Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
“A Holy Welcome”
I made the trip to Fiji over twenty years ago. I was invited to serve as member of a delegation of representatives from several Pacific, Asian and North American countries.
We were in the process of planning an ecumenical gathering of delegates from member churches of the National Council of the Churches of Christ both in the U.S. and Canada as well as the East Asia Christian Conference and the Pacific Conference of Churches. Because the Pacific Conference of Churches was based in Suva, Fiji it made sense that the city be considered as a possible site for our meeting because of its geographic location in the Pacific Basin.
The visit was critical. At least two coup d’état had already occurred. The country was in a state of unrest.
Over the years Fiji became a primary destination for immigrants from India seeking work. Most came to work the sugar plantations and like the immigrants who came to Hawaiʻi from China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Portugal and Puerto Rico and other countries, many stayed and never returned home to their native countries.
However, unlike Hawaiʻi, the immigrant and native populations in Fiji remained as separate and distinct communities. Those of Indian descent were not allowed to own land. However, they were allowed to have their own businesses and in time they became the merchant class. It was said that their economic gains had become a source of concern.
But more significantly it was the increase in the Indian population that gave rise to deeper concerns over the political future of the country. Some of the tensions spilled over and grew more serious. By the time we had arrived there had already been reports that several Hindu temples were set on fire by Fijian youth from Christian churches.
The lead organizers for the gathering had hoped that our presence would encourage those who were seeking reconciliation and healing to move ahead. In the days that followed it became apparent that we would not be able to return to Suva.
The Indian Embassy was closing its doors. The Fijian government, now under military rule, expelled the Indian ambassador and action was taken to deny Indians entry into the country, an action that would have excluded Indian representatives outside Fiji from attending the meeting.
the end 60 delegates from the United States and Canada as well as 60 delegates
from Pacific Island nations and 60 delegates from Asia countries met in
the fall of 1990 in Hilo on the island of Hawaiʻi. What prompted
me to think about that time that now seems so long ago was the hospitality
extended to us, under such circumstances, by our Fijian hosts.
Amid the political unrest, social or economic uncertainties, or religious tensions may have been, we were invited upon our arrival to sit down on lauhala or pandanus mats for a kava ceremony. I knew enough that we called it an ʻawa ceremony here in Hawaiʻi. I also knew that our Congregational missionaries had managed to convince our aliʻi or ruling chiefs that the ceremony needed to be banned.
It was a well known fact that the root of the ʻawa plant was the source for a narcotic drink. It was said that the plant produced an intoxicating effect – that upon consumption one would become light-headed or drowsy and that a degree of numbness was to be expected.
Ironically, I had already spent a summer when I was a young adult attending an Episcopal church on the island of Oʻahu and was surprised by the taste of communion wine. I already had a bit of an idea about what to expect.
Although Methodist missionaries had found their way to Fiji, it appears that the Fijians were not about to give up on their ceremony. That Fijians continue to practice their ceremony surprised me because it was not done simply as an expression of their culture but as an expression of their Christian faith.
We were given a quick lesson in protocol and instructed to receive the coconut shell filled with kava that was made from the root of the plant. It was soaked and wrung out by hand into a large wooden bowl. As a sign of appreciation to our host, we were to drink the entire content of the drink in one continuous action - no sips – after which our host and everyone would clap twice in response to each other, as a sign of having done well.
If you have ever participated in a kava or ʻawa ceremony, you know how easy it is to become distracted by its preparation and its taste. But the ceremony itself is an act of hospitality and within the context of the church, it is meant to be a holy welcome.
Now I may get into trouble with some of you for having said that I believe it is an expression of a holy welcome. It may be that we are too far removed from the days of our Hawaiian kūpuna or ancestors to see it practiced in our churches again, but we have seen it practiced here in Hawaiʻi more and more in recent years in a number of different cultural settings.
What is important about the ceremony is that it is about hospitality; that it is about welcome. Yet, clearly we do not need to be engaged in the practice of the ceremony to offer our hospitality, our welcome to others.
Our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew urges us to extend a holy welcome and to attend to the needs of others. We know that water was a precious and powerful symbol in the arid regions of ancient Israel.
The terrain, especially in the wilderness of the Jordan, made hospitality more than a social pleasantry. It was a matter of survival.
It has been said that “life depended on water and welcome. Hospitality was the greatest obligation of biblical times for people throughout the ancient Near East.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life/Pentecost 1, RCL Year A, June 19-August 28, 2011, Wood Lake Book Publishing Inc., Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, page 24) But that may be said of people everywhere.
It is also an obligation deeply ingrained in all of us whenever we find ourselves offering a guest to our home something to drink. Jesus knew that a host was bound, by honor, to provide certain hospitality especially to strangers, such as offering food and water. He knew that such hospitality included the opportunity to wash and to provide shelter, even protection.
He also knew that the host was aware that some day he or she would also be dependent on others for such provisions. So not to offer such hospitality was considered a faux pas or great social error, even a sin. (Ibid.)
Jesus was aware of all of this as he calls on the disciples to go about their work. The disciples were at times hosts and at other times strangers. There are times when we ourselves are either hosts or strangers.
The act of hospitality implies some risk because it acknowledges the worth of another human being. That was true in the early church for the disciples. By welcoming a follower of Jesus – the risk was to the host and to the disciple.
For me there is a bittersweet section in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, which speaks about such a risk.Walker received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for her novel that takes place mostly in rural Georgia. Her story focuses on the life of African American women during the 1930s.
I don’t remember the details of this part of the story. So what I am about to share with you is my recollection.
Off in the distance two of the main characters – it may have been Celie and her sister Nettie - notice the steeple of a church, reaching towards the sky. They are walking through a wooded area. Voices are heard singing and one character offers a word of lament about how no one she has known has ever gone to that church and wonders what it would be like.
The other responds with words of reassurance, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The Lord’s been trying to get in there for years.”
Letting folks in can be a risky venture. That would have been the case for the slave owners who were in the church that day when Celie and Nettie walked by.
We face a risk in our own lives as a church when we open our doors but more importantly our hearts and minds to others. We have said and we continue to say it is our mission to “welcome all, love all, and accept all into our ʻohana.”
It is a risk we take because we believe it is the bold work of God’s saving love that makes it possible for us to be extravagant in our welcome. Whoever we may be; whatever our station in life; wherever we have been in our lives; whatever our achievements and shortcomings; however we look, think or feel – as God has loved us and welcomed us so we love and welcome others.
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