By Patrick Downes
(OSV News) – A smile. A wave. A hug. A bottle of water. An attentive and compassionate ear. A shoulder to cry on. A prayer. A ministry of presence.
A steady stream of priests and deacons from across the Diocese of Honolulu has been making its way to west Maui to provide spiritual support for the victims of the Lahaina wildfires, the worst natural disaster ever to hit the state of Hawaii.
Called the Maui Mercy Mission, it was initiated 10 days after the catastrophe with a letter from Bishop Larry Silva to Hawaii’s deacons and priests.
“Many of those affected by the fire simply need someone to talk to, to pray with them, and to comfort them,” Bishop Silva wrote. There is also a need to bless the bodies of the dead in the temporary morgue if families request it, he said.
“I am asking all the priests and deacons, whether on Maui or on other islands, to consider lending spiritual support by going to Maui for a day or two to be present to those in need and to offer prayer, spiritual counsel, and your presence,” said the bishop, who has been on one of these mission trips himself.
The bishop also asked the priests and deacons to donate their airfare. Ground transportation and overnight accommodations, if needed, would be arranged.
The bishop asked Father Arnold Ortiz, who retired in June as a parish pastor, to coordinate the mission’s logistics.
About 15 deacons and three wives of deacons were part of the first wave of Maui “missionaries,” said Father Ortiz, not including those from Maui and elsewhere who have come on their own. Priests from Oahu and neighboring islands and a few priests from the mainland have participated in the Maui mission.
“The Maui priests, deacons, and sisters, of course, have been the primary source of help,” led by Msgr. Terrence Watanabe, Vicar of Maui, he said.
Maui Deacon Chris Ribucan of Kahului is the primary mission organizer on the island, arranging transportation from and to the airport and getting the clergy to the mission stations, which are open tents where the ministry is offered, advertised by signs that read, “Spiritual Assistance: Prayer, Guidance, and Sacraments.”
“The primary services are spiritual comfort and prayer, counseling, sacraments, computers and daily supplies,” Father Ortiz said in an email to the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.
By Wednesday, August 30, two mission stations were set up, one at Napili Park, “around the corner” from Sacred Hearts Church in Kapalua, and the other at Lahaina Gateway Center. More mission stations were being considered for the hotels where more than 4,000 people have found shelter.
“Most important for the Diocese of Honolulu is to have a strong presence,” Father Ortiz said.
“It’s heart wrenching to see the ruins of the fire, but gratifying to see people coming … for help,” he said.
“One of the deacons listened long and patiently to a person tell her story about how she lost everything. We saw the stress on her face and in her demeanor, but just telling her story to someone who really cared was important for her to begin to find a sense of calm and peace,” Father Ortiz said.
But this is just the beginning, he said. “I believe we recognize now this mission effort will be needed for many years.”
“It’s important we stay organized and encourage volunteers to be flexible,” he said. “Over time, the process for managing the missions will be refined as they will most likely continue to grow in number.”
Deacon Michael Weaver, Director of the diocesan Office for Deacons, went on mission on Monday, August 28. “The day I went over, we were in Napili Park in Kapalua. It’s one of the major staging areas for aid.”
He told about one woman who came over and said, “I’m not Catholic, but I really need to talk to someone.” Deacon Ribucan sat her down and got her some water. She told him of how she had gone through multiple evacuations – the most recent one based on a false rumor – from her still undamaged house. “I can’t take this!” she told Deacon Ribucan, who let her talk, commenting occasionally, “as she just let her feelings out.”
“Thirty minutes later, she was calmer and laughing,” said Deacon Weaver. “She hugged Chris, who said a prayer with her, shook my hand and Father Arnold’s as well, and walked quietly off. She turned as she got to her car and waved.”
“That’s pretty much how the day went,” said the deacon.
Deacon Charles Mapa, from Mountain View on the Big Island of Hawaii, and who serves as a deacon at Sacred Heart Church in Pahoa, gave a brief homily at Sunday Mass at Sacred Hearts Mission on Sunday, August 27. He spoke about his part in the mercy mission.
“Speaking as a deacon, I know that most of us came with little expectation that we had to do something when we got here. We knew that if we could just be here, God would use our presence to let us listen to you and pray with you,” he said.
“I saw a great dynamic happening because of this situation,” he said. “I saw on the Big Island a great outpouring of love that I knew was happening throughout our beautiful islands, and you are the target of that love.”
“I have seen here signs of great resiliency and hope. That you are even having Mass here in this mission church, this beautiful mission church, is a wonderful thing,” Deacon Mapa said.
“There seems to be, in spite of the tremendous hardships placed on you, a huge outpouring of the Holy Spirit here,” he said. “There is vibrant life here, and it is here because you continually say ‘yes’ to God’s promptings. You will endure and I see you as beacons of love and hope for all of Lahaina.”
“In closing, I quote Pope St. John Paul II, ‘Couragio! God is with you!’”
Patrick Downes is Editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.
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