Mary Adamski

View from the Pew
A look inside Hawaii's houses of worship

By Mary Adamski

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Project Pure Light members of the Kailua Community Church take disabled people on canoes off Kailua Beach Park. Leader of the project Aka Hemmings carries a participant, Shawn Munoz, up the beach after a canoe ride.

Canoes for Christ

Project Pure Light blends
ministry with ocean

Story after Gospel story has Jesus interacting with the most frail people in society with loving patience and kindness.

Last Saturday at Kailua Beach Park, an athletic and high-energy crew from Kailua Community Church and Hui Pakolea Canoe Club walked in his footsteps. In a ministry they call Project Pure Light, the volunteers shared their exhilarating water fun and freedom with people who haven't had those elements in their lives much lately.

There was Francean McClain, who is in a wheelchair because of a nerve- and muscle-degenerating disease, being lifted into the canoe saying, "I'd rather look silly at the beach than be dignified at home."

The paddlers made it a quick ride for 5-year-old Shawn Perez, from Guam, who had a bone marrow transplant in September, because his mother Joan Perez warned that his medication limits exposure to the sun.

The day brought Kalaheo High School freshman Ash Williams, recovering from surgery on a brain stem tumor, away from the computer and into a canoe for the first time. But other than "fun" he couldn't get a word in edgewise to his father, Marine Master Sgt. Lloyd Williams, and his speech therapist Gail Dean, both ecstatic to see him outdoors.

"I'm trying to have him do things that are physical," said the father. "This is a start. I just put all my faith in God and let that work."

"This is healing for me, being Hawaiian," said Leigh Case. "It's a modern kind of hui wai, ritual bathing to cleanse yourself, to freshen body and mind."

A disabled participant in Project Pure Light, Francean McClain, left, sets out on a canoe ride. Patty LaForce, right, and other volunteers of the project launched the canoe and began paddling.

For Case and five other residents of Hawaii State Hospital, participating in Project Pure Light is "a way to connect with folks in the larger community," said hospital chaplain Dave Edwards.

"They feel they have been invited back into life," said the Methodist minister. "Because of illness, they may be disconnected from family and the community. We feel the ocean, and the day out, can be so healing for body, mind and spirit."

Clinical psychologist Michi Hatashita-Wong said that for people who have been separated from the outside world, "it is an amazing community entry event. They are amazed at the acceptance they get. It's a blessing and a gift."

Altogether, 15 people got the undivided attention of about 50 volunteers, lifted into outrigger canoes for rides into the bay or out to Flat (Popoia) Island, eased onto surfboards or just buoyed in shallow water in the arms of these new friends. Hui Pakolea members rigged a couple of chair seats with backs for some riders, but even the newest or youngest participant was given a paddle and a chance to experience the concept of pulling together.

Project Pure Light was launched last summer and is activated on the third Saturday of each month, a "way we can put both feet and paddles to our Christianity," said Kailua Community Church Pastor Perry Alexander.

"It's showing the love of Christ in a very tangible way to our community."

Alexander said he told the congregation that "I wanted to empower people to discover their gifts and start new ministries."

Master canoeist Aka Hemmings took it to heart, he said, and recruited Wong and the paddlers.

"Our club was looking for a way to give back to the community," said Hui Pakolea member Karen Ostborg.

"It was a perfect marriage." There are more than 100 members in the Lanikai-based club who take turns crewing their two canoes meshing their strengths with the needs of their guests. "I love to see the smiles and the look of achievement on their faces. For me the experience keeps getting better every time," she said.

The Rehabilitation Center of the Pacific, Ronald McDonald House, Hawaii State Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Children provide support and bring clients, and Pinky's Restaurant in Kailua brings the lunch, no charge.

Case brought along his guitar and a Hawaiian hymnal, as his way to give back to the benefactors, strumming and singing while everyone else gathered in the shade for lunch.

He said the project brought him back into the ocean after four years of incarceration in prison and the state hospital. "I feel at one with my culture here and at one with God," he said.

Like Case, McClain has returned month after month. She takes the city bus from Wahiawa, with her own paddle from an athletic past tucked in the wheelchair. "The lesson here is that yes, it is possible, no matter what's going on with you. Get out there and you'll feel better."

McClain brought along her friend Sara Way, of Kailua, disabled since childhood with Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a disorder of connective tissues in her joints. She was last seen with a wide grin after the first chance to float in the ocean in recent memory.

In a brief prayer circle before beginning, Aka Hemmings told the volunteers, "Don't expect miracles ... watch for the smiles." He reminded the able-bodied to take their time and have patience. "This is a ministry, we do give thanks to God," he said, "but we don't beat on it.

"The way we evangelize is by serving."


Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
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