In response to historic wildfires that have decimated the Hawaiian island of Maui and destroyed the town of Lahaina, Covenanters are mobilizing to respond. As part of their mission to serve, Puna Covenant Church in Kea’au and Wellspring Covenant Church in Aiea (just outside Honolulu) are joining forces to help respond to the immediate needs of people in Maui.
Rev. Robert Frick serves as pastor at Puna Covenant in Kea’au, on the island of Hawaii (also known as “the big island”), where they are removed from the drastic weather patterns and fire danger in Maui.
“Maui is extremely dry, and the areas hit by wildfires were in the midst of severe drought,” said Frick when we spoke over the phone. Even though the ferocity of the wildfires caught many local residents unaware, Frick says that drought conditions have been steadily worsening for many years, even though those conditions may not be widely understood.
“When people hear the word ‘grasslands,’ it’s not what people on the mainland might think of. We’re talking about waist-high dry grass,” he said. That partly explains how quickly such fires can spread, even when there’s no clear consensus as to how it starts. For residents caught in such a blaze, the danger escalates very quickly.
“All the islands have robust siren and warning systems for the threat of tsunamis,” said Frick, “but none of them went off for the fires.” He says that many survivors told reporters that they only knew to evacuate when police officers rolled up and told them to get out. Without systemic evacuation procedures, the effects from even those interventions were limited. “I’ve seen images of stretches of road where the cars were at complete gridlock, and the fire came and overtook their vehicles,” Frick said.
As of this writing, the death toll is at 106, but that number is expected to rise dramatically since estimates came from only inspecting a minor portion of the area. As of now, more than 1,300 people are considered missing.
“We are partnering with the Pacific Southwest Conference, Puna Covenant Church, and Wellspring Covenant Church to respond to the Maui wildfire disaster,” said Rev. Ramelia Williams, director of ministry initiatives for Love Mercy Do Justice. “We are partnering with a mutual aid organization that is led by volunteers on the ground in Maui to help address the most critical needs.”
“Jesus encouraged his listeners to be like the Good Samaritan,” continued Williams, “to see, serve, and come alongside their neighbors who are broken, especially in times of crisis. Let us give generously to support those who are in crisis and have lost much. We are committed to standing alongside Covenant churches and their partners on the ground to bring God’s shalom in times of disaster.”
The tragedy impacts friends and family all over the islands and beyond. Pastor Jim Sequeira of Cascade View Covenant Church in Vancouver, Washington, has Hawaiian ancestry, and his roots in Lahaina go deep.
“This is part of my family’s land,” said Sequeira. “My auntie does a lot of genealogy stuff, and as far back as things have been recorded, our family has been in Lahaina since 1706. And with the oral tradition, it goes even farther than that. Lahaina was a place where, in the summers, we would stay at my grandparents’ house. On a personal level, this has affected me very deeply.”
Sequeira has his own perspective on dealing with loss from fire. “About five years ago, our house caught on fire. Against our wishes, our children set up a crowdfunding account. Our church came around us, and many generous people in the Covenant came along and surrounded us.” Nevertheless, says Sequeira, what he experienced was just the loss of one house. “In Lahaina, we’re talking about whole neighborhoods.”
Frick and Sequeira both urged Covenanters to give to the relief effort. “We’re telling everyone who is calling and emailing us from the mainland to be careful of all the misinformation out there,” says Frick. He recommends checking websites from reputable sources, specifically the Red Cross.
Sequiera likens the loss to other forms of grief. “I would tell people to remember that it’s a long road,” says Sequeira. “When someone dies in our church, we always see their loved ones surrounded by friends and family, but I tell those people to keep a long-term perspective. A month from now, two months, six months from now, most of you will be gone, but they’ll still be grieving. So keep checking in, keep making yourselves available.”