Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
“Bringing the Body of Christ to Life”
I thought about Auntie Caroline De Lima this week. There are plans for family to gather here in July to mark the one-year anniversary of her death with a service of remembrance that our küpuna or ancestors called an “‘Aha ‘Aina Wai Maka” or “Feast of Tears.”
The tears shed on the one-year anniversary of a person’s death are intended to be tears of joy not sorrow. The occasion is a time of recognizing that all pain and suffering have passed and that even death itself is no more.
Stu and Irene Elder live in San Diego, California. They are Associate Members of our church family. They return “home” to us here on Maui every year as they have for over twenty five years.
On their most recent visit in March, Stu and Irene reminded me of the days when they first came to worship here at Keawala‘i. Auntie Caroline was here along with a handful of others.
In the years that followed residential and resort developments in South Maui opened up the area and access to Mäkena and Ke‘oneo‘i‘o meant access to the church. The paved road ended at Kalama Park near the Quonset hut that is now called Kīhei Caffé.
It took a considerable amount of effort to get to the church. Some have asked why the church was built to accommodate over two hundred worshippers when it seemed only a handful were in attendance.
Mäkena was an area known for fishing and because of that there was trading between the residents of this area with those who lived in ‘Ulupalakua. Families lived up and down the coastline.
In the old days a road from the ranch at ‘Ulupalakua to Mäkena Landing allowed for the shipment of cattle and sweet potatoes to market. But it also provided an alternate route to the church. The fish from the ocean traded for the fruits and vegetables of the upland area.
Historical records indicate that the church was the center of the community in the early years. Hundreds gathered here on Sundays in this sanctuary with many others out in the church yard. According to a report filed in 1858, those in regular standing as members of the church numbered 242.
( He Moolelo ‘Āina No Ka‘eo me kāhi ‘Āina e a‘e ma Honua‘ula O Maui: A Cultural-Historical Study of Ka‘eo and Other Lands in Honua‘ula, Island of Maui, Kepā and Onaona Maly, Kumu Pono Associates, LLC, 2005, page 64)
During the years of war from 1941 to 1945 families were displaced and a military facility was established near Pu‘u Ōlaʻi, the cinder cone that marks the highest point here in Mäkena. After the World War II many remember that despite the presence of the sugar and pineapple plantations on Maui, there were fewer and fewer jobs available for those returning from the war. For a time it seemed more and more young people were moving away to find work.
Eventually the development of West Maui and South Maui as destination resorts, tourism became a key factor in the economic engine for our island. The development has brought changes that have been both positive and negative.
The positive result is that there is work for local residents, though some are concerned that it is primarily in the service sector and not management. Improvements have been made to the infrastructure of the island – more and better roads – but also increased costs to maintain them and more traffic.
Water is now available to Kïhei, Wailea and Mäkena and we are among the many beneficiaries. But with more than 26,000 residents now living in South Maui it means that we are depleting the resources from the ‘Ïao Acquifer.
The development has also meant that more and more people have become a part of our church family. Plans for multi-family and single-family developments along the mauka side of the lower beach road across from the church and a commercial center a few hundred yards from where we are will mean further changes.
Through all of the fluctuations in the economy and the changes that have come to the area, the church has remained. I know there are those who worry about the future of the church. We have been noticing that there is a “graying of our congregation.”
We are growing older. Our sons and daughters are graduating from high school and moving away.
There are some who see church growth only in numerical terms. “We need more members. We need more young families. We need to get more youth involved.”
We would like to place ourselves in the company of the church in the first century that grew from 120 followers to over 3,000 after the first sermon was preached by Peter. (Acts 2:14-36, 38-40) Though the reaction to his second sermon was mixed, it is said that another 5,000 was added to their number. (Acts 4:4) With numbers like that it is not difficult for any of us to feel some sense of envy.
I have been told by Danny Brown that I have a sense of humor. On occasion it has gotten me into trouble. Sarcasm is often misunderstood. An acerbic wit can sometimes be offensive to others. I sometimes find myself venturing into such humor when I get a bit defensive especially when I am asked about how many “members” belong to our church.
It happens often and I am usually good about just sharing the information but on one occasion when I was asked, “How many members do you have?” I found myself responding to the person by asking a question of my own: “Why is that important to you?”
I actually wanted to know why the question was being asked and quickly realized how easy it is for us to compare ourselves with others. “Well, we have over 3,000 members,” she said in a voice that was tinged with a bit of pride.
“But are they nice?” I asked.
To which she responded with incredulity, “Well, of course they are.”
The conversation could well have ended there but we talked a bit more. I apologized to her for sounding sarcastic and shared with her that I believed the growth of the church should not be measured only in numbers but in the ways in which we are able to build ourselves up in love (Ephesians 4:12) and engaged in bringing the church – the Body of Christ – to life. And on that we both agreed.
If we are to be the Body of Christ – the risen Christ – in the world today then our witness of God’s saving love is to be nourished by the Spirit through teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. Gary Hansen, Associate Professor of Church History, at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa reminds us that numerical growth in the early church is the effect, not the cause of their faith. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 426)
What caused the early church to grow were not programs or activities but a particular set of practices that nurtured their lives as Christians and as the church. It is written: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 22)
Beyond their confession of faith that Jesus was the Messiah, their devotion is what brought life to the church. It was a devotion nourished and empowered by the Spirit.
The same Spirit that empowered Peter and the other disciples is present to empower us to do the same. That same Spirit empowered Auntie Caroline and those who were here in the years when it seemed the church was “not growing.”
The stories were told of how Auntie Caroline and Auntie Helen and others would gather in this place for worship. They would offer prayers, sing hymns, read scripture, and share their mana‘o or understanding of God’s Word and the teaching of the Apostles.
They would gather for fellowship whether it was for a hukilau or a lü‘au. I still remember visiting Uncle Jack Dando of Kïhei one day in 1992. His health was declining. I went by for a home visit one morning.
Uncle Jack decided it was important for me to see a video he taken of the last hukilau that was held in the bay just to our left. He was so proud that he was able to record the event. What I noticed was that Uncle shot the video in real time so that meant watching two men lowering a net from a boat.
They laid the net into the water hand over hand. It took quite a bit of time and all the while Uncle would offer his commentary in a voice of excitement that did not necessarily reflect what was occurring on the television screen.
Eventually the net was drawn in to the shoreline and the catch was brought in. It was a very small catch. Uncle Jack said, “Ah, not as much fish as befo’ time!”
It may seem odd to say that watching a video of a hukilau with Uncle Jack was a time of fellowship but that is exactly what it was for me. Uncle Jack died several weeks later. It is a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Like Auntie Caroline, Uncle Jack understood that “the breaking of the bread” was an important part of the life of the church. Back then a kahu or ordained minister was present to administer the Lord’s Supper. They were devoted to making certain that this was done and they were devoted to making certain that prayers were offered – whether it was the recitation or singing of the Lord’s Prayer in Hawaiian and English or the reading of the Psalms or other forms of prayer.
Professor Hansen tells us what we already know to be true: “God’s grace causes growth, but these are the ways of nourishing the plant.” Auntie Caroline, Auntie Helen, Uncle Jack and many others were here – not to be “successful” in growing the church but to be faithful in nurturing their lives and the lives of others – and because of their faithfulness, the church has grown.
May we be empowered by the Spirit to be faithful as they were faithful – devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. May the word of the promise of life in all of its abundance go forth from this place in the name of the risen Christ.
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