Hawaii’s Religious History in Flames

The day that we left Maui the wind was so strong I could scarcely close the front door. The sheer ferocity of the hurricane-induced gale signaled trouble.

On arriving on the mainland the next morning my text messages reported fire at the Historic town of Lahaina near our condo at Maalaea Harbor. Later that night the town was totally decimated. Our place was saved, but what was lost was incalculable.

It was not just the horrible loss of life and the upended tragedy of thousands of evacuees that we all mourned. We also lost some of the important symbols of Hawaii’s history.

Lahaina had once been the capital of the islands, and the old courthouse reminded us of its former political importance, as did the Baldwin house and Pioneer Inn. A banyan tree imported from India and planted in the 19th century was the second largest in the world, incorporating a whole city block. Front street shops and the boardwalk along the ocean front were magnets for tourists. Zoning laws kept huge hotels away from the center of the city which provided small wooden homes for 13,000 workers and other permanent local residents.

It’s all gone. In a few hours the storm of fire thundered through the town, catapulted by hurricane-force winds, consuming everything in its reach. Dozens of people perished and thousands are homeless. Property destruction is in the multi-millions.

The loss included some elements of Hawaii’s religious history as well. Before European contact, the Lahaina region was regarded as the home of Kihawahini, a goddess who had the ability to transform into a lizard that lived in a local pond. In part because of its sacred significance, and because of its good harbor, King Kamehameha I made it the islands’ first capital after he managed to unite them under his military power in 1810.

With the influx of British and then American settlers later in the century, missionaries brought Christianity to the region. In 1823 William Richards, a Congregational missionary from Massachusetts, came to Lahaina and in a predatory move erected a thatch hut next to the sacred pond of Kihawahini, hoping to attract native Hawaiians to the religion. He succeeded, and in 1828 a more permanent building was erected from stone and wood on the site, the Waine’e Church (renamed the Waiola Church). It is the oldest in Maui, though the structure destroyed in the fire was a version rebuilt in 1953.

The church became the hub for Hawaiian Protestant Christianity in the islands. Though the history of Christianity in Hawaii is deeply intertwined with colonialism and the Euro-American control of land, the faith was also promoted by its native Hawaiian royal supporters. The graveyard of the church is testimony to its influence. In it are buried Queen Keopuolani, the wife of Kamehameha I, and the first Hawaiian to be baptized as a Christian, ushering in a tradition of royal acceptance of the faith and providing the stage for intermarriage with British and American Christians. The body of the last king of Kauai is buried there; his island was the only one not conquered by force by Kamehameha I. The list of royalty goes on, and the cemetery has been used as a location for presentations about Hawaii’s history.

It is impossible to know exactly why the native Hawaiian royals so eagerly embraced Christianity. Perhaps they were trying to curry favor with the British, who after all had provided the weapons that allowed Kamehameha to seize control of all of the islands. Or perhaps they wanted to cement their power by undercutting the influence of local kahuna (Hawaiian priests) and provide the islands with a common culture. Or maybe they simply found the fellowship and beliefs of the faith to be appealing.

Whatever the reason, the Christian missionaries found a willing acceptance from the local citizenry. When the first missionary chose the sacred pond as the site for his church he was setting a pattern for many missionaries to come, constructing churches near or actually on the stone ritual platforms (heiau) of native Hawaiian religion. The point was to obscure native Hawaiian religion, of course,  but it also proclaimed that it could be absorbed into a kind of Hawaiian Christianity. Since many mainlanders and children of missionaries married native Hawaiians, a Christian-Hawaiian religious syncretism can still be found especially in Congregational and Episcopal churches.

For instance, in the Episcopal Church in Wailuku where I am a parishioner, the stained glass windows portray King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma (of mixed British-Hawaiian heritage) who provided the land for the establishment of the church in 1866. Today the church is a very Hawaiian ethnic mix of Filipinos, native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Haole (mainland White people like myself) and others. Every Sunday two of the hymns are in Hawaiian language, including a sad prayer written by the last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, while she was imprisoned in Iolani Palace after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. Our church service also includes frequently prayers in Ilocano, the language of the region of the Philippines from which many of the parishioners originated. They were part of an independent Catholic Church that broke away from the official church in the Philippines that was in league with the colonial rulers, and in Maui have joined the Episcopal congregation.

When I started to developed a two-acre plot for a fruit orchard in Iao Valley to raise bananas, papayas, mangos, guavas and the like, I asked a local Episcopalian priest to give the blessings. Since he was partly native Hawaiian and also served as a kahuna, a Hawaiian religious priest, he was able to perform chants and blessings in Hawaiian language. Evacuees from the fire are now camped out in the orchard.

But native Hawaiian and Christian religions were not the only emblems of religion that were destroyed in the Lahaina fire. Japanese immigrants brought Jodo Shinshu Buddhism to Maui, where it has flourished. Temples are found throughout the island, including a magnificent one in Lahaina punctuated by an elegant pagoda and a giant statue of the Buddha.

They are all gone now, whisked away in moments by fiery winds. Remarkably the Roman Catholic Church, though badly scorched, is still standing. But not our sister Episcopalian parish. I talked with my priest about our fellow Episcopalians in Lahaina, inquiring whether they were all right. Some did not survive he said, and most are now homeless. But they are determined to rebuild and continue the fellowship in a renewed Lahaina. Developers are eager to move in and snatch up the burned parcels for high rise hotels, but the county planning commission vows that the rebuilding will be solely for the benefit of the working-class community that lost their homes, and provide space for the religious institutions that served them.

There are tough times ahead for Lahaina. But the local residents have faith that their town can ultimately be restored. Buildings are burned and lives are lost. But the spirit of Hawaii, though charred, will surely endure.