St. Columba’s Church Replant in Pa’auilo, Hawai’i

This is the third in a series of reports on initiatives funded through the budget of The Episcopal Church in its grants to Mission Enterprise Zones. Acts 8 Moment also has a series of reports on those receiving Church Planting Grants.
A Mission Enterprise Zone grant from The Episcopal Church is helping with the rebirth of St. Columba’s Episcopal Mission, in Pa’auilo, Hawai’i. Established in 1898 to serve the owners, managers and workers of the Hamakua Sugar Company, by the 1970s St. Columba’s had become the Filipino Church on the Big island. After the last sugar cane on the Hamakua Coast was harvested in 1996, the mission struggled to keep its doors open. St. Columba’s became a Preaching Station of St. James’ Church, offering a monthly Eucharist for the 8-10 faithful remaining members.

In early 2013, St. James’ congregation asked the Rev. Tom Buechele to help the Rev. David Stout, Rector at St. James, “replant” St. Columba’s. Buechele had been serving as an interim priest at Big Island churches, and felt drawn to explore the mission possibility at St. Columba’s. With a missionary spirit and a great deal of demographic research, the replant got underway.  On Easter Sunday 2013, St. Columba’s was reborn. They are now using a Mission Enterprise Zone Grant in support of their efforts to attract the growing population along the Hamakua Coast, from Kukuihailae to Honokaa to Laupahoehoe. Members of St. James, Waimea, St. Jude, Ocean View, and St. Augustine, Kapa’au helped with the initial replant efforts by making a commitment to walk alongside St. Columba’s Church.

Less than a year into the replant, Buechele moved to the mainland to retire. Without a priest on the island who could lead the church, the congregation turned to a Lay Missioner. Elizabeth Lewin had just completed 2 ½ years of Clinical Pastoral Education (hospital chaplaincy residency). Stout knew Lewin from his tenure at St. Bartholomew’s in New York City and after an interview, he extended a call. Lewin had long felt a call to the priesthood. The opportunity presented her with the chance to explore the local formation program. Stout says, “Elizabeth has been a great asset, greatly gifted in the areas of pastoral care and evangelism.”

Stout notes that the challenge has been providing formation and supervision from a distance.  Elizabeth and Steve McPeek, the congregation’s minister of music, having been raised up for ordination to priesthood, will now begin flying to Oahu once a month for classes and formation.  A new priest to the Island, the Rev. Diana Akiyama, has agreed to serve as Vicar-in-Charge for the next six months. Elizabeth will continue to live in the house on the St. Columba’s property while providing pastoral care and leading evangelism efforts and outreach to youth.

Throughout this time, the membership has been steadily growing. From December 2013 to December 2014, the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) rose 86% from 23 to 43. Part of that growth has come through on-going attempts to reconnect with families who may have worshiped at St. Columba’s in the past. One way they have sought to do this was by offering a Homecoming Sunday, which brought 65 people to worship and, more importantly, rekindled the connection to history, culture, childhood memories, and life events. Many former members who had moved away after the Plantation shut down have begun coming back to St. Columba’s. They are reclaiming their childhood or ancestral spiritual home.

With the Plantation property being sold, new people are moving into the area and building homes. St. Columba’s is striving to reach out and attract these newcomers. Many of them are from the mainland or other islands. In their very rural part of the Big Island, a significant aspect of St. Columba’s ministry is providing a place of community and connection. The congregation is multi-denominational, multicultural, multi-generational and includes parishioners who are original families from the Plantation era, Filipino, Japanese, Hawai’ian and Haole (Caucasian).

Challenges

  • Because of restrictions, the church cannot put a sign on the highway. So, they used their nearby cemetery for a new sign (pictured here). Banners on the church lawn have also added visibility and promoted initiatives, such as the after school program.
  • Early in the replanting process, St. Columba’s did not have infrastructure to provide care for children that might have come. The old church office was refurbished and dedicated as a children’s room. They also placed a glider in the back of the church for a parent with a baby to use during worship.
  • Despite trying several programs and ministries during the week, they have yet to find one that really attracts participation. They have offered a children’s Bible class and a trained Godly Play storyteller on Wednesdays, a healing service on Wednesdays, Morning Prayer on Mondays, and organized a grounds & planting and a cleaning day.
  • St. Columba’s is especially struggling to find a children’s program offering that works. The church is directly down the hill from the elementary school, yet so far no programs have been effective. They have talked to parents in the community and discovered that one issue is that many children are cared for by their grandparents. Many grandparents (and some parents) don’t have cars, and those that do are using them for work.

  • A recent study in the Church of England revealed that congregations that have a continual pastoral presence in the congregation and community, as opposed to a different person each Sunday, are more likely to grow.  St. Columba’s has been intentional in providing pastoral support for local families at risk, spending time visiting individuals and families in the congregation and newcomers in their homes. Pastoral care for the sick and acute/long term hospital care, bringing the Eucharist to home and hospital bound, praying, getting to know family members who work in the community—these are credited with being a part of the growth the congregation has experienced.

Successes

  • The church baptized four persons in 2014 and one more will be baptized this month. St. Columba’s officially welcomed seven new members this past year. To assist in incorporation of new members, they have designated several “Welcome Sundays” with a liturgy welcoming new members and marking this important decision.
  • While difficulties remain in connecting to children during the week, St. Columba’s has worked hard to incorporate the children they do have into Sunday worship. Children collect the offering almost every week, carry the cross, and bring the food offering forward (food items collected are given to Annunciation Roman Catholic Church Food Pantry in Waimea). Children ring the bell at the start at worship, and they have recently started using a child lector.

  • A potluck immediately following worship has become a key opportunity for connection. The food provided is reflective of their ethnically diverse population. Lewin says, “It is a joyous, delicious time for fellowship and hospitality feeding the body and the spirit.” The are trying to help people from different backgrounds get to one another. One way they do that is by encouraging people to sit together, mix and recently they asked people to sit with someone they do not know.
  • The best source of evangelism has been by word of mouth, going out into the community and building relationships through “talk story” and an open invitation to come for worship and and stay for the potluck. Parishioners have evangelized in Honaka’a, Christmas caroling with townspeople on First Friday. They distributed leaflets and post cards telling about programs.

Lewin said, “Mission Grant funds and support is giving the church time and space for people in need of relationship with God. This is the beginning and God said ‘It is good!’” She added, “We are continually given a glimpse of what a thriving church can be – with sounds of children, mothers/fathers with newborns, old members and new members getting to know each other, trusting that they are cared for and that this is a safe and a soft place to fall into the loving arms of our Lord Jesus Christ. A place to practice our spiritual muscles and building the foundation for a future.”

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