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The day the Aloha State was born


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POSTED: Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fifty years ago, on March 13, 1959, the Rev. Abraham Akaka, who led Honolulu's historic Kawaiahao Church for 28 years, gave his most famous sermon. His address, the formal Hawaii statehood service of dedication, marked congressional approval of the Hawaii Admission Act. What soon became known as the “;Statehood Sermon”; was widely distributed, reprinted in 30,000 leaflets and mentioned in anthologies.

In the sermon, Akaka called upon Hawaii's people to live the spirit of aloha, the spirit of the heart, the spirit of God. Aloha ke Akua.

“;I would like to speak the message of self-affirmation this morning, that in the days ahead, we take courage to be what we truly are, to be the Aloha State,”; he said — and Hawaii would forever be known this way.

He acknowledged the worries felt by some about the changes that statehood would bring to Hawaii. “;There are some of us to whom statehood brings great hopes, and there are some to whom statehood brings silent fears,”; he said.

“;There are fears that Hawaii as a state will be motivated by economic greed; that statehood will turn Hawaii (as someone has said) into a great big spiritual junkyard ... that (it) will make the Hawaiian people lonely, confused, insecure, empty, anxious, restless, disillusioned — a wistful people.”;

He encouraged the people of Hawaii to meet their fears by embracing the aloha spirit: “;The fears Hawaii may have are to be met by men and women who are living witnesses of what we really are in Hawaii, of the spirit of Aloha, men and women who can help unlock the doors to the future by the guidance and grace of God.”;

He said Hawaii could “;affirm our being as the Aloha State”; by participating in the affairs of the nation and the world and believed the spirit of aloha had great power to unify the world. “;Aloha is the power of God seeking to unite what is separated in the world — the power that unites heart with heart ... race with race, nation with nation,”; he said.

Akaka ended his sermon, beseeching people of Hawaii to “;affirm ever what we really are — for Aloha is the spirit of God at work in you and in me and in the world, uniting what is separated. ... Thus, may our becoming a state mean to our nation and the world.”; (The entire sermon is reprinted on Page 4.)

His words sound prophetic today. Akaka provided hope through faith in God. Aloha. Then and now, for the people of Hawaii and with relevance to our nation and the world, he preached that the answer is collective courage, grounded in God, in aloha, to promote the true good of other people, in a friendly spirit of kinship.

This meaning of aloha and the choice of Aloha State as our motto shaped our values in Hawaii. Soon after the bells stopped ringing and cheers calmed, a public debate began on whether Hawaii should be nicknamed the Paradise State or something else.

As a 12-year-old, I wondered whether the state nickname was a tourist marketing gimmick. Our family, century-long kamaainas, was bursting with joy in that moment of equality for all, but we quietly worried about what would become of our island lifestyle. Mom had long before instilled in me, perhaps because of my polio-affected legs, “;Aloha ke kahi, i ke kahi,”; love each other uniquely, individually. Her words matured as I grew in understanding Akaka's prayers, through his sermons, my wedding, house blessings, campaign office openings, work with his foundation and in fund drives. Through all this, I was deeply enriched by realizing that he lived what he preached.

The aloha he preached was then and is now realized by the life he lived and the foundation that he created. After being a Hawaiian-speaking pastor in many churches on Kauai, Maui, the Big Island, then finally at Kawaiahao Church on Oahu, he retired at the age of 67. Yet he was called upon to continue performing blessings, weddings and funerals until his death at age 80 in 1997.

He was a devoted husband and father of five children, yet all of the donations he received went not to his family, but directly to his Akaka Foundation to help the needy, to train new ministers, to assist Hawaiian churches and to build peace on Earth.

His actions reflected his love for all, embracing everyone courageously. Few people know that the lei worn by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights march on Selma, Ala., was sent by Akaka and his wife. In 1979, the reverend prayed and stood with Sand Island residents — some called them squatters — despite the antipathy of the governor and major politicians.

Akaka's broad-mindedness can be seen in his living room. Lamps on both sides of his couch are the figurines of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion. The lampshade is a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhism. A picture on the end table, the only picture of Akaka with a dignitary in his living room, is of the reverend with Soong Ching Ling, widow of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, revolutionary leader and founder of modern China. Above the couch is a painting of a dove, the universal symbol of peace, painted by his daughter, then a child. The personal Bible that he and his young children gave to Akaka's wife is inscribed “;Ho'oku'ikahi — to reconcile, to reunite,”; a principal theme of Akaka's work.

Akaka left a legacy of aloha in words and deeds that lives today. He still speaks to us. Those of us privileged to have been born, raised or exposed to Hawaii's values — including our newly elected president — should be ever mindful to live the spirit of love, of the heart, of aloha, that is so well represented by Akaka. His Statehood Sermon is as true today as it was 50 years ago, and will be true to future generations.

Akaka called upon us, collectively and individually, to affirm our being in a personal state of aloha, uniting hearts, souls, life, cultures, races and nations. He asked that we be ourselves, witnesses of what we really are in Hawaii, of the spirit of aloha.

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Leigh-Wai Doo is a board member of the Rev. Abraham Kahu Akaka Ministries Foundation.