For nine days at the end of January, my wife and kids and I were on the Big Island of Hawai’i, enjoying paradise in the company of my parents, who own a time-share condominium there and visit there every January. They’d decided that it’d been too long since they’d spent any amount of time alone with us or our children, and invited us to come along; we didn’t say no. We’d been to Hawaii before, but this was, without doubt, a vacation to remember: delicious fruit, beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery, long talks with my mom and dad, swimming and golf and snorkeling, and a night of kalua pig. For photographs, see here; for my typically long-winded ruminations on Hawai’i and vacations in general, see here. But for here at T&S, some thoughts about the gospel and the church in paradise. Of course, a couple of week-long visits doesn’t give me any expertise, though my parents have spent enough time there to supplement my observations somewhat. Still, let me throw some things out; perhaps I’ll be able to come up with something controversial enough to get Keith or other knowledgeable folks to chime in.
1) I don’t have any hard data, but I’ve been told that the LDS Church is the second largest Christian denomination in Hawai’i, second only to Roman Catholicism. I believe it. Driving through tiny little towns on the south side of the island, on our way to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we passed no less than three full-fledged ward buildings. At the luau we attended at the Royal Kona resort, it turned out that the guitar player was Mormon (and a former bishop), at least one of the dancers were Mormon (the stake president’s son, in fact), and the MC was Mormon (the first counsellor in the bishopric of the ward we attended, despite having a job that requires him to tell jokes warning male audience members not to stare at the femlae dancers’ “coconuts”). Added bonus: we just happened to sit down right next to the temple president and his wife, who were treating some visiting friends to a luau. You just can’t get away from the Mormons in Hawai’i, it seems.
2) Melissa’s father served his mission in Hawai’i–visiting four of the seven islands, I believe–back in the late 1960s, and, being a Salt Lake City boy, was astonished by the multicultural character of the islands. In later years, he taught his children that, should they ever marry anyone from a different race–African, Asian, whatever–they should move to Hawaii, the one place in America where race doesn’t matter. I’m sure one could contest that final comment, but visiting wards and the temple in Hawai’i certainly supports the multicultural amazement he must have felt. I’ve attended wards in South Korea, predominantly expatriate wards in Germany, wards in New York City and Washington DC, and I’ve never seen as great a variety of colors and sizes of persons taking the sacrament as I did the Kona First Ward the Sundays we were there. Not just row to row, but seat to seat–more multiracial couples I’ve ever seen inside a Mormon church building. And in the leadership too: our bishopric was Chinese, Hawaiian, and white, in that order. It’d be nice to say that’s the gospel at work, but as my father-in-law observed many years ago, it’s more the islands than the doctrine, I’m afraid.
3) While I was busy checking out my fellow parishoners, my eye was caught by the skirts which many Polynesian men wore. Some were plain, some were colorful, but some others were nicely pressed cotton and/or polyester dress skirts, gray or black with pinstripes, complete with pockets and beltloops. I thought they were fabulous; I’d never seen anything like them. I wonder if Mr. Mac has opened up a store in the islands?
4) I mention this one delicately, because again, I can’t say that what I observed was authoritative. But a few hours at a couple of church meetings confirmed a suspicion of mine which I’d previously formed and which had been attested to by my parents and some friends of mine that have lived in Hawai’i–the Hawaiians and other Polynesians are…how shall I say this? They’re significantly more comfortable and accepting of the use of corporal discipline and physical discipline in raising their children than I suspect any random mainland Saint is likely to be. In short, a fair amount of hitting, and not all playfully. One native member I spoke with jokingly referred to it being raised by “the laying on of hands.” I don’t have any real direction to take this observation; while I have my own beliefs about parenting, I’m not prepared to argue that an environment of harsh physicality is necessarily any better or worse for children’s spirituality than, say, the environment of relative permissiveness and anomie which most white mainland Mormon children experience while growing up. But I do wonder, given the sensitivity with which church leaders have increased approached the issue of abuse, whether this cultural difference has caused any concern at BYU-Hawaii or in other contexts when the church has felt itself very much on display.
5) They say things “hang loose” in Hawaii, and that was surely the case during the meetings and at the temple. Our second counsellor was chewing gum through sacrament meeting. Church started really late. In the temple, a couple of brothers–one white, one Polynesian–in the men’s dressing room were cracking each other up louding with jokes about some recent camping trip. We did initiatories at the temple, and as the wording of the ceremony has recently changed slightly, things went slowly–made more slow by frequent interruptions, as one officiator checked with another to see if he got the wording right, and one of the fellows I was going through occasionally reading the words through himself (“just to double-check,” he said), and the other guy I went through with at one point bringing things to a stand-still by asking whether a different scripture citation wouldn’t serve the ceremony better. But I was the visitor there–the rest of these folks, old and young, all knew each other by their first names–so I just kicked back and let things develop. When we were finished and were walking towards the door of the temple to leave, a temple worker approached us and asked if we were going out to dinner. “Because if you are, let me recommend this great place owned by a member just down the road…you like hamburgers?”
6) I wonder if part of the seeming laxity of the church organization in Hawai’i isn’t at least partly a function of the age of the church there. Yes, there is the local culture and habits of the islands, and yes, there’s the prosperity level (or lack thereof) relative to the mainland church. But still: if gospel matters in Hawai’i seem to slide into their own groove, perhaps that’s because the LDS Church came to Hawai’i, and the rest of Polynesia, long enough ago for it to have developed its own groove? The original Hawaii temple in Laie was the first built outside of Utah; while it was also the first 20th-century temple (built in 1919), the member population it served was to great extent one that emerged out of late 19th-century missionary work–and unlike the case of 19th-century missionary work in Europe, converts in the Pacific Islands were not encouraged to immigrate to Utah. Hence, the Mormon church in the Pacific is the first, and perhaps the only (Mexico is a debatable case), instance in which local, non-correlated practices were allowed to flourish without much correction. Of course, certain elements of the church are different everywhere, but given that the emphasis on building Zion in the local stakes didn’t emerge until the post-World War II, much more modern and correlated church administration was on the scene, I wonder if the differences that slipped under the radar of the church out in the islands of the sea for a good 70 or 80 years aren’t deeper and more significant than those which existed elsewhere, and thus give rise to an easy-going confidence in the “Polynesian way” of being Mormon.
Examples? Well, you’ve got the “Aloha!” thing at the beginning of every sacrament meeting talk; why hasn’t somebody clamped down on that by now? A better example might be what happened at the end of one sacrament meeting, a farewell for a sister called on a mission. Immediately after the closing prayer, the congregation rose and sang a song in Hawaiian printed on a sheet of paper and pasted to the inside cover of our hymnals. Another member told me it was a local Hawaiian tradition; they always sang this old folk song whenever a member of the ward or branch leaves on a mission. I checked, and sure enough–this wasn’t something that they’d handed out for the occasion; every hymnal (which were all in English) had a new “farewell” hymn added to them. Can Mormons really get away with defacing their hymnals by adding local folk tunes? Apparently in Hawai’i you can.