On mission to Maui, priests, deacons help provide spiritual comfort to fire victims

Destroyed homes and cars in Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui are seen from the air Aug. 10, 2023, after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town. At Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva's prompting, a stream of deacons and priests have descended on Lahaina to offer a compassionate ear and help provide spiritual comfort to fire victims in the weeks since the Aug. 8-9 fires. (OSV News photo/Marco Garcia, Reuters)

(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 Honolulu Diocese 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," he 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 since 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, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.

By Aug. 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 Aug. 28. "The day I went over, we were in Napili Park in Kapalua. It's one of the major staging areas for aid."

"As Deacon Chris said to us that morning on the ride from the airport, 'There's no to-do list or boxes to check off. Just do what you think is best.'"

"Since our tent was near the parking lot, I spent a great deal of time just saying 'Hi' to people as they came in, answering their questions as to where they needed to go for help," the deacon said. "Some stopped to talk and asked who we were. Others just walked by."

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.

"Indeed, there is a great need for spiritual support," said Father Victor Lanuevo, a retired Honolulu diocesan priest. He spent all day Aug. 27, a Sunday, on Maui, and invited along Ron Salvador, a parishioner of St. John Apostle and Evangelist Parish in Mililani and a highly decorated retired Navy hospital corpsman with combat experience.

They were met at the Kahului airport by Hopsing Coon, a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Lahaina resident for 43 years and a parishioner of Lahaina's Maria Lanakila Parish.

"As Hopsing Coon was driving us to see the devastation and destruction of the fire, we felt the pain and the sufferings of the residents," Father Lanuevo said. "There were people who lived in those houses that turned into ashes. It was painful to know some residents died. It was hard to see the people lose everything."

(According to The Associated Press, some Lahaina residents returned to their devastated properties Sept. 25 for the first time since the wildfires seven weeks ago.)

After celebrating the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass Aug. 27 in Sacred Heart Church for local parishioners and volunteers of the Maui Mercy Mission, Father Lanuevo told the Hawaii Catholic Herald that the atmosphere during the liturgy "was very touching.”

It was "as if the people were waiting for an answer to their questions, as if they felt that they would experience the strength to deal with their losses, as if they felt that God had led them to attend the holy Mass," he said.

"After the Mass some parishioners talked to me about losing their homes, and their hope, their future and their faith," he said. "And they felt comforted to know that they had a church to go to and a community to belong to. They believe in the kindness of the volunteer workers of Maui Mercy Mission, and they experienced the presence of God among each other."

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 Aug. 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."

"My own pastor, Father John Molina, asked that I share the compassion of our parish and all of East Hawaii with you, as did my wife and scores of others, many, even strangers to me, who knew I was coming here, and asked that I let you know that you are in their daily prayers, and that you are the object of their daily sacrifices," he said.

"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!'"



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