May 24, 2013
Service and Spirituality on a Sierra Club Outing in Hawai'i
By Rachele Huennekens, Sierra Club Grassroots Media Strategist
Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, my head spun, my eyes watered, and my heart thumped as I stepped off of the small airplane. Scalloped cliffs carpeted in dark and lurid-bright green towered 2,000 feet above me, while sparkling cerulean waves lapped at the white sand and lava rocks at my feet. The wind whistled in my ears, while warm rays of sunshine and fine sprays of fog raised goosebumps on my bare arms.
I had arrived in Kalaupapa National Historic Park on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i, as a participant in a Sierra Club Outing. The purpose of the Service and History on Kalaupapa Outing was to help the U.S. National Park Service preserve Kalaupapa's tragic history and unique environment. For five days, our group of 14 Sierra Club members worked alongside park rangers to improve the National Historic Park for future visitors by curbing invasive plants, painting historic buildings, and cleaning the beach. In the process, my spirit was deeply moved as I learned about Kalaupapa's sacred history, present and future.
Many people know that Kalaupapa was a colony where Hawaiians suffering from leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, were sent to live apart from their families by decree of King Kamehameha V in 1865. What our Sierra Club Group learned from U.S. Park Ranger Richard Miller were the details of the life of Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest who humanely cared for the leper patients in the 1800s, when the disease was contagious and untreatable. Miller led a painstaking restoration of Father Damien’s St. Philomena Church at Kalawao, the original settlement on the Kalaupapa peninsula. Father Damien was canonized in 2009, and is now the Patron Saint of Hawai'i. Today, several elderly Hansen's Disease patients continue to be treated by the Hawai'i State Department of Health and live in the Kalaupapa community.
Graves at St. Philomena Church at Kalawao, Kalaupapa, HI (photo courtesy of Krista Collard)