Following wildfires, team from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) visits Hawaii

‘You still have families wondering where they’re going to live and how they’re going to continue their lives’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Members of a PC(USA) team survey wildfire damage on Maui. (Photo courtesy of Edwin González-Castillo/Presbyterian Disaster Assistance)

LOUISVILLE — A solidarity visit to Hawaii by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and other representatives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) generated goodwill and helpful information for future humanitarian assistance. But most of all, it cultivated empathy and compassion for the people impacted by wildfires on Maui, where a historic blaze killed nearly 100 people and destroyed about 2,000 buildings in August.

Many residents affected by wildfires in Lahaina and the lesser-known upcountry of Maui in the Kula area remain in the recovery phase, uncertain about what lies ahead for them and their families, according to the PC(USA) team.

Members of a PC(USA) team met Tom Liu, a resident of the Kula community who lost everything to a wildfire. (Photo courtesy of Edwin González-Castillo/Presbyterian Disaster Assistance)

“A lot of stories were shared with us about how the government response up ‘til now has been missing the mark, at least for them,” said the Rev. Denise Anderson, director of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “Some of the struggles around housing, being able to secure aid, secure housing. The bureaucratic red tape that people have to go through, which essentially makes seeking assistance a full-time job, to the exception of everything else in their lives, and the emotional and spiritual toll that was taking on people was what we heard most.”

Anderson was part of the PC(USA) team that spent time listening to people’s stories and providing pastoral care, including prayer, during the visit to Maui and Oahu last month.

“The Aloha Spirit is so strong and … the hospitality was very genuine, very thoughtful, and we were very much welcome,” Anderson said.

The wildfires on Maui have been devastating. (Photo courtesy of Edwin González-Castillo/PDA)

On the other hand, it was tough to hear about the difficulties of those dealing with displacement and other stressors, the team said. “To hear the worriedness in their voice, to hear their wondering and their questions” and how their families are being affected, “it was difficult not to cry,” said PDA’s director, the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, who was also on the journey.

The solidarity visit included travel to Maui’s Lahaina area, where the most severe damage occurred, as well as the upcountry, which experienced its own wildfires. The team also visited the island of Oahu, where there are multiple Presbyterian churches with a heart for people facing struggles in Maui.

Members of the team, including the Rev. James Kirk and the Rev. Denise Anderson, consult a map during the solidarity visit. (Photo courtesy of Edwin González-Castillo/PDA)

“People in the Lahaina area are still unable to use water for anything other than flushing,” said the Rev. James Kirk, Associate for National Disaster Response for PDA. “They can’t wash their clothes in it. They can’t bathe in it. They can’t even wash their hands, so people in the Lahaina area … are literally surviving on bottled water.”

And though people in another area had been given the greenlight to drink the water, some residents were reluctant to do so, members of the PC(USA) team said.

Along with staffers from PC(USA) national headquarters, the visiting team included representatives from the Presbytery of the Pacific, such as the Rev. Linda Culbertson, General Presbyter, and the Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble, mission catalyst. John Toillion, a ruling elder from the Mililani Presbyterian Church on Oahu also participated as did the Rev. Hardy Kim, a PDA Advisory Committee member who serves as pastor of Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in California.

The visit to Hawaii came about because PDA — and the Presbytery of the Pacific — have been closely monitoring the wildfire crisis since August, participating in calls to provide up-to-date information, support and prayer and to connect people with resources. The denomination also has provided humanitarian aid, with the help of generous gifts from Presbyterians. So, “there was an interest in having Presbyterian national leadership visit to see firsthand the damage that has taken place, to offer ministry of presence, and to help discern what are the best next steps to this,” Kirk said. The Hawaii visit also was “a way to assess how best to be good stewards of the resources that the denomination has provided.”

By the conclusion of the one-week visit, it was clear that there are still significant, unmet needs, so PDA is continuing to provide aid, with an emphasis on Po’okela Church, a United Church of Christ church led by the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Fong, a Presbyterian pastor, near Kula.

Po’okela Church has been a place of refuge for many people in the Maui upcountry. (Photo courtesy of Edwin González-Castillo/PDA)

“We’ve provided two emergency grants to support Dr. Fong’s congregation and the work that they’re doing, and we’re anticipating a third emergency grant” for ongoing needs, Kirk said.

One of the major issues is a lack of housing, particularly affordable housing, said González-Castillo, who noted there are sometimes multiple families living together. There also are challenges with insurance companies, FEMA, and justice issues, such as water access on the island where corporate interests collide with those of the people, the team said.

The solidarity visit began at Mililani Presbyterian Church on Oahu, where Kirk took part in a food distribution event. Then he and other members of the team attended worship and spent time with the adult Sunday school. They also met with representatives from multiple Presbyterian churches.

“We got to detail who we are and hear from Presbyterians on the island about what continued needs and responses are” as well as some background about the Maui fires and factors that fueled it, Anderson said.

At times, there was smoke visible from a wildfire going on in Oahu. Although structures weren’t being threatened, the fire underscored “the profound drought that the islands have been experiencing and the ease with which these fires even get started,” Anderson said.

While in Oahu, the team met with some military chaplains and heard from Catherine Wong, an indigenous woman in Mililani who introduced them to the concept of aloha ‘aina, referring to “the land being sacred, from mountain to sea,” González-Castillo said. The team gained an “understanding that this is not just ‘Oh, a house that burned.’ This is sacred land that was affected by this fire.”

From Oahu, the team flew to Maui, where they visited Po’okela Church. “It was an opportunity to meet and share table with members of the church and leaders of the church who have been working and serving the community together with Pastor Fong,” González-Castillo said.

Po’okela Church has been providing supplies to people whose lives have been disrupted by wildfires in Maui. (Photo courtesy of Edwin González-Castillo/PDA)

The team pitched in to help with preparations for a thrift sale. They also prayed with people and received overflowing gratitude from the community. “So many people just came out to say, ‘Thank you,’” Anderson said. “People would just come up in tears, just grateful.”

Worthen Gamble, who’s been a liaison between Fong and PDA, said it was “so powerful to hear and so beautiful and really unexpected that so many people from the community would go out of their way to thank us for the support that we’ve been providing through Po’okela church.”

She noted that Fong has been doing “an incredible job” and “her church has really opened up their hearts and their doors.” For example, they are “a hub of services and fresh produce from the local area, and they have a worship team that provides music.”

Thanks to Fong, members of the PC(USA) team were able to meet with an area official to share some of the concerns they’d heard from the public.

“We wanted to be their voice in that space and then also to offer PDA services” since it has a National Response Team, resilience trainings and other offerings, said Worthen Gamble, who also shared experience that her presbytery has with rebounding from southern California fires.

One thing for sure is “this is going to be a long-term process,” González-Castillo said. “Tourists are coming back to those places, but you still have families wondering where they’re going to live and how they’re going to continue their lives.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. To make a donation to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for disaster relief for those affected by wildfires, go here.

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