In a box of 64 crayons, there are 11 shades of blue. When looking out upon the pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the beach in Hawaii, it seems like there might be even more. It is one of the many marvels that help explain the magnetism and grandeur of the Islands.
I’ve been in love with the Aloha State since my first visit 30 years ago. Most recently, I visited over Mother’s Day with my parents and renewed my affinity with Polynesia.
During this momentous visit, we celebrated my mom’s third victory over cancer – a glorious convergence of medical science and prayer. The previous year, Mother’s Day was spent at my mom’s bedside at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles as she went through a radical surgery.
This year was different. My Dad and I took her to the gorgeous United Methodist church where my parents renewed their wedding vows for their 50th anniversary a few years ago. It is a congregation of Tongans, locals, and tourists. Every week, the congregation hand-laces fragrant leis to adorn the visitors. On this Sunday, my mom’s lei rested right near the practically invisible 9-inch surgery scar on her neck – like a flower bursting through a crack in the sidewalk. Mothers were called to the front of the sanctuary and rightfully honored. The Tongan choir sang stoutly in their native tongue.
Interestingly enough, I actually grew up with Tongans at church. Although Tonga is 3,000 miles south of Hawaii – the only Methodist kingdom in the world – there is a large population in Southern California. Part of my dad’s 45-year ministry was helping create a Tongan congregation at our church in Santa Ana. The church service in Hawaii made my soul feel right at home.
Aside from volcanos, pineapples, and the sunsets, it is the “spirit of aloha” that has the longest-lasting impact on visitors to the Islands. At least that is the hope. Aloha is the most well-known way to say hello and goodbye, but it has multiple meanings and represents deep philosophy, culture, and theology.
Long before Western explorers arrived, the traditional greeting (called “honi”) between two Hawaiians involves the touching of foreheads and noses and sharing the same breath of air and responding with Aloha. It meant the “exchange of breath,” “face to face breath,” or “the breath of life.” As a meaningful lifestyle, however, aloha is expressed through love, generosity, and cooperation. It is a virtuous and respectful ideal – and especially practical when one faces the unique challenges of living on a remote and isolated island with other people. In other words, aloha is treating someone else as you would want to be treated.
More than 30 years ago, Hawaii enacted the “Aloha Spirit” law which recognizes the cultural standard of kindness and consideration. “This law is virtually impossible to enforce because it is a philosophy that directs a code of conduct and way of life. Nonetheless… all citizens and government officials of Hawaii are obligated to conduct themselves in accordance with this law,” Dana Viola, first deputy attorney general of Hawaii, recently told the BBC.
The late Hawaiian poet and philosopher known as Auntie Pilahi Paki wrote the aloha law and gave spiritual meaning to the word in the form of an acrostic:
A stands for Akahai, meaning kindness (grace), expressed with tenderness.
L is for Lokahi, meaning unity (unbroken), expressed with harmony.
O is for Olu`olu, meaning agreeable (gentle), expressed with pleasantness.
H is for Ha`aha`a, meaning humility (empty), expressed with modesty.
A stands for Ahonui, meaning patient (waiting for the moment)and persevering.
As a word, aloha is so pervasive in Hawaii that it almost loses its deep meaning. For those vacationing for the snorkeling and surf, aloha may simply be what is used as a greeting or farewell. But others who want to take home the true spirit of the islands are invited to find ways to allow kindness and humility, patience and generosity, tenderness and perseverance to be expressed through everyday life back home.
For the Hawaiian Christian, aloha has deep spiritual roots.
“We do not understand the meaning of Aloha until we realize its foundation in the power of God at work in the world. One of the first sentences I learned from my mother in my childhood was this from Holy Scripture: ‘Aloha ke Akua’ – in other words, ‘God is Aloha,’” said the Rev. Dr. Abraham Akaka in a historic sermon in 1959 celebrating statehood for Hawaii.
“Aloha is the power of God seeking to unite what is separated in the world – the power that unites heart with heart, soul with soul, life with life, culture with culture, race with race, nation with nation,” he said. “Aloha is the power that can reunite when a quarrel has brought separation; aloha is the power that reunites a man with himself when he has become separated from the image of God within.”
For 27 years, Akaka (1917-1997) was the kahu, or pastor, of the historic Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. A graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University and Chicago Theological Seminary, he would often play the ukulele in his sermons and preached in both English and Hawaiian. Kawaiahao became known as Hawaii’s Westminster Abbey, having become the official church of the Hawaiian kingdom. Akaka was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was in Washington D.C. during the “I have a dream” speech. Newsweek once described him as having the “charm of a beach boy and the force of Billy Graham.”
“When a person or a people live in the spirit of Aloha they live in the spirit of God,” said Dr. Akaka. “And among such a people, whose lives so affirm their inner being, we see the working of the Scripture: ‘All things work together for good to them who love God… from the Aloha of God came his Son that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly.’
Akaka continued: “Aloha consists of this new attitude of heart, above negativism, above legalism. It is the unconditional desire to promote the true good of other people in a friendly spirit, out of a sense of kinship. Aloha seeks to do good, with no conditions attached. We do not do good only to those who do good to us. One of the sweetest things about the love of God, about Aloha, is that it welcomes the stranger and seeks his good. A person who has the spirit of Aloha loves even when the love is not returned. And such is the love of God.”
Aloha does not gloss over legitimate differences of opinion. It does not seek to eradicate deeply held beliefs. Instead, it seeks to allow those differences to be treated with respect. Akaka wanted to make it clear that aloha does not allow for exploitation or subservience, but shares the burdens of others and seeks the best for everyone.
Although he was speaking in 1959, his message rings especially true in our modern age: “Today, one of the deepest needs of mankind is the need to feel a sense of kinship one with another. Truly all mankind belongs together; from the beginning all mankind has been called into being, nourished, watched over by the love of God. … Aloha is the spirit of God at work in you and in me and in the world, uniting what is separated, overcoming darkness and death, bringing new light and life to all who sit in the darkness of fear, guiding the feet of mankind into the way of peace.”
As I worshipped with that small congregation on Mother’s Day, I thought back to a time when going to church with my parents was the last thing I wanted to do. But here, I was at peace. Although it was not my church, it had become my sanctuary.
Speaking with the Tongan pastor after the service, I shared a bit about my heartfelt connection to that church. Without hesitation, he placed his large hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said: “This is your home. This is your home.”
In that moment, we shared the breath of life. In that moment, it was my aloha.