Star-Bulletin Features

Saturday, January 26, 2002

Members of the state Senate bowed their heads in prayer as the session opened on Wednesday morning, as they do every day of the legislative session.

United by Prayer

The Legislature begins each day
with an invocation to set the tone
for the day's work, a tradition that
dates back before statehood

By Mary Adamski

Hawaii lawmakers hold a great deal of power, and they expect to hear a lot of not-always-welcome advice on how to use it.

Members of the state House of Representatives heard an opening-session speaker urge that they "not be tempted by the lust for power or personal gain." Leimomi Mookini Lum also called for their "will to persevere against the onslaught of special-interest groups."

Across the hall Jan. 16, state senators heard a plea that "even in heat of battle of dealing with one another, that they would come back with a sense of humility and a high respect for one another" from the Rev. Paul Miguel.

On Wednesday, representatives were urged not to let "self-interest or greed influence them," while senators heard an admonition to remember that "what they decide will affect our children and grandchildren."

Those words didn't come in testimony from critics or lobbyists, but in prayers offered at the beginning of every session. Each of the 60 working days of the annual legislative session is started with an invocation that sets an idealistic or moral tone for the day's work.

The tradition, which dates back before statehood, is established in the rules of both houses.

It plays out in a variety of verbal offerings -- prayers, inspirational readings, poetry, occasionally a song.


House Speaker Calvin Say reminded his colleagues in a Jan. 4 memo that "brevity is most effective and desirable, preferably no longer than one minute and normally not to exceed 1 1/2 minutes."

House members take turns booking the speaker, and yesterday it was back to the top of the alphabet. Rep. Lei Ahu Isa (D, Alewa Heights-Liliha-Nuuanu) brought her brother, the Rev. Elwin Ahu of New Hope Christian Fellowship.

Say put Rep. Ezra Kanoho (D, Lihue-Kapaa) in charge of seeing that all the daily slots are filled. The Kauai lawmaker is one of several members who may take the task on themselves. Kanoho said he has gathered a quartet and sung the doxology prayer when it's his turn.

"Once in a while, someone goes on forever," he said. "I hold the title for the shortest on record, nine seconds. I used Psalm 19, verse 14: 'Let the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.'

"But I put it in the third person to make it relevant for all of us.

"I think the public should know that we do this," said Kanoho. "It gives the session the quality and solemness that it needs. We need to look at the source for strength and wisdom."

The Senate clerk's office is responsible for scheduling invocation speakers in that chamber. The task was once assumed by the now-defunct Hawaii Council of Churches and is now done by assistant clerk Carol Taniguchi with the help of Noela Narimatsu, secretary at Moanalua Gardens Missionary Church, and Sister Helen Wood of the Catholic Office of Worship. Narimatsu calls on people who have made previous appearances and searches newspaper church ads for new volunteers. Wood can take credit for getting some women -- teachers and other nuns -- on the roster, which last year ran at least two men for every woman.

"I think as a nation we need God's continued alliance," said the Rev. Derald Skinner, pastor of Calvary Chapel Pearl Harbor, after appearing Wednesday at the Senate. He spoke off the cuff for his third appearance, addressing the deity and asking for some very specific help "to guide the state to pull out of the recession." He said he takes some time to reflect on issues and problems of the times before praying.

It was a first time for Monsignor Edgar Brillantes of St. John the Baptist Church in Kalihi, and he stuck to a written text. The Catholic priest, who came here from the Philippines two years ago, said public prayers are common there at government events at the municipal, provincial and national levels.

State Senate staff members were led in prayer Wednesday by the Rev. Derald Skinner of Calvary Chapel, Pearl Harbor.

"It is good to remember that it is from God that we have the ability to serve people well. Every wisdom, strength and inspiration is from God."

While the Senate prayer log for last year reflected Hawaii's ethnic and religious diversity, it was heavy on Christian preachers, with an occasional Buddhist, and light on representation from minorities such as Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Bahai and native religions.

Neither Rep. Mark Moses (R, Kunia-Makakilo-Ewa-Waipahu) nor Sen. Sam Slom (R, Kalama Valley-Aina Haina), both of whom are Jewish, was bothered that the majority of prayers are by Christians and often invoke Jesus.

"We're supposed to be moral individuals. It's not necessary to have a religion to be moral, but it doesn't hurt, does it?" said Moses, who displays both a star of David and the Christian fish symbol on his office door, showing support for colleagues in a past mini-tempest over public display of religious symbols.

"There's always the opportunity for us to suggest someone. ... There's diversity," said Slom. "What bothers me is that here we are being told to go forth and do God's work, but if we mention God at any time as we are doing that, we're in trouble." Slom has also taken a turn at podium-turned-pulpit. "I did it in Hebrew and I quoted from 3rd Samuel," said Slom, kiddingly adding himself to the 1st and 2nd books of the prophet Samuel in the Bible.

"I do like the variety. I like to hear Buddhists. We have almost every denomination," said Sen. Bob Nakata. "I would be willing to have an atheist if he were willing to do a meditation." Nakata, who is an ordained Methodist minister, said: "I don't want to mix up my roles. I've made it clear that I didn't want to be scheduled for an invocation."

But he does bring his faith to his job as a lawmaker. "I look at the way Jesus concluded his life. He stepped back from asserting dominance and allowed himself to be killed. That way of yielding rather than dominating is an important attribute to have. You aren't giving up on your principles, and peace is important; you assert your philosophy, but at a certain point ... it is better to yield."

Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe Bay Drive) said: "I wish we could say the Pledge of Allegiance now and then in lieu of a prayer. It troubles me that we don't."

The pledge was said daily instead of a prayer during the brief special session called after the Sept. 11 attack. After hearing him testify eloquently a few years ago, Thielen always invites Josh Reppun of Waiahole Valley. Although he's not a minister, "what he says is meaningful and with spirit. It makes you think more deeply," she said.

The Rev. Gary Secor, head of the Catholic diocese Office of Clergy, is a repeater.

"I usually am sensitive to the fact there are other religions there. I don't come in heavy on the Christ stuff; it's important to be respectful of other faiths. My message usually is a general one. ... I try to suggest that it's important that we enact laws that respect people and that foster good basic human values."

"To the Hawaiians, you have to open with a prayer, close with a prayer, and everything you do is a prayer," said Momi Lum, kahuna nui at her family's Mookini Heiau on the Big Island.

"To me prayer opens everything for you," said Lum, who has said the prayer at the opening session of the House for 10 years. Her prayer -- in Hawaiian and English -- invoked the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" to give lawmakers "the will to persevere against the onslaughts of special-interest groups," a prayer as specific as any testimony.

"Their meetings sometimes have big arguments. We are trying to inspire them that discussion should be done in a harmonious atmosphere," said Bishop Yubun Narashiba of Jodo Mission of Hawaii, who spoke this week. "Buddhism is a small group in the United States, but they are paying attention and respect even to the small groups and tiny opinions. I think it's compassionate for them to hear us."

Several lawmakers suggested that to call attention to the praying tradition would set off opposition from the Citizens for Separation of State and Church, which has opposed the mix of religion into government activities.

But the group's leader, Mitch Kahle, said that while "I personally find them offensive ... they are not a part of the actual record. The bottom line is, the fact that it is open ... the pluralism thing helps dispel some of the objection." Kahle said there was a challenge to a similar invocation practice in Nebraska in which the court ruled that as long as it is not limited to one religion, it was not seen as an endorsement.


Prayers offered by clergy for the opening day of the Legislature:

Monsignor Edgar Brillantes
St. John the Baptist Church

"Blessed are you, Lord our God, maker of the universe and father of all. Bless the members of the Legislature as they gather today for their meeting. Guide their minds and hearts, and teach them to be generous in their outlook, courageous in the face of difficulty and wise in their decisions. Do not let self-interest or greed influence them, but rather help them to work together to serve the people of the state of Hawaii and for the good of all. Bless their plans and deliberations, and bring success to their work and reward them for the good they do."

Bishop Yubun Narashiba
Jodo Mission of Hawaii

"Thou most wise and most compassionate one: May there be light cast upon this gathering this day that the purpose for which we have gathered shall be fulfilled. May we come to know that the fundamental nature of our democratic processes is not in the disputing of immovable positions, but in the harmonious blending and molding of different views into the best solution within humans' power.

"May our decisions be reached not through capricious actions under the pressure of expediency, but through deliberate efforts to discover the best solutions which would benefit our community. May the tiny voice of the true and the good and the beautiful that sound in these halls hallowed by history be amplified in our laws that the people in our wonderful land may be awakened and inspired by its calling, and together with these legislators assembled here, dedicate their spiritual and moral resources toward the common good."

Momi Lum
Kahuna nui of Mookini Heiau, Big Island

"Oh God, we implore you to endow this body ... with a spirit of justice, compassion and clarity of vision to guide our state over the obstacles that have been placed before us. Empower them to be legislators or, better, statesmen, with unbending resolve to undertake bold but practical measures.

Let them not be tempted by the lust for power or personal gain. We invoke you to give them the will to persevere against the onslaught of special-interest groups so that they may be true to their own sense of values and integrity."

The Rev. Alan Urasaki
Aiea Hongwanji Mission

"We are links in a golden chain of love that stretches around the world. We must keep our links bright and strong. Let us try to be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all that is weaker than ourselves. Let us try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, to say pure and beautiful words, and do pure and beautiful deeds, knowing that on what we do now depends not only our own happiness or unhappiness, but also those of others. May every link in our golden chain of love become bright and strong, and may we all attain perfect peace.

"The Buddha surrounds all with infinite love and compassion. Particularly does the Buddha send forth loving thoughts to those who are suffering and in pain, to those in doubt and ignorance, and to those who are searching for truth. The Buddha sends lovingkindness to all beings. Today is a blessed day, for the Buddha smiles upon each one of us with wisdom and compassion."

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