Lesson from Maui: Faith in God and a strong community sustains residents

We recently arrived on Maui, and it initially felt like the old Maui I used to visit years ago on family trips when I was rabbi in California. The beautiful weather still shined on with pure blue skies and even the Maui clouds felt spiritual, reminiscent of the ancient Hawaiian religious world view.

One cannot drive by the majestic hills overlooking the oceans without imagining the ancient Hawaiian people organizing their religious rituals and culture. Even the perfectly manicured hotel landscapes along the coast leading to Kaanapali draws the tourists back to their beloved Hawaiian refuge or sanctuary from the hustle bustle of life on the mainland.

Hawaiian natives teach visitors like myself about the interconnectedness between human life and the rest of nature from the birds in the skies to the fish and coral reefs beneath the seas. That interrelationship between all these elements of the physical world combined with the oversight from the divine realm has made Maui an intriguing place to visit and to settle, a healing island for all who are open to that spiritual domain.

The physical and the spiritual realms of Maui are, however, facing their greatest challenges since the tragic fires back in August. Driving along Route 30, one can get a glimpse of the places from downtown Lahaina to other patches of communities surrounding it that have burned to a crisp. Even now, the remnants of this city of 13,000 residents are forbidden to visitors and residents as well.

I asked myself, “How will this part of Maui ever renew itself?” There are so many challenges to rebuild the physical and spiritual infrastructure.

My wife and I decided we wanted to do something for the people in our small way. She set us up to volunteer for the local Humane Society, passing out food to those who are dislocated and who lost their homes and apartments four months ago. The next thing I find is that I am at the Hyatt hotel, where our food stand was set up. An arrangement was worked out with the help of the Red Cross and FEMA that there are over 7,000 dislocated people living in tourist hotels. Another 1000 live in Airbnbs. It is a beautiful thing to see how the business community has been working with government and the nonprofit sector to provide desperately needed shelter and food.

But what about pets? According to news reports, over 3,000 pets are also dislocated from their human pet parents. The Humane Society has initiated volunteer programs to support the mostly dog and cat populations. Many animals were transported to facilities on the mainland due to the overcrowded shelter facilities on Maui.

I greeted so many local residents coming by to pick up animal food. They were all grateful and gracious to receive the support. Of course, this is not how they want to live, but what choices do these workers and their children have at this point? Many spoke to me about their gratitude. Yet, despite the sunshine on the outside, the inner world is different. Every one of the residents wants the old normal of their previous lives restored to them.

I could see during my stay in Maui groups of Army Corps of Engineers around town. I am praying that they are coming up with a strategy for providing longer term housing until Lahaina can be rebuilt.

Officials and residents spoke with me and explained that one of the greatest concerns is when will these hotels end the hospitality. Everyone lives with that fear. It is the fear of what comes next. People say, “Where does one go? Will I have to live inside a tent on the coastline? How and where will I feed my family?”

One large hotel just announced that all dislocated residents had to leave by the end of November. There are many other questions as to when will the feds, the state government and even the city and county councils get the momentum going to start to reconstruct this beloved town which looks like a bombed out shell of what once was a vibrant place to work and live.

This is a time for strength and hope. We in Hilton Head had a taste of that feeling of when will it end after Hurricane Mathew. The challenge grows from getting through the initial trauma and then not seeing a long-term solution. That is where the soul faces the reality and struggles with the angels on high just like Jacob in the Bible did with the spiritual being until the angel renamed him Israel, meaning one who struggles with God and prevails.

In Maui it may be a more nuanced struggle, but it is nonetheless intense and weighs heavily on the dislocated residents every day.

Living in exile is difficult for those who were forced to leave their homeland or for those like in Maui who are in exile from their old normal way of life.

We see all over the streets and tunnels, “We are Lahaina strong” or “Maui strong.” Clearly faith in themselves and in God guides Maui’s citizens. The renewal comes from the healing waters, mountains and total beauty of nature as well as a strong community where there is respect for the dignity of the people. Maybe that is what helps make Maui and Hawaii such a sacred and special land.

The Hawaiians say, “E heel me is pu’olo.” Always take an offering with you. Make every person place or condition better than you left it always. This is the sacred Hawaiian way, the way of abundant flow honoring Ke Akua (God) and his creation which is nature.