It has been hard to watch and read about last week’s devastating and deadly wildfires in Hawaii. An entire historic town on Maui’s west coast destroyed, hundreds of homes and businesses lost, and at this writing nearly 100 people have died. There have been stories of heroism and generosity as well, as always happens in the face of great disaster.
The United Church of Christ and its predecessor denominations have a long history with the islands. Congregational missionaries arrived in 1820 with the stated goal of “raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization.” Surely there were good intentions there, but that kind of missionary work was clearly, in retrospect, imperialist to the core and gallingly insensitive from the get-go. Some of the descendants of those missionaries helped overthrow Queen Lili’uokalani. In response to a General Synod resolution, the UCC issued a formal apology for these mistakes to the native Hawaiian people in 1993, and began a process of reconciliation that continues to this day.
But the Hawaii Conference is one of the strongest in the denomination, with 117 local churches spread across the islands. The UCC has a strong presence in Hawaiian religious life; there are a lot of Catholic and Mormon churches as well.
Gwen and I were privileged to be in Hawaii in July – once-in-a-lifetime trip with our granddaughter – and encountered some UCC churches on Oahu, including Hau’ula Congregational (pictured here), founded in 1843. And I got to thinking about how that experience, having been in Hawaii, has colored the way I think about the news of the wildfires.
Because I can imagine the scene now. We weren’t on Maui, but I have in my mind’s eye the landscape of Hawaii, the trees and plants, what the houses and the roads and the stores and the schools look like. I can see the people; I have a little sense of what their day-to-day lives are like.
All of that becomes the backdrop against which these terrible news stories are playing out. Surely I’ve only scratched the surface of knowing what it’s really like in Hawaii; really knowing a place takes years, not a week. But having been there, the news is somehow more real to me.
Which points up a human quality that I could do some more work on: empathy for the lives and travails of people in places I’ve never known. Why should a collapsed building in Tehran or a fatal stampede in Delhi move me less than hearing about the people of Maui? Is my fellow-feeling for human beings that dependent on how much I know about them?
In journalism, it’s a cardinal rule that the closer to home a story is, the more newsworthy it is. (Some years back, the National Lampoon put out a parody of a small-town newspaper, the Dacron Republican-Democrat, with an enormous banner headline, “Two Dacron Women Feared Missing in Volcanic Disaster,” and a much smaller subhead, “Japan Destroyed.” The lede: “Possible tragedy has marred the vacation plans of Miss Frances Bundle and her mother Olive as volcanoes destroyed Japan early today.”)
But one of the challenges of faith is to continue to grow our empathy, regardless of geography, regardless of the miles that might separate us from people who are suffering. There’s a lot of suffering in the world, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed or to triage our empathy, reserving our emotional energy for those closest to us. But every life is precious – and Christ calls us to do better.