Comfort, communion and coffee: Burned-out Hawaii church gathers in cafe
In 60 years of preaching, pastor Arza Brown had never led a service in his sandals. But he had no choice on Sunday, after the wildfire that destroyed a Hawaiian town left him with nothing more than his faith and the clothes he stood up in.
“I have ministered in many disasters, many fires, many things,” Brown told believers huddled in a coffee shop. “And I tried to help people.
“But this is the first time that I’ve been one of them.”
When a terrifying wildfire devoured Lahaina this week, it razed Brown’s home and Grace Baptist Church, where he has served for the last five decades.
One member of his flock volunteered his cafe in Kahului as a makeshift church, where a shell-shocked congregation could gather as it tries to make sense of a blaze known to have killed almost 100 people — the deadliest wildfire in the United States for over a century.
Thousands of people have been left homeless by an inferno that effectively wiped Lahaina off the map.
The loss of hundreds of homes has been compounded by an edict from authorities to close off much of Lahaina, even to people who live there.
“That’s one of the things that’s really bothered me,” Brown told AFP.
“As a pastor, I should be visiting people and ministering to them, but we can’t, you know, we’re not allowed.”
Police said Saturday that only a tiny fraction of the affected area had been searched by cadaver dogs, and they did not want anyone to interfere with the hunt for victims.
They also said that many structures were unsafe and there were other hazards that made it dangerous for members of the public to enter.
- ‘Still here’ –
Nearly 200 people attended the two-hour service at Coffee Attic in Kahului on Sunday, a chance to try to process the disaster with familiar faces.
Some told of their horror as a “ball of fire” bore down on their homes, seemingly from nowhere.
“If there’s one thing you’re going to hear, it’s that it happened so fast,” said Pastor Caleb Woodfin, who was assisting Brown in Lahaina.
For Glorymae Lorenzo, the service was an affirmation of her faith, and a comfort after the horror of the last few days.
“Before we came to church, we’re like, ‘why did this happen?’,” she said “But today you know, because of his words, the pastor, it brings me more… peace.”
Mirasol Ramelb, who lost her jewelry store on Lahaina’s touristy Front Street, hugged Pastor Brown at the end of the service.
“The only thing I could do is keep the faith that I would see (you) again,” she told him.
“The service brought comfort to my heart that God is still there, that he is still in charge.”
In these testing times for his congregation, Brown says this sense of community and purpose is important.
“That’s one thing about getting together today — just to be with each other and encourage each other,” he said.
“The church is not a building. The church was the people, so the church is still here.”
by Paula RAMON
©️ Agence France-Presse