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Christmas Eve at Makena’s Keawala‘i Church

December 25, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

For a southeastern Maui coastal community that developed in the 1970s into the 2000s integrating a master-plan of golf courses, hotels, and residences with the marketing name of “Wailea”, the Keawala‘i Congregational Church along the Makena beachfront is the architectural exception.

Founded in 1832 as the Church of Honua‘ula -– barely 12 years after the first Christian church in Hawai'i, the Mokuaikaua Church in Kailua-Kona, on the western shore of the Island of Hawai'i -- the current stone-wood church building was first made of pili grass. Later, the “stones” used in the building were sourced from the local Maui shoreline, including much coral.*

In 1856 Keawala‘i Church in 1856 ordered a custom bell from the vast country east across the ocean called the United States, and six years later in midst of the American Civil War, a large bell arrived by clipper ship. In a heroic operation, the bell was lifted to the belfry and rung.

What is significant through the 1860s, after the Great Mahele, a time of land division, appropriation, and title confusion, a sustainable farming community composed of Hawaiian families thrived in the Makena area, and they provided a succession of church kahu or "elder/leader" and funding for church repairs, pews, books, all kinds of items.

What a scene Sunday morning must have been: the horses and wagons arriving via crooked roads down the mountainside, the colorful palaka clothes, the natural Hawaiian language greetings and singing.

However, by the early 20th century, families began to move to other Maui farming areas, and the once-thriving Hawaiian community began to decline.

By the 1940s, the church must have looked like a building in today's bankrupt Detroit: holes in windows, overgrown weeds, chandeliers stolen, songbooks torn up – vandalism, neglect, a sad time.

Amazingly, the church – with a core group of 40 members -- was reborn in the early 1950s by a revitalized congregation, and though living in an isolated village accessible only by non-paved roads, far away from the pre-Statehood political and social turmoil of north Maui's plantation communities of Wailuku, Kahului and Pa'ia, the church was cleaned-up, and roof re-done in bright new paint coating – proudly and gloriously “visible from the heights of ‘Ulupalakua and Kanaio” on the verdant slopes of Haleakala. Thus, a new beginning for the church.

A young, energetic “Kahu” Reverend Abraham Akaka came from Honolulu to lead a re-dedication of the Makena church on May 25, 1952, five years before he would head Kawaiahao Church*, the influential Honolulu church with many of the missionary Big Five families in its congregation

At the re-dedication according to the church history, Haehae Kukahiko, an “alert grandmother of 93 and the eldest member of the church at that time (gave) the opening prayer”. This meant that the year when she was born, the Makena congregation was still waiting for the bell to be shipped from a foreign country called the United States, torn asunder by Civil War, to a tiny church in Maui, part of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. She would join the 20th century re-dedication luau, a great celebration with much singing, and perhaps recalled her childhood when Hawaiian was spoken all around her.

After the luau in seven short years the Territory of Hawaii (T.H.) would be replaced by Statehood, and complete absorption by the huge country across the Pacific that made the beautiful bell for the church.

The congregation continued with a new spirit into the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the congregation probably sensed that at County and State government levels, Makena and the surrounding beach areas were planned for a new industry called tourism, to create new jobs for Maui residents. It was difficult to be "isolated", when a golf course was built near-by, now known as "Wailea Old Blue" in the early 1970s, and a paved road was built, allowing more visitors to the area for camping and fishing.

Then the mid-19th century belfry collapsed in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, a year of global turmoil, and the congregation worked to restore it, plus more work, including replacing the roof – all these projects took years and years and culminated in the 1976 re-dedication and another big luau.

Throughout the 1990s, more restoration work continued, with a new church floor, made of ‘ohi‘a, a wood native to Hawai‘i. In 1992 a new cross was made of milo wood and base of koa wood, identical with the new koa candlesticks and bowls – all carefully and deliberately continuing the use of Hawaiian themes, local materials. This undercurrent of “going back to Hawaiian cultural roots” in all church renovation continued with a new altar, made from Hawaiian wood species including ‘ulu, koa, milo, and ‘iliahi, and it was dedicated on Thanksgiving Sunday, November 19, 1995.

The Keawala‘i Congregational Church members began to reflect the great renaissance of Hawaiian language and culture, first in the early 1970s especially in Hawaiian music, and again with the voyages of re-discovery in the 1980s and 1990s by the Hokule'a, the traditional ocean-going double-hulled canoe that sailed to Tahiti, Polynesia, and even to Japan.

The congregation’s mission focused on “uniting our Christian faith and Hawaiian heritage”, the latter a strong affirmation of the church’s origins among a small Hawaiian farming community in Makena, and singing and worship in ‘olelo Hawai‘i or Hawaiian language.

Significantly and again drawing attention to its Hawaiian cultural roots, the church’s 175th Anniversary was celebrated over two seasons of the Makahiki, the ancient Hawaiian New Year festival, in honor of the god Lono of the Hawaiian religion. The celebration began at the start of the Makahiki on November 18, 2006 and concluded 16 months later at the conclusion of the Makahiki for that year which ended with the annual luau (yet another one!).

And so in the evening of Christmas Eve, 2013, I found myself with my family among a huge crowd – a church kahu mentioned “800 folding chairs”, way in back under the branches and leaves of a giant tree, perhaps a tiny sapling decades and decades ago. The standing-only crowd was mostly from Makena, some from Wailea hotels, others from Kihei shoreline condos.

The Reverend Kealahou C. Alika, a friend, led the services, and he opened with greetings in ‘olelo Hawai‘i, and in fact, all the Christmas-themed songs, with originals based in Western European music and lyrics, had words in Hawaiian on a giant projection screen in front of the crowd, a high tech touch, with later lit candles for the attendees. He spoke of the “Star of Bethlehem” that guided the three “Wise Men” who arrived at the manger of Jesus; he invoked the Hokule’a, the name of the double-hulled canoe “guided” by stars on its voyage of re-discovery.

Celestial navigation, the “Star” that appeared at the birth of the Christian Savior, the revival and re-birth of Hawaiian language and culture are all intertwined in the history of a small stone-and-wood church along the beach at Makena, a microcosm to understanding where we are today and what was there before in the greater order of the universe.

*Kawaiaha'o Church on O'ahu across from Honolulu City Hall belongs to the same Protestant Christian denomination – United Church of Christ -- and has a similar 19th century origin but with more Royal Hawaiian influence; it also utilized in the church construction a huge amount of coral from Oahu’s shoreline.

Reverend Akaka would lead the church for 27 years, before Statehood until the early 1980s; during the 1960s when he headed the first State Human Rights Commission in the United States, he would meet and influence Martin Luther King's views on racial harmony.

See Maui News: Martin Luther King Jr. Wearing a Lei in Selma, Alabama

Before her tragic reign, the then-Princess Lili'uokalani was choir director at Kawaiaha'o Church, makai of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the Anglophone Anglican/Episcopal church, which was an oasis, a meditative retreat favored by Royal families of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Imagine the Queen's anger when she encountered her former church choir singers, who supported the Overthrow, which led to the end of her reign and the Kingdom.

I was married at St. Andrew's Cathedral.


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At Keawala‘i Congregational Church: Christmas Eve services.