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story.lead_photo.caption Christian Gunter returned to Vilonia in November after serving five months with the Youth With a Mission organization in Samoa, attending the Discipleship Training Program and participating in Bible studies and ministries.

VILONIA — During a mission trip to Samoa, Christian Gunter of Vilonia developed a relationship with one family so intense that he was presented with a tattoo symbol and encouraged to have it permanently inked on his body. He didn’t follow through with that, but he will remain connected to the family in his heart, he said, for the rest of his life.

“Tattooing is a part of the family tradition there,” he said. “I felt honored, but when I saw how they did it, I knew I wasn’t going to do it. They just go down to a hut on the beach, and they use a little handmade tattoo gun. But I brought a copy of [the tattoo] home with me.”

In the same family, a child was born during Gunter’s stay, and the family named him Christian.

“That’s a huge thing,” Gunter said, “and it was very humbling that they thought so much of me.”

Gunter, who is 18, returned to Vilonia in November after serving five months with the Youth With a Mission organization. During his stay in Samoa, he attended the Discipleship Training Program, participating in Bible studies and ministries.

He also learned how to build latrines, studied the culture and learned about water catchment in preparation for an outreach mission to Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean.

“We spent two months preparing for the outreach,” Gunter said, describing the small country of Tokelau as a tropical coral, split into three clusters, located north of the Samoan Islands. During the prep time, arrangements for the trip had to be approved by the Tokelau council of elders, as well as the New Zealand government. A planned two-month outreach mission was shortened to one month because of delays, he said.

The team included four Samoans, Gunter and four other Americans.

It was a 28-hour trip from Samoa to Tokelau, by boat, traveling in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

While they were on a ministry mission, he said, the team’s job was to build foundations for water tanks. A 2009 drought, Gunter said, left the residents of Tokelau in a desperate situation, and they are still dealing with the ramifications.

Gunter said he was the only Southerner in the group. The other Americans were from Alaska, Oregon and the state of Washington.

Gunter said the team received a warm welcome, but the local residents thought they were government workers.

“We were the first international mission team to go there,” he said. The young “island men” working with the team pretended not to understand English for about a week.

“They didn’t know what we were up to, so they just kind of laid back while we used sign language and got the Samoans on our team to do the translating. Then we found out they could speak English better than the Samoans. They learn English in their schools.”

The young islanders were also part of a “rough crowd,” Gunter said. He described them as “manly men with solid muscles.” They made moonshine and drank a lot of it, he said.

“We didn’t go in there pushing the Gospel,” he said. “We just got to know them.”

Respectful of customs, team members participated in fishing, church services and dancing when invited.

They worked in “man skirts” and borrowed white clothes to wear to White Sunday — a day dedicated to children. The team ate the traditional food and “didn’t waste any.”

The visitors did without their cellphones and Internet while there.

They also worked from early in the morning until late in the day.

After about three weeks at Tokelau, Gunter said, the young islanders came to him and told him, “We want what you have.” He accepted that as an invitation, he said, to minister to them. “I prayed with them,” he said. Since returning home, he has heard from them, and they are still doing well, he said.

The day before team members left the area, they were invited to a lunch. They were afraid they had done something wrong.

“We thought we had really messed up, but it was a huge ceremony for us,” Gunter said.

Two weeks later, the team was back in Samoa preparing to return to the United States.

Gunter said he is pretty sure he will return to Samoa and to Tokelau, but he isn’t sure when.

“It’s a matter of when God calls,” he said.

This was Gunter’s seventh mission trip. His first one was to the Dominican Republic when he was 14. He has also been to Mexico and South Africa.

He was 16 when he went on a month-long trip to Africa.

All of the trips but one, he said, have been without his parents. His parents, he said, are very supportive of his ministry.

For a while, he plans to stay a little closer to home. He is enrolled in Central Baptist College in Conway.

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