We circle up in plastic chairs under the kukui nut tree. The kane (men) blow the conch shell to begin our service and the kahu (pastor) gives the oli (chant) to invite the Presence of God to be with us. We hug and greet everyone; forehead to forehead and nose to nose as we share ha (breath). Someone strums beautiful melodies on the guitar and more guitars and ukuleles join in accompanied by a dozen or so voices lifted up in joyful song! This is Ka ‘Ohana, the family, a small body that seeks to worship God the Native Hawaiian way. It is a beautiful expression of worship to God.
Most of us admit the church does not have four walls, but sometimes we get a little uncomfortable when the walls are taken away. Our vocabulary falters and our definitions become ambiguous. What is church? Is it that place we go on Sundays with lots of smiling well-dressed people and free (weak) coffee? Is it five worship songs, an offering, 25 minute sermon, and fellowship service? Is it a community with the same religious beliefs, similar political convictions, and socio-economic status? If we’re really honest with ourselves, isn’t this what most of us envision when we use the word church? What if some of these elements were removed? Would it still be church? What is church at it’s most basic essence? I’ve often thought of it as the place and time of fellowship with other believers, often intentional and regular but sometimes spontaneous. Or maybe we adopt a more spiritual definition: Church is where “two or more are gathered” (Matthew 18:20); it is the global body of followers of Jesus (Romans 12:5; Colossians 1:18).
Whatever church is, one thing is certain: church is cloaked in culture. There is no meta-cultural church, rather there are many expressions of the church in as many colors, shapes and forms as there are cultures to contain them! Even Jesus came into culture as a Jewish man worshiping God the Jewish way with Jewish people. Maybe this could be a working definition: Church is an expression of the family of God coming together and worshiping God within the culture(s) he gave them. So maybe the weak coffee, 25-minute sermon, and 5 worship songs are a part of my culture’s expression of worship. Our expression says something about us and something about the way we view God.
I love learning about God through other cultural lenses and I aim to make that my life-long pursuit (hence the theme of this blog, crossingoceans.org). I think stepping outside of my culture norms and mores helps me to see God in new and fresh ways so I can better reflect Him to the world! At Ka ‘Ohana, I have gotten to know Io, the most high God of the Hawaiian people. He is the same God has the Jewish God YWHW (Yahweh; aka Jehova). And yet, the Hawaiian people worship differently than my people, but the meaning of their worship is strikingly similar! They sing of a God that created the sand, gentle breezes, and deep oceans. Their dance is the hula, reflecting the undulating movements of wind and water. When they greet each other, they share the breath of life, recognizing each other as fellow creatures of the God who breathed into them. A special meal they share in remembrance of Iesu (Jesus) is pounded taro root (like his hands were pounded thru with thorns) and coconut milk (his blood poured out for us). But the most beautiful thing of all, is the way the Hawaiian people understand ‘ohana (family).
Let me illustrate. On a week-long trip to Maui, my friend Tori and I visited a small Hawaiian church. After learning some worship hula with the ladies, one auntie wrapped us in her arms and said, “Now, you are ‘ohana. I want you to come to my grandson’s graduation party!” Just like that! So a few days later, Tori and I showed up at the graduation along with 200 or so other “family members”. We realized that day that the Hawaiian community’s concept of family is very different from our own–White-American and Latino-American culture.
Though there are many things to appreciate about Ka ‘Ohana and the Hawaiian church in general, the unique way they most clearly reflect the heart of God to me, is their expression of family. Everyone is embraced, everyone is fed, everyone is welcome! This is Ka ‘Ohana ke Akua, the family of God!