Keawalaʻi Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Twentieth-second Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, October 28, 2012
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
My dog, Kiko, and I went for our regular morning walk yesterday. We walked across the field at Wells Park in Wailuku and continued down towards Waiale Drive. We crossed Waiale and climbed up and onto an embankment that was once laid with tracks for the trains that transported sugar cane to the mill many, many years ago.
Kiko usually has her mind - or I should say her nose - set on sniffing everything in sight. Occasionally I would make a remark or two even though I knew she was preoccupied with her own interests and oblivious to whatever I might be saying.
“Kiko, I forgot! We need to walk the other way this morning to Kaʻahumanu Church.” We made our way to Kaohu and back up to High Street and ended up at the corner of High and Main streets.
“See it! It’s over there,” I said as pointing across the street. “That’s where Batimea Lalana is buried.”
I began to recall the story of his life. Before he was given the name Batimea Lalana at his baptism on July 10, 1825, he was simply known as Puaʻaiki. He was born in Waikapū in 1785.
It is said that “he was a small man . . . but so twisted in body that he seemed deformed. He moved painfully, and his face not pleasant to look upon, for he squinted out of sightless eyes.” (Pioneer Hawaiian Christians, Frontier Books, Number Seven, Frances Eastman, Friendship Press, New York, 1948, page 4)
A relative took Puaʻaiki in after he was rejected by his own family at birth. But as the years went by, he was left to grow up as best he could. Constant exposure to wind and sun strained his eyes; by the time he reached adulthood he was a deformed, nearly blind beggar. (Op. cit., page 60)
He found food wherever he could, often rooting it out in the forests and begging from neighbors. There were those who said he acquired the name Puaʻaiki or Little Hog because of the way he lived and existed. Over time, he became known not only as a beggar but as a thief and a sorcerer.
Others said he was an expert in hula, especially the hula maʻi which foreigners viewed with disdain saying it was a “vulgar ceremonial dance.” (Op. cit., page 7) It was described as a hula with exaggerated arm gestures and leg movements and twisted facial expressions.
Today we know the hula maʻi as one form of hula among many. Far from being vulgar the hula ma’i is a celebration of human sexuality and the joy that comes from procreation. Puaʻaiki became skilled in the dance and his misshapen figure and limping movements added a unique touch.
People laughed when they saw him dance. Whether it was out of derision or embarrassment we do not know. But news of his dancing ability spread. In time, Kamāmalu, the favorite queen of Liholiho, heard about him and summoned Puaʻaiki to become the court jester. “You shall dance for us when we wish,” she said. “For this you will receive food and awa (drink).” (Ibid.)
And so it was that he would dance for the queen and her court. By the spring of 1820, the royal residence was moved from Kailua, Hawaiʻi to Honolulu, Oʻahu. Once on Oʻahu, Puaʻaiki’s health declined. He found himself unable to stand and was not able to dance for the queen anymore. Soon the food and drink ceased to arrive.
It was during that time a young Hawaiian man named Honoliʻi came upon Puaʻaiki, who was laying on the ground in a grass hale or house, moaning. Flies swarmed over his sightless eyes; lice crawled up his beard. His small, twisted body was clad only in a tattered malo of native bark and a dirty bit of a ragged kīhei. (Ibid.)
Honoliʻi reached down and laid his hands across Puaʻaikiʻs eyes. He brushed away the flies and smoothed back his hair. Honoliʻi told him that he had just returned home with haole missionaries from a place called New England.
“Are you haole?” Pua’aiki asked.
“ʻAʻole. No,” said Honoliʻi, “I am brown, like you. I am Hawaiian. But I have been away long at school. Now I have come back to my own country.”
“Listen to me, Puaʻaiki. I have good news for you. Forget about ʻawa root to deaden your pain. That will not heal you. But there is someone who can heal you. He will cure your sickness. He will make you well. He is the Great Physician.”
Puaʻaiki stiffened and raised his head abruptly, staring at Honoliʻi as though he could see him. “The Great Physician!” he said,. “What is that?”
Honoliʻi replied, “He is Jesus Christ, who heals souls and brings light into dark lives.”
“Take me to him,” cried Puaʻaiki. “I want to know more.”
“I can take you where you will hear more about him,” replied Honoliʻi.
“Then we go, now!”
It was out of his encounter with Honoliʻi that Puaʻaiki eventually became one of the first Hawaiian converts to Christianity. He became an eager listener and learner and lost no time in telling others.
He was baptized on July 10, 1825 and was given the name Batimea Lalana – Batimea for Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of the New Testament, and Lalana, the Hawaiian word for London, where Liholiho, the king, and Kamāmalu, the queen, had died of measles the year before on July 14, 1824 while on a royal tour of England.
Although his eyesight improved for a period of time, Puaʻaiki spent most of his life relying upon what he heard and was able to memorize. After he received his license to preach, Batimea was commissioned in February 1843 to serve as evangelist and pastor of Honuaʻula, the district in which our church is located.
But within seven months, a stomach disorder which had troubled him in earlier years returned. His health began to decline. He died seven months later on Sunday evening, September 17, 1843 at the age of 58. Whether or not he was able to visit all of the churches under his care during that brief period of time, we do not know. But it is very likely that he came to us here in Mākena. After all this was the district known as Honuaʻula and in the early years the church was known as Honuaʻula. In later years the name was changed to Keawakapu and still later to Keawalaʻi.
Our reading from The Gospel According to Mark is about the story of Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar. His story is not unlike the story of Puaʻaiki.
Like Batimea, Bartimaeus was desperate to meet Jesus. Bartimaeus shouted from the roadside calling out to Jesus. When others sternly ordered him to be quiet, he cried out even more loudly.
It is said that when Batimea was taken by Honoliʻi to the home of a missionary, he sat and waited to hear the missionary speak. Sometimes he cried. Tears of joy streamed from his blind eyes. No one knows for certain what he heard.
It may be that it was the story of Bartimaeus – of someone like himself who cried out of darkness and doubt; of someone whose life had been shaped by experiences of loss, exclusion and helplessness; of someone bowed down in desperation – that changed his life completely. Although Batimea was not healed of his blindness in the same way that Bartimaeus was healed, he nevertheless responded in faith believing that out of the brokenness of his life, he would be restored to wholeness.
Though he remained blind throughout his life, Batimea was able to “see” and understand the good news of Jesus Christ. He was able to “see” that in him, God’s love for the world was made known to humankind.
A headstone marks the grave where Batimea is buried. It reads: “Batimea Lalana Puaʻaiki. Born about 1785 in Waikapū. Became a Christian in 1843 in Wailuku, The Blind Preacher of Maui, ‘I once was lost, but now am found. I once was blind, but now I see’.”
Across from Batimea’s headstone is a sign which reads: “Graveyard of the Kahale Family. Donors of this land for a church. Several early Hawaiian Christians may be buried here in unmarked graves, possibly John Honoliʻi, Thomas Hopu, Hawaiʻi and Kawailepolepo.”
I was pleased to learn that it is possible that Honoliʻi, Batimea’s good and dear friend, may be as close to him in death as he was in life. There is no doubt that Batimea remained indebted throughout his life to Honoliʻi.
We see that depth of gratitude in Bartimaeus. It is a departure from the normal pattern of healing stories in The Gospel According to Mark which usually ends with Jesus sending away those who are healed with the command to be silent. (Mark 1:44; 5:19, 37, 43; 7:36; 8:26) Having been granted his sight, Bartimaeus can do nothing but follow Jesus who has brought the good news of God’s kingdom to bear in his life in a tangible way. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009, page 216)
We see in Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho, and in Batimea, the blind beggar of Waikapū, a faith that invites us to see the relationship between faith and wholeness, between faith and salvation. (Mark 10:2) We take heart knowing that Jesus calls us – as he did Bartimeaues and Batimea – to a life of faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.