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Studying the World's Religions in Hawaii

by Edward Ulrich


All undergraduate students at St. Thomas are required to take three theology courses. The first, “Theology 101,” is a broad overview of the Christian tradition. At the 200 and 300 levels, students select courses that focus on particular topics, such as morality or the New Testament. For the last course, at the 400 level, students take classes that make bridges between theology and other topics. The courses involve topics such as science, business, environmental issues, and world religions. One of the latter courses, which the Department has offered five times over fourteen years, is “Christianity and World Religions in Hawaii.” This is a month-long experience at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

One might wonder, “Can one do any serious work in Hawaii? Isn’t the course just an excuse for a vacation?” However, to see Hawaii entirely in terms of fun and leisure demeans the land and its peoples, and is to see the land in terms of one’s own desires. To go beyond Waikiki can be, for many Minnesotans, an eye opening experience. To go beyond Waikiki is to enter a world of Buddhist temples, and a world where whites are a minority and Asian races form a majority. To go beyond Waikiki is to enter a land where people from across Asia, the Pacific, and North America have come to live. Some came seeking work, some came seeking to be reunited with family, and some came for sun and surf. Contributing no less to the complexity are the tourism industry, the strategic importance of the Hawaiian Islands, concerns about Hawaii’s distinct ecology, and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

This St. Thomas course focused on Hawaii as a matrix of religions. These included American Christianity, Hawaiian religion, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism. A typical day consisted of a site tour and two-hour lecture from experts at the University of Hawaii. Some of the tours were of the Mission Houses Museum, the Daijingu Temple, the Nichiren Mission, and Pearl Harbor. One group of volunteers had the pleasure of dining with a former First Lady of Hawaii, Mrs. Lynne Waihee.

One of the special resources for the course are the philosophy and religion departments at the University of Hawaii. The latter was the first philosophy department in the United States to offer the study of Asian philosophies. It was possible, in America, to study Asian philosophers in other departments, such as religion departments or Asian studies departments, but not in a philosophy department. The reason is that Asian philosophy was not recognized as philosophy; it was believed that human reason was a discovery mainly of the West, not of Asia. However, the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii challenged this belief, and scholars in both the philosophy and religion departments have a long history of pushing the boundaries of Western understandings of Asian thought and religion.

One of the topics of special focus in the course is the history and religion of the Hawaiian people. For centuries, the Hawaiians had a flourishing civilization on the world’s remotest islands. However, when contact with whites began in the late eighteenth century, diseases started to ravage the population. Thus, through the nineteenth century there was a dramatic decline in the population. Consequently, sites were abandoned, much culture was lost, and other peoples moved in.

Also, during the nineteenth century, the indigenous rulers lost control of the islands. Unbeknownst to many, Hawaii had its own kingdom, with diplomatic relationships across the world. King Kalakaua, for instance, met with figures such as Pope Leo XIII and Emperor Meiji, and Queen Liliuokalani was the guest of Queen Victoria. However, during the reigns of Kalakaua and Liliuokalani, tension grew over control. On the one hand, there was the monarchy, and on the other hand, there was a conglomeration of whites, such as the sugar planters, who were the descendants of missionaries from New England. Tensions came to a head in 1893, when the planters and their associates, with the help of the United States marines, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani.

Grover Cleveland became President two years after the overthrow, and he concluded it was an illegal move. He halted plans to annex Hawaii, but after he left office, Hawaii was annexed. At the one hundred year anniversary of the overthrow, President Clinton signed a formal apology (see United States Public Law 103-150). Honolulu was the capital of the kingdom monarchy, and today one can visit the Iolani Palace, Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, the Royal Mausoleum, and Kawaiaha‘o Church and St. Andrew’s Cathedral, where royalty once attended. One can also hear the Royal Orchestra play, which has been in continuous existence from the time of the kingdom.

Today the Hawaiian people constitute only 7% of the population of the islands. Many are engaged in efforts to reclaim their past. There is, for instance, a prominent and controversial Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Far less controversial, there are projects to restore, rebuild, and reuse sites of cultural significance. St. Thomas students volunteered at some of these. For instance, on the leeward coast of Oahu, at Ka‘ala Farm, former sugar cane fields are being restored to taro fields. On the windward side of Oahu, there is the He‘eia Fishpond. It is an enormous structure that stretches into a bay and was an importance source of food. Today the pond is being cleared of mangrove and the walls repaired, so that it can provide food and cultural identity once again. (The pond was a subject of a PBS documentary.)

Service-Learning in Hawai'i

by Elaine Mac Millan

Dr. Ted Ulrich and I designed THEO 424: Christianity and World Religions (Hawai’i) to provide students with as much direct experience as possible with the Indigenous and Eastern religions that they would study while in Hawai’i. To reinforce for the students that they were “student-scholars” and not just “tourists” during their time in Hawai’i, we incorporated, for the first time, a service-learning component into the course. We also provided students with opportunities in-class and through papers to reflect upon their experiences.

He’eia: The Fishpond

The first service-learning experience we provided for the students took place at the He’eia fish pond (http://paepaeoheeia.org/thefishpond), a class undertaking in which we professors also participated. The stone and coral wall or ‘kuapa’ surrounding the 600-800 year-old fishpond had fallen into disrepair making the fishpond unusable as a food source. On December 12, 2015, 2000 people had participated in a community event to begin the restoration of the ‘kuapa’ and our arrival three weeks later continued the work begun in December.

The wall, when completed, will be 1.3 miles long and 12-15 feet wide and will encircle 88 acres of tidal waters. Through the restoration of the wall, the community intends to recover an ancient form of aquaculture that is uniquely Hawai’ian. The goal is to restore the fish stocks and return the island to food self-sufficiency.  

The work at the He’eia was physically demanding. Some of the students repeatedly carried rocks from the shore through thigh deep ‘brackish’ water to the wall. Others found themselves sinking in mud to their ankles as they passed invasive mangrove branches from one to another to be placed on a large fire to be burned. Yet not one student complained. In fact, the majority suggested that the He’eia fishpond become a service-learning site in future courses. Dr. Ulrich and I could not have found a better way to teach the students about the indigenous religious, cultural, and ecological values that influence Hawai’ian self-understanding.

Service-Learning Sites

Thanks to the assistance of Atina Pasqua, Director of Service-Learning at the University of Hawai’i, we were able to partner with the following organizations: The Wesley Foundation, Read 2 Me International, and HUGS (Help, Understanding and Group Support). Each Friday morning, 3 groups of 6-7 students traveled to their assigned service-learning sites. At the end of the course, one student described the value of these service-learning opportunities in the following way:

I enjoyed the service-learning aspect of the J-term because I felt that it made us more connected with the community rather than just tourists . . . Overall, I believe that it was a great step in building relationships with the local people and showing them that we are not just using their island for our pleasure and commerce.

The Wesley Foundation: Homelessness in Hawai’i

Within hours of arriving in Honolulu, the students, not surprisingly, had discovered “Waikiki Beach.” Within the week, however, their experiences at The Wesley Foundation had changed their initial perspective on “Waikiki.” They learned about the causes of homelessness in Hawai’i and discovered that “64% of the homeless in Hawai’i are on the island of Oahu and specifically around Waikiki beach near all the resorts.” As one student explained:

Back in Minnesota, I have viewed the homeless negatively, mostly because I never took the time to understand their situation and because it was something so foreign to me. This is what the service-learning has helped me to understand.

Another student wrote:

Everyone deserves a place to call home. Like our class covenant says, Ohana means family and family means no one gets left behind.

The students discovered that there are entire families in Hawai’i that are getting left behind. Without organizations like The Wesley Foundation’s Vancouver House, these families would not have a place to call home.

Read 2 Me International: Literacy in Hawai’i

The opening lectures and tours of the course focused upon Hawai’ian history, culture, and religion. One student observed,

This experience has taught me that there is a lot to learn about the cultures of Hawai’i and the mainland because even though we are part of the same nation, they differ on a lot of aspects and beliefs in daily life.

One of these differences includes Hawai’i’s ongoing pride in its 19th-century monarchs. Under King Liholiho, for example, Hawai’i’s literacy rate soared and Hawai’ians could claim to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world at that time. Why then, the students wondered, is there the need today for an organization like Read 2 Me International? The students drew on those initial class lectures to answer this question in the following ways:

Through our lectures and tours we have been told that the island(s) of Hawai’i had a 100 percent literacy rate before the ‘take over’ and that after Hawai’i became a state there was a wave of negative thought towards the native language and people of Hawai’i.

From the time of Hawai’i’s annexation as a U.S. territory in 1898 to becoming the 50th state in 1959, the literacy rate in Hawai’i fell and has continued to decline to this day. Thus, the students began to understand the need for an organization like Read 2 Me International, with its seemingly simple mission, “Share the love and joy of reading aloud.” They also had the privilege of meeting with, and working with, the founder of Read 2 Me International, Former First Lady of Hawai’i, Lynne Waihee.

Drawing upon our classroom lectures one student asked

What is the best way to raise the literacy rate? What were the Hawai’ians doing when they had one of the highest literacy rates in the world?

He seemed to be asking, “Could we apply those historical lessons to the literacy challenges  that Hawai’i faces today?”

In a final reflection on her experience at Read 2 Me International, another student wrote,

With this information [about literacy] that I have learned throughout this service learning experience, I think that I will be a better parent in the future.

She noted that, before participating in service-learning at Read 2 Me International, she was unaware that having parents read to their children could have such an impact upon a child’s literacy and success in school.


Reflecting on his service-learning experience at HUGS, one of the students wrote,

Over the past two weeks, I have learned that the Hawai’ian culture relies heavily on family (ohana) and community.

HUGS’ mission is to “improve the quality of life for families as they face the emotional and financial hardships of caring for a seriously ill child.” Part of that mission is developing a “home away from home,” an ohana, for Pacific Island families (Tonga, Fiji, Samoa et al.) who leave their own ohana behind when they travel to Honolulu to receive medical care for their sick child.

To meet this need for these parents and children, HUGS has developed a respite program and our students worked hard helping HUGS prepare for the January respite weekend. One student reflected,

Previous to this experience, I had little knowledge of respite care, what it [entails] and how it impacts lives.

After completing some further research on respite care programs, this same student discovered they seem to benefit families, especially mothers, more than traditional long-term-care programs.


When we asked the students whether service-learning should be a component in future THEO 424 classes in Hawai’i, we received a unanimous and resounding “yes!” I’ve chosen to give the following three students the last words explaining why:

Volunteering at HUGS was a great experience for all the St. Thomas students who participated. Everyone involved grew both as an individual and as a member of a team. Perhaps most prominently, I think both my fellow students and I gained a greater understanding of what service actually is and what it can achieve. I was amazed by what could be accomplished by a community with resolve and compassion for their neighbors.


This service-learning experience will stick with me after I leave for Minnesota. I plan on spreading what I have learned through my work and teach people about the importance of service-learning projects. . . . You cannot make change by just doing; you need time to analyze what the problem is and [reflect upon] what you or your community can do to fix the problem.


I volunteer a lot of my time . . . As I continue my service work, I am going to put a greater emphasis on the educational component. I don’t want to just act, I want to understand why I am acting . . . My experience at the Wesley Foundation and my new knowledge of Vancouver House has fueled my fire of volunteerism and I am eager to return to UST and make an even greater impact on the community.    

I would like to thank the students of THEO 424 in Hawai’i (January 2016) for graciously giving me permission to quote from their papers. Mahalo nui loa. (Thank you very much.)