These have not been the most peaceful of times in the cemetery of Kawaiahao Church, but the Rev. Curt Kekuna believes his congregation ultimately will prove to be on the right path all the same.
The pastor of the historic Hawaiian church has been dealing with the ongoing legal battles over a plan to build a new multipurpose center on the spot where Likeke Hall, now demolished, was built in 1940.
To say it’s been a rocky road would be an understatement. Construction on the $17.5 million project started in January 2009 but was halted when human remains, finally tallied at 69 sets, were unearthed.
Two lawsuits were filed that summer over the resulting disinterments, both alleging the project ran afoul of Hawaiian burial review processes; one, by Abigail Kawananakoa, Campbell Estate heiress and descendent of Queen Kapiolani, has been settled, and Kekuna declined to discuss that.
But the second, by Hawaiian practitioner Dana Naone Hall, is proceeding to trial, and occasional protests staged outside the sanctuary have kept the church in the headlines, and not in the way Kekuna would have liked. He said the church position in all this has not correctly reached the community; the following excerpts came from a meeting he and church representatives held with the Star-Advertiser editorial board.
Among other points, Kekuna asserted that remains have been treated respectfully, that the church has held multiple meetings with descendents and is discussing ways it may reduce excavation, and that further fundraising is likely needed to overcome the added costs of court and delays.
But he’s anything but apologetic about pursuing a project he believes the kupuna buried at Kawaiahao would have endorsed as Christian goals.
"It’s all about what they wanted to do 190 years ago until even today," he said. "And that’s what we’re doing: honoring God, loving one another and making disciples. Holomua … that’s what we’re going towards."
QUESTION: What is the history of this project?
ANSWER: Back in 1940, we built Likeke Hall, and that was a fellowship hall. And prior to that, in 1929, we completed an admin building. And what we’re doing now is kind of following that footstep, because what we’re doing is we also see the tremendous need we have today. The old building, bless her heart, is dilapidated and wasn’t quite fitting our needs. We found the need to have a Sunday school building as well as a fellowship hall, as well as all the offices together, and that’s what we’re doing today. … We’re strategically placed. So what we want to do is to use that position to be a minister to the community at large.
Q: Would you say the committee contacting burial descendants did its job properly?
A: I wasn’t part of that committee, so I don’t know the discussions that went into who were we going to be contacting, and so forth. … There was a committee that was set up to deal with if we found any iwi. They’re called the Na Iwi Committee. … And the clearest thing we could do is this: No one knows who they were; unmarked, we don’t have any idea who they are. So the smartest thing to do is, OK, maybe families work, in terms of cemeteries, by proximity. You go to most cemeteries, you see several names are the same. So what they did is they contacted the nearest ones that they knew of, nearest in proximity to where the iwi were found. …
Q: Was the incompleteness of burial recordkeeping part of the problem?
A: That is the issue. But please know that this whole cemetery, record-keeping, burial-ground thing is pretty much a science in the last 40 or 50 years, but it wasn’t back then. … But secondly, I think what’s important to
remember is it’s a Herculean task to contact people (when) you don’t know who’s there. Because nobody knows who they are, so who do you contact? … But the other task, too, I want you to understand, is … when people were buried there, the kuleana (responsibility) was given to the ohana (family), not just to the church. The ohana had to keep records, and they’re supposed to supply the church with all those records. Well, the way things go, some did, most didn’t. So we don’t have any complete records.
Q: Who are the people who are protesting outside the church?
A: They are folks who are opposed and … it’s a moving target because it depends on who you talk to, of what they want to accomplish. Those that have been there as of late, if I hear them correctly … they just want to have nothing, that the iwi kupuna stay in their place, and nothing is done to them, and don’t build anything.
Q: Are they speaking as native Hawaiians or as Christians, members of the church?
A: Well, first of all, they’re not members of the church because I know all the members of my church … and then secondly, when you say, “Are they speaking as Christians?” — that may be another issue — I can’t answer that; only they can answer that.
Q: How do you respond to those who say just by the very nature of your Hawaiianness, that you should treat these as native Hawaiian rather than Christian burials?
A: I would have to go back to our deeded conveyance by King Kamehameha III. … It’s stated in his deed that what we are to do here is the Christian practice. … So in a sense it has already been dictated. You cannot separate: OK, this is a church, but aside of the Christian practice we have to follow the Hawaiian practices. … It’s a difficult thing when we start to get into the Hawaiian culture to try and be sensitive and listen to the feelings that Hawaiians have, because that’s an important part of our culture. We’re feeling people … so I can understand why the comment would be made: “Well, what about the Hawaiian side?” And my response to that is, I’m following what King Kamehameha III said. I’m doing what the congregation has been doing for190 years. To lay aside the Christian aspect of this whole controversy would be really to negate what we’ve been doing for 190 years. So I can’t go there.
Q: Do you acknowledge a divide between Hawaiian culture and Christianity?
A: I think this is important: Queen Kaahumanu accepted the Christian faith. So did Keopuolani. So did Hewahewa. So did Kalani-moku, and everyone on down the line in our history. Now, let me ask you a question: Are they Hawaiian or not? Absolutely. Just because we’re Christian doesn’t make us not Hawaiian. But that’s the tone of what I’m getting from those folks. “How can you do this? You’re Hawaiian!” Whoa. Time out. Are you telling me my queen wasn’t, then? She accepted Christianity. So I just want to make sure we have a full picture. Because what I’m finding is, there are folks defining who we are, according to their own definition. And I don’t buy it. I’m not buying into it. So when I answer your question, I’m trying to be very careful how I answer your question, because I cannot remove the Christian aspect of who we are. Hold it: I’m a pastor — did you know that? (Laughs.)
Q: Are there iwi reburied at Kawaiahao that were relocated from the Queen Street area?
A: There’s talk about where they came from. Maybe at a previous time the cemetery may have gone out that far but when they widened the streets from paths, eminent domain, the city just grabbed that. Or, sometimes maybe people just buried them outside the walls of the cemetery, just to get close.
Q: Did this controversy cause a rift within your own congregation?
A: Let me answer this in two parts.
When we started this building, there were a minority of folks who were asking hard questions about the project. They weren’t quite along with the project. Therefore, the vote that happened twice, these folks were definitely voting against it. For what reasons, I don’t know — all of them are individual reasons, but together they banded together. And when I say “they” … let’s say 10. And that’s been pretty consistent throughout the project. They always told me they’re not against the project, they’re against the building that we have … the design, the cost, whatever it is.
Subsequently, though, you are asking about this controversy and what it’s done. It has galvanized the church. It’s brought people closer together. In fact, in a sense, I don’t want to go through this again, but there are more people coming to church now … and do you know who they are? They’re Hawaiians. They’re coming to the church now. And that’s been kinda fun to see.
Q: Do you feel any conflict yourself?
A: I hear this a lot. I have not thrown away my Hawaiian culture. All I know is, I’m a pastor, and I’m a Hawaiian, and I don’t think they’re incongruent with one another. And I believe, even today, even as our queen didn’t think it was incongruent back then, 190 years ago, I don’t believe it is, either. … But, if anything is hewa (wrong, offensive), it’s when you come to the church, and you start to make these pronouncements about the church, when you’re not even a member of the church. They don’t know what we’ve done, what we’ve gone through. Yet at the same time, they purport to speak for the church. And that’s hewa. Big time.
Q: Part of the issue is that this church is a prominent representative of Hawaiians. Do you have the sense they’re trying to put a responsibility on you that you don’t want?
A: Oh, no. Bring it on. Don’t even give the impression I’m trying to move away from this. This is my responsibility. And Kawaiahao has accepted that responsibility. We need to be those folks who represent what’s true, even in the Hawaiian culture. … Don’t divorce me from my culture, or my history. That’s what they represent, that’s what the church represented, back in the day. It was a Christian Hawaiian church, back in the day. It still is today. … These folks, “visitors” who are coming to us and trying to redefine, they’re telling me I’m desecrating the iwi?
Let me make this real clear. Those folks (iwi kupuna) who are there are our kuleana. …They’re not lineal descendants; how can they prove that, when nobody knows who that (iwi kupuna) is? … This is our aina, given to us. That makes it our kuleana, not yours just because you say so.
Secondly: Desecration? Where’s the desecration? If that’s my iwi kupuna, I can guarantee what they’ll say to me. …That’s my iwi kupuna because they understood: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but our spirits are in heaven.