The Hawai‘i Most People Never See

October 30, 2012
The Hawai‘i Most People Never See

“Aloha.” While most people may think of aloha as a poetic Hawaiian greeting, a group of 13 students from Chaminade University of Honolulu, a Marianist university on the island of Oahu, now have a deeper understanding of the “aloha spirit” and their own faith and values, thanks to a weeklong immersion learning experience on Hawai‘i’s Big Island.

Experiencing the other Hawai‘i

The university reintroduced the immersion program four years ago with a simple premise: Expose students to native Hawaiian culture and give them the opportunity to serve local people.

Many people come to Hawai‘i as tourists or members of the military and never really see Hawai‘i,” explains Marianist Brother Jerry Bommer, university rector emeritus, who pushed for the program’s creation. They see Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach with its high-end hotels, boutiques, restaurants and T-shirt shops. But their exposure to Hawaiian culture is skin deep, limited to an airport lei, grass skirts and ukulele music.

“I thought our students should meet Hawaiians in their neighborhoods and understand their lives,” says Brother Jerry.

Coordinators from the university’s campus ministry department created a spring break program for students to perform service work on the Big Island, the largest of the Hawaiian islands which is approximately 200 miles southeast of Oahu. During their stay on the island, the group lives at Hale Lokahi, an ecumenical retreat center in the tiny village of Volcano.

The Big Island, which has the highest number of native Hawaiians in the state, differs markedly from Oahu. Because it lacks major metro areas, there are fewer business and professional jobs. Tourism isn’t a major industry on most parts of the island and the exodus of sugar cane and pineapple growers in recent years has hurt the island’s agricultural economy.

The poverty level on the Big Island is about 15 percent, approximately a third higher than elsewhere in the state. Almost a quarter of the island’s children live in poverty.

Students dig in

To better understand and help the Big Islanders, students perform a variety of service projects. Some have helped residents tend their taro patches and maile farms. (Taro is a starchy tuber and a staple of the Hawaiian diet. Maile is a valuable vine used to make leis.) This year’s students helped clear land for a nature trail at a local community center and worked in the island’s only food pantry, filling bags of food. The bags are placed in low-income students’ backpacks to sustain them through the weekend when they don’t have access to school-supplied meals.

The experience underscores the realities of poverty in a way a newspaper or classroom lecture never could. “You can read about the plight of the poor and the homeless, but to bag food for the children drives the message home,” says Kay Stone, campus minister at Chaminade.

In addition to the service work, students spend time with native Hawaiians absorbing their culture and heritage. They learn how to prepare food in an imu (an underground oven), tour a banana farm and explore the Kilauea volcano and the rain forest to learn about the identity and uses of native plants. Each day the group spends time in reflection and celebrates with traditional Hawaiian music. A highlight of the trip is the naming ceremony in which a kumu (the Hawaiian word for teacher) gives each student a Hawaiian name based on the student’s traditions and values.

But above all, the group learns through experience and service what the “spirit of aloha” means.

We are family

More than a greeting, Hawaiians feel that “aloha” is a recognition of the life force that unites all things.

“To say aloha means ‘we’re sharing the same breath,’” says Querida Dydasco, who went on the immersion trip last year as a sophomore. “The Big Island experience showed me how close the Hawaiians are to the land, the water and each other. Now whenever I say ‘aloha’ to someone I think about what it really means.”

At its deepest level, the “aloha spirit” is about love and everything it encompasses, such as compassion, humility and gratitude. Beyond a greeting or a welcome, it is a spiritual embrace: an invitation to community, not as a guest, but as family, says Mike Pennock, 21.

“I’ve been to friends’ houses and their parents are welcoming and they treat me as a guest,” says Mike. “On the Big Island we were treated as guests the first day and family the second.” The difference, he notes, is enormous.

“As a guest you are given everything and then you go home,” he says. In polite society there’s an unspoken understanding that one day, you will reciprocate. “As family you are given the food and the place to sleep and all the good things, but you give back immediately,” he says.

By way of example, he notes that a door handle broke while the group was at Hale Lokahi, so the students borrowed tools, fixed it and checked all the other knobs in the house.

“We weren’t asked to do this,” Mike says. “We were considered family. We saw that the house’s door knobs were starting to fall off, so we said, ‘We’d better fix the door handles.’ It was natural and nobody said, ‘You don’t have to do that, you’re a guest.’”

Ke Akua: The essence of Hawaiian hospitality

Life at Hale Lokahi is about simplicity, community and living close to nature. Volcano residents rely on rain catchment systems for their water and many tend backyard gardens. Stripped of electronics and urban distractions, students spend the week discovering the joys of community, sometimes working together to weed a garden or make music.

“The Hawaiian word for God is Ke Akua,” says Chardonnay Pao, 20, a junior from Oahu. “We learned to see God in the people we were surrounded by,” she says. “We understood that it wasn’t just the love of these people we were experiencing, but the love of Ke Akua as well.”

Even as they immerse themselves in Hawaiian culture, students participating in the Big Island trip are experiencing the Marianist call to community and service. The hope, says Maimoa Fineisaloi, campus minister, is that they internalize the experience, take it with them, and incorporate it into their daily lives when they return to campus.

“I want them to get a sense of community and understand that community can happen anywhere with anyone,” she says. “That feeling of unity and togetherness doesn’t have to stay within the group. They can share it with their roommates and friends and classmates. Community can have a domino effect.”

Participants say that’s happening in small and unexpected ways. Mike says the experience underscored for him how much he wants to include service into his daily living. Chardonnay says it inspired her and several other students to join the school choir and participate more actively in the Mass. Querida says it changed her understanding of family.

“It taught me to be more open to people,” she says. “I learned that I can make new friends and that my family isn’t limited to my biological family.”

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