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Hawaii parish models resiliency, vitality in time of challenge


Some time ago I had the kind of experience that figures in the nightmares of many public speakers. I was invited to give a keynote to a major gathering for the Chicago archdiocese. I was asked to speak about the situation of the church as it moved slowly and somewhat hesitantly into the 21st century. What were the challenges? What did we, as church, as the people of God, need to do to prepare ourselves for the changes, demographic and otherwise, taking place? As the core of my talk, I used the then- recent uprising that had taken place in Los Angeles after the Rodney King incident. I wanted those present to think outside their usual comfort zone, to put themselves in the position of the black, Latino/a, and Asian men and women who were most affected by those events and to ask: Where was the church? What was its role when such events took place?

That morning the nightmare began as all the lights in the hotel abruptly went out. Construction crews outside had accidentally cut the power lines. I entered a ballroom packed with people clutching the lit candles used in the opening prayer service. No faces or figures could be distinguished. I was led to the podium, handed a bullhorn, and began to speak, glancing at my notes as best I could with the aid of a flashlight taped to the lectern. Fortunately, just as my grip on the bullhorn had begun to slip, the light and sound returned and I saw my audience and they saw me.

What could have been a disaster ended, however, on a note of hope, although strangely I was never invited back to speak to this group again. Afterward, a young man invited me to speak at his small parish in Hilo, Hawaii. The man was Joseph Camacho, pastoral associate and liturgist at Malia Puka O Kalani (St. Mary, Gate of Heaven) Church, an indigenous Hawaiian parish. The event he invited me to was the annual Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference held every November for the past 26 years.

In November, my mother and I flew to Hilo for an experience that in my 15 years of lecturing and teaching across the nation and around the world has never been paralleled. Over the years since that first visit, I have come to know and understand what St. John meant by the “beloved community” of the faithful. For at Malia, there is true community where everyone shares in all things so that no one ever wants for anything.

Malia is a small, poor parish. Started as a mission church, its chapel is smaller than many family rooms. Yet, it fills every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with persons who have lived in Hilo all their lives and others who have come from all corners of the world to live in Hawaii, not in the opulence of Honolulu or Waikiki, but in the Hawaii of ordinary, hard-working folk. Its pastor, Fr. George DeCosta, agreed 38 years ago to take on this barely functioning parish that no one else wanted. Many thought him foolish and looked forward to his failure. Instead, from a congregation of just a few gathered from here and there, and with little support, Malia, under the guidance of Fr. DeCosta and a pastoral team that witnesses to its faith by living it daily, slowly began to grow. As it grew, it began also to attract notice from others. Soon, word of this small but vibrant parish, which sought to blend the gospel of Jesus Christ into the lives and culture of native Hawaiians, while at the same time, providing a home for Catholics of every race and ethnicity, began to spread. Successful efforts were made to develop music, songs, prayers and services that incorporated the Hawaiian language (once almost defunct like those of many native peoples in the United States), the hula (a language in itself), the sense of extended family and the offering of hospitality that was a fundamental aspect of the Hawaiian culture.

Vatican II called for the renewal of liturgy, preaching, prayer and the life of the church itself. All of this has happened at Malia where the Holy Spirit has, it seems, been working overtime to bring new life and new hope into the church at the local level. The Hawaiian liturgy developed at Malia has been celebrated with congregations numbering more than 3,000 in such places as the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

My first experience of this liturgy was not in Malia’s small chapel but in its community center during the arts conference. We came together to share a meal prepared by the people of Malia in whose homes we were staying. The music swelled and gathered us together: teens from Guam, teachers and students from the mainland, visitors from Oahu and Maui, people from all over the world, male and female. Our differences were unimportant here. During the Alleluia, Fr. George carried the gospel book through the congregation for their blessing while the young men and women danced and sanctified the space in which we gathered. He and they were barefoot and adorned with freshly made leis. Additional leis were placed on and around the altar, the work of the people’s own hands. Truly the Spirit of God came and dwelt in our midst.

Malia, however, is not just a church that heals the soul; it tends to the body as well with its food bank and medical van, its Montessori school and its many other programs that reveal the holistic perspective of its people. In addition to all this, Malia sponsors an annual summer institute of adult religious education for all of the Big Island. As one of the lecturers over the past three summers, I have marveled at the numbers of people who came and sat in the often sweltering rooms to share a simple meal prepared by the host parish, to pray and sing, and to listen and learn, to ask challenging questions, and to seek to increase their knowledge of Christ and Christ’s church of which they are such a critical part.

Today, the spirit of Malia is as strong as ever, despite recent shocks. Fr. DeCosta, pastor for 38 years, who has baptized and celebrated the weddings and funerals of more than three generations of the faithful at Malia has, at the age of 65, retired at the request of his bishop. There will be no replacement pastor as Malia is to be folded into a parish cluster that will cover almost half of the Big Island, presenting a seemingly almost impossible ministry for those few priests still active on the island.

This is a time of great challenge for our church, not just for little Malia on the Big Island, but parishes of all sizes throughout the United States. We are confronted and challenged not just by the sordid stories of priests gone astray or leaders who seem to have lost their way, but by an aging clergy and shrinking religious roles, and a church of mature adults, male and female, who expect to be and insist on being treated as such. The questions that I asked so many years ago at the gathering in Chicago are still critical ones today: Where is the church? What is it doing to support those who have been faithful all of their lives? When we are so badly in need of priests that we can trust, of leaders who are men not only of faith and prayer but also of action, why are those who attempt to live that faith in the heart of the people finding themselves unwanted while others who continue to damage the church from within are seemingly sheltered? What is the church doing to bring people together, showing them that race, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity have no meaning in the sight of God? When will the church once again be the place of healing, of love, of community promised us by Jesus Christ?

Yet, I take hope in the knowledge that the spirit of Malia is alive not only on the Big Island of Hawaii but in parishes, large and small, throughout the land where the people of God, with their priests, the religious, and, yes, their bishops, are living as communities of faith, sharing their love of God with all around them, inviting all who believe to the welcoming table of the Lord, preparing the feast and sharing it with them in God’s holy name. Signs of the Spirit’s working are all around us if we only have the eyes to see, the ears to listen, and the heart to believe, regardless.

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002