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May 24, 2013

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Kalaupapa-HIKalaupapa, Hawai'i (photo courtesy of Nathan Riding)

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.

Workiing-at-KalaupapaSierra Club Outings Hawai'i Subcommittee Chair Jill McIntire, me, Krista Collard, and Nathan Riding weeding invasive plants in the nursery in Kalaupapa National Historic Park

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-KalawaoGraves at St. Philomena Church at Kalawao, Kalaupapa, HI (photo courtesy of Krista Collard)

Many people know that the Hawaiian islands have incredible natural beauty, to the extent that they are commonly referred to "paradise." What we learned from park rangers and native Hawaiians Luana, Momi, Lane, and Jeff, who supervised our service projects, is that Hawaii's environment is incredibly fragile, and valued native plants like the Kukui (Candlenut) Tree are being threatened by invasive species like Ironwood Pines. We learned that many Hawaiian plants have medicinal properties -- from the aloe plant's gooey leaf-filling that we squeezed onto our sunburns, to the bumpy noni fruit that Hawaiians consider a cure-all for many health problems, to the inky-purple taro paste called poi that we we tasted at dinner.

The na pali, or cliffs of Kalaupapa (photo courtesy of Nathan Riding)

I also learned that the biodiversity of Hawai’i includes animals as well as plants. The array of tropical fish and coral living in Kalaupapa’s tiny harbor was stunning. Bird calls, orange butterflies and creepy-crawlies were omnipresent when we hiked the na pali, or cliff up to the "topside" of Moloka'i. Every day, we walked past a chalkboard counting "MONK SEAL PUPS" outside Paschoal Hall -- a community center founded by Mother Marianne Cope, a second Roman Catholic Saint who cared for Kalaupapa's leprosy patients.  Hawaiian Monk Seals are one of the world’s most endangered species, yet our group was lucky enough to view three blimp-like adults and two pups snoozing on Kalaupapa's empty beaches. Our wonderful Outings leader Lynne Simpson, who first came to Kalaupapa in the 1970 with her husband Ray, and my Sierra Club colleague Nathan Riding, were even honored with a monk seal visiting them underwater.

Monk-sealHawaiian monk seal in Kalaupapa Harbor, HI (photo courtesy Nathan Riding)

The most enduring lesson I learned in Kalaupapa was the interconnectedness of the spiritual elements of our world with its physical environment. During the time I spent talking story with Puanani Lindsey, a Maui environmental and community activist and member of the Sierra Club Outings Hawai'i Subcommittee, and pulling weeds among centuries-old graves, and swimming in the murky turquoise ocean, I felt that I was truly embodying the Hawaiian concepts of malama -- to take care of things properly, and mana -- spiritual power imbued in all living things.

Kuahoko-CraterKuahoko Crater, which formed the Kalaupapa peninsula about 230,000 years ago (photo courtesy of Krista Collard) 

This very special outing reminded me that I have an imperative to respect and give aloha to the environment and other human beings. I will carry this meaning in my heart wherever life takes me -- over the rainbow and beyond.

Mahalo nui loa to all the people who shared the experience with me.

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