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Stories from old-timers keep church connected to roots


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POSTED: Saturday, October 18, 2008

However different the focus and format when people meet at church, temple, mosque or synagogue, one thing they have in common is that a gathering becomes “;talk story”; time.

People gravitate toward their friends and acquaintances and, when they're at their best as a faith congregation, also welcome strangers and newcomers. In many cultures they hunker down to visit and eat together for hours after the service ends. Many a new church has institutionalized that tradition by calling itself a “;fellowship.”;

The United Church of Christ on Judd Street has a party under way today to cherish its talking-story tradition by doing the best thing you can do to a storyteller: listen. Fourteen longtime members will be honored for their role in an oral history project that chronicled a pivotal era in the time line of the church, which started nearly a century ago as a Christian mission to Chinese immigrants.

The 21st-century congregation will hear the old-timers' recollections about moving the house of worship from Chinatown up the hill to Liliha after World War II. But it's not just a history exercise: The motto for the months-long project was “;The seeds of our future were planted in our past.”;

“;Chinatown was getting to be a red-light district, noisy, no parking,”; said the Rev. Phil Mark. “;A lot of people felt they could not abandon the mission, but others wanted to get to a place more conducive to growing, for their kids.”;

The older generation spoke a Chinese dialect and felt comfortable in the part of Honolulu inhabited by Chinese, while younger folks felt that “;being Chinese is OK, but don't get hooked into Chinatown per se,”; said the pastor. “;Moving to 'the suburbs' was a symbol of what it was to be a mainline church, Americanization of our ways.”;

In a 1948 land swap engineered by the Hawaiian Evangelical Association, they left a big brick church at Beretania and Maunakea streets for a huge old mansion, former home of bachelor McInerny brothers, founders of a mercantile company.

“;It was moving from the tenement district into this rich district with a mansion, an elevator in the house, mahogany bannister, glass doors, a kitchen equipped with coffee makers and American dishware,”; recalled Ellen Yee.

“;It was kind of hard to raise money at that time,”; said her husband, Alfred. “;People didn't have much. We still had to purchase furniture, equipment and supplies and modify the mansion interior to make the place adaptable for church activities.”;

Mark said “;I love the idea that ... they met in this big house. It was like one big house church. The comfortable sense of being in someone's living room never left this congregation. Even though we have a big building now, when you come on Sundays you have the sense that people still feel it. There's a lot of buzz, a lot of warmth.”;

Today's celebration is part of a four-day immersion in storytelling. The Rev. Grant Lee is guest speaker for the church's annual Chun Ku & Soo Yong Huang Lectures. People from other churches attended his workshop yesterday on “;Remembering and Learning from Our Stories,”; which gave everyone a chance to talk story.

“;People think of themselves as different, different religions, divergences within our own faith,”; said Lee, pastor of Waialua United Church of Christ. “;But we are very much alike.

“;When we validate each other's story, it becomes a powerful way to create a community.”;

The 330-member congregation includes newcomers to Hawaii and people from other ethnicities. “;We are becoming more of a cosmopolitan church now,”; Mark said.

“;We want to recognize our roots. How we make decisions, how we go about being church, are rooted in the past, sometimes unconsciously. We want to make sure what we do has continuity.”;

The storytellers this weekend are from the Chinese roots of the congregation, but their stories demonstrate a church willing to change and grow, said the pastor. “;To move out of Chinatown was the seed ... that we were not locked in a mode of thinking.”;

The past generation made it clear that they intended to be more than a mission for one ethnic group. They changed their name from Second Chinese Congregational Church to United Church of Christ.

It was a great welcoming, affirming name. Such a good one, in fact, that one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in America took the name in 1957, marking a merger between two churches with a total of more than 1 million members.