Old Pain, New Hope

More than a hundred years after it helped overthrow the Queen of Hawaii, the Congregational Church musters the courage to face its past

 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 4:23-24 NIV)

There's an old joke in Hawai'i told passive aggressively by emcees at mass-produced luau and hula extravaganzas that goes something like this: “The missionaries came to the Islands to do good. And let me tell you, they did very well.”

Indeed, the progeny of Hawai'i's original Christian missionaries, who had arrived from the Congregational Church in Boston in 1820, eschewed their parents' vows of austerity and appeared to work as hard securing for themselves treasure on Earth as treasure in heaven. And when it came to pass in 1893 that a faction of wealthy American businessmen, with the backing of a landing party of US Marines, toppled the Hawaiian Queen and took control of her nation, among them were sons and grandsons of missionaries.

It is said a great wailing could be heard in village after village of Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, as news of the betrayal spread to the countryside and outer islands.

While waiting for President Benjamin Harrison to undo the wrongs perpetrated by his countrymen, the Queen, Lili‘uokalani, beloved of her people,vowed never to go to church again.

This is not, however, a story of church hypocrisy, but of church veracity; of its desire to live up to its principles, a hundred years late in the eyes of some, but to search its own soul nonetheless, admit its failure, apologize, attempt redress, and finally perhaps reconcile itself to the people it had set out from Boston to serve with such faith and determination.

There was, no doubt, a lot for the church to be apologetic about—and not only for its complicity in the loss of Hawaiian independence. For when the missionaries arrived in the Islands, they were emphatic that traditional Hawaiian religion, dance, chants, dress, customs, in other words culture, were incompatible with Christian belief, and discouraged and banned these practices wherever possible.

To be fair, in addition to bringing the gospel, the missionaries also developed the first written form of the Hawaiian language, cared for the sick, encouraged literacy and temperance, and fought prostitution and exploitation of Hawaiians by merchants and sailors.

“They brought a lot of good things, but they also brought their own culture and felt that the only way to make Christians of Hawaiians was to make them like New Englanders,” said Rev. Kekapa Lee, of the Hawai'i Conference of the United Church of Christ, the modern day descendant of the Congregational Church.

Lee, a Kanaka Maoli, said it wasn't until the early ‘90s when he was already a pastor that he became aware of the church's role in the colonization of his people.

“Once I understood that .... I became really angry at the church because I was never taught that at school,” Lee said. “I went to Kamehameha [a prestigious private school for Kanaka Maoli], and they didn't even teach us that, the real history of Hawai'i.”

After the overthrow, two-thirds of its Native Hawaiian members joined their queen in angrily leaving the Congregational Church; the third that stayed with the church continued to feel the sting of betrayal, wrote church member and University of Hawai'i law professor Eric K. Yamamoto in his book Interracial Justice.

“Without saying so, the Hawaiian church members quietly grieved not only over the loss of Hawaiian life, land, culture, and self-governance, but also over the conference's betrayal of Hawaiian trust,” Yamamoto wrote.

So it was an emotional moment for Lee and fellow Kanaka Maoli when on January 17, 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Queen, the president of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Paul Sherry, traveled to Hawai'i from Cleveland, Ohio, stood on the coronation stand of ‘Iolani Palace before a crowd of several thousand Hawaiians, and apologized for his church's role in “the unprovoked invasion of the Hawaiian nation.”

“We do so in order to begin a process of repentance, redress, and reconciliation for wrongs done,” Sherry said. “We are here not to condemn but to acknowledge. We are here to remember and ask forgiveness. We are here to commit ourselves to work alongside our na Kanaka Maoli sisters and brothers—both those in the United Church of Christ and those beyond—in the hope that a society of justice and mercy for them and for all people, everywhere, may yet emerge.”

The apology and the accompanying promise of financial redress from the national church spurred the church's Hawaii Conference into discussion about what it could and should do to further this mission.

The ensuing debates among clergy and lay church members were “not without rancor,” recalled Rev. Wally Kuroiwa, then pastor of a predominately Japanese-American church in Honolulu and chairman of the conference's redress committee.

Historically, there is both kinship and resentment between Kanaka Maoli and the Islands' large Asian populations, which have made great economic, social, and political strides in the aftermath of the US annexation of Hawai'i, while the indigenous population has fallen steadily behind. This, Kuroiwa said, has led to “a lot of prejudice and stereotypes.”

In addition, there were missionary descendants in the church who felt very protective of their forebears and who considered the discussion of apology and redress an exercise in “missionary bashing,” he said.In 1996, after several years of meetings, discussions, drafting, and redrafting of resolutions, conference delegates gathered in the sanctuary of Honolulu's Central Union Church, the home church of most of the missionary descendants.

Before the 400 delegates was a resolution calling for apology and redress. But after hours of passionate, heated debate, the delegates remained divided, Kuroiwa recalled.

After yet another divided vote, Lee stood up to speak. “I would like to ask all those willing Hawaiians to please stand.”

About a dozen delegates in the room stood, according to Yamamoto.

Lee went on. “Those of us standing are Hawaiian people—people who have lived in this archipelago called Hawai'i for generations. ... Some of us are hurt deeply by what took place 100 years ago.” Lee acknowledged that the native people themselves did not agree on the role the church had played in the overthrow of the Hawaiian nation. But, he said, that is not the point. The call for apology “severs the pilikia,” or troubled feeling. “We want to put this behind, and we call on all of you who are not Hawaiian to kokua [cooperate]—even though some of us Hawaiians are not totally with this.”

Another 30 Hawaiians slowly rose, according to Yamamoto. Lee spoke again.

“I have a very heavy, heavy, heavy heart because I don't understand why an apology is such a big thing ... Some of us are hurting and in pain because of this, and we're asking your support and kokua ... because there are many things that face our church and community as Hawaiians and we want to move on but feel that this apology is so important.”

Many more Hawaiians rose, “at first 60, then 80, perhaps 100; almost all the Hawaiians in the polity, including those who earlier spoke against the resolution,” Yamamoto wrote.

Lee and the Hawaiians sat down and “a hushed silence” filled the room, Kuroiwa said.

Finally, after days of rancorous debate, non-Hawaiians finally grasped “the depth of the continuing pain” felt by their Hawaiian colleagues, according to Yamamoto.

Another vote was taken and this time it passed with only a couple of dissenters.

In addition to the apology, the Hawai'i Conference eventually decided to give redress of $3.5 million, in-kind services, plus several million dollars worth of land—five parcels on each of the five major islands—to the Kanaka Maoli. An independent, non-church affiliated Native Hawaiian nonprofit was formed to administer $2.25 million ($1 million from the Hawaii Conference, and $1.25 million from the national church) to benefit the Kanaka Maoli in whatever way it deems appropriate; $1 million was given to the conference's Native Hawaiian Association; and $1.5 million was divided equally among the denomination's traditionally Hawaiian congregations.

For Lee, the apology and redress has opened the way to healing and reconciliation between the races, between Hawaiians and the United Church of Christ, and amongst members of the church themselves.

Asked why discussions such as this are important, why one can't simply say “the past is the past” and move on, Lee replied, “Because we never dealt with it openly. Do you understand?”

“We haven't been allowed to do that because people are impatient to move into the future,” he said.

Lee feels that the gathering, talking, and embracing of the pain and hurt not only with Kanaka Maoli but also with other parts of the Hawaiian community have been absolutely vital. When the people are ready, they will ‘okia, cut the pain and hurt, and leave them behind so they don't carry them in their present and future. “And so we move lighter,” Lee said.

The dollar value of the redress, Kuroiwa added, is in no way commensurate with the pain felt by the Kanaka Maoli at the loss of their nation and culture. “The whole idea of redress is not that you're paying them back for the wrong, because there's no way you can pay it back.”

The redress will definitely hurt the church financially, Lee said. But he believes redress ought to hurt, because “the Hawaiian community has hurt for 109 years.”

“Membership in a moral community,” Yamamoto wrote of the lessons drawn from the apology, redress, and reconciliation campaign, “depends on validation by other community members: we are people only through other people.”

Kuroiwa, who has since moved to Cleveland and is minister and team leader of the United Church of Christ's economic justice ministry team, said the church voted last July to explore the issue of reparations for the enslavement of African Americans.

For more information, contact the Rev. Kekapa Lee, Associate Conference Minister, Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches Hawaii Conference, United Church of Christ, 44 Craigside Pl, Honolulu, Hi 96817

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