and educate the thousands of children living in the slum across the road from the ashram.

Nicole, Laura, and Brittany at a GiveLight gala.

Nicole, Laura, and Brittany at a GiveLight gala.

Discovering Manav Sadhna, Laura was “hooked.” She returned the following year on her own to help distribute hundreds of free wheelchairs and to inspect and sponsor several slum education-nutrition centers. 

While collaborating with the Manav Sadhna staff, Laura felt an “inner call” that upset her travel plans. Her itinerary had her flying to Kenya to volunteer in the largest slum area in Nairobi. But in prayer, she vividly recalls, came a message that she shouldn’t go to Africa.

“Where should I go?” she asked. No answer came. She prayed again and waited expectantly for five days. She postponed her trip to Kenya, feeling God had other plans. Finally she heard the answer. “You’re going to Pakistan.”

Her friends in India tried to dissuade her. You can’t go to Pakistan! It will be dangerous for you. Terrorism. Bombs. Anti-American sentiment. It’s not the place for you! She listened to their concerns, but she knew Pakistan was her next stop. She immediately went to the Pakistan consulate in New Delhi and applied for a tourist visa. The waiting room was jammed with people waiting for visas. This could take days, even weeks, but she was not dissuaded.

Finally she was interviewed by the First Secretary of the Counsel General of Pakistan. He was incredulous that an American Mormon woman, born in Samoa, without any family or connections in Pakistan, wanted to go there at that moment when violence in Pakistan was rampant. “Where will you stay? What will you do? Do you even know anyone there? Which cities will you visit?”

Laura convinced the Counsel General that she was on a “sacred” mission to help the Pakistani people, especially women and children. Within an hour she was holding the coveted visa in her hand. She herself was incredulous, “but I knew it had been orchestrated by God.” Where she would go and what she would do was still to be revealed. “You must come back and have dinner with me, my wife, and daughters when you return from Pakistan,” the First Secretary insisted. “I promise,” Laura said. At the airport that afternoon, she knew her first stop would be Lahore and her last, Islamabad.

One Global Family provides on-going funding support to Manav Sadhna/India for education, nutrition and community development projects.

One Global Family provides on-going funding support to Manav Sadhna/India for education, nutrition and community development projects.

I will never forget my incredible adventures there, meeting a multitude of Muslims, as well as Hindus and Sikhs.” She didn’t wear a hijab head covering, and she left aside the custom of not being alone in the company of men without a chaperone. People made allowances for her wherever she went, visiting orphanages, speaking with hundreds of students at schools and a college for girls. She met with Al-Khidmat Foundation, Pakistan’s largest humanitarian relief organization that has subsequently been the recipient of thousands of wheelchairs from the Free Wheelchair Mission. Another organization called Saba Trust has received a large donation from the LDS Church, along with shipments of humanitarian supplies and over a million dollars worth of medicine following the recent devastating floods. 

Laura was adopted as an “honorary” family member by her five host families in Pakistan. She went back to India and had dinner with the First Secretary of Pakistan and his family a month later, before returning home. To this day, they are fast friends. Laura subsequently returned to Pakistan with her daughter Brittany, revisiting all of her Muslim families, schools, and orphanages. They helped to inaugurate a new orphanage for girls, “located less than two hours away from where Osama Bin Ladin was discovered!”

10-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. Laura and other interfaith leaders gather for a sacred service at St. John's Cathedral & The Guibord Center in Los Angeles.

10-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. Laura and other interfaith leaders gather for a sacred service at St. John's Cathedral & The Guibord Center in Los Angeles.

The roster of interfaith organizations that Laura serves today is extensive, and she supports the global activities of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. “My work now focuses on interfaith, humanitarian, community development projects.” In 2008 her One Global Family Foundation partnered with GiveLight Foundation, founded and run by Muslims, taking her to far-flung war-torn countries and sites of natural disasters in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Sri Lanka, Africa, as well as Pakistan and India. In the Samoan Islands, “my homeland!” a third partner organization, Samoa Victim Support Group, has joined them in sponsoring children who were orphaned by the 2009 tsunami, as well as kids victimized by violence and poverty.

Having a second chance makes Laura Ava-Tesimale remember her own family. She speaks with pride about her brother in prison. “He has turned his life around and now he has his own interfaith ministry in San Diego’s Donovan Prison for Men. He facilitates CGA (Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous) 12-step programs for inmates of diverse faiths and nationalities, and he fundraises in prison for charities in Africa and elsewhere. In some ways,” she muses, “we are on similar paths. He is doing interfaith work and philanthropy in prison, and I am doing it out in the world. You don’t need a lot of money to do this work,’ she emphasizes, “just a willing heart and faith in God.”