Star-Bulletin Features



Monarch butterflies are raised at Harvest Chapel to be sold for release at weddings. It's one way the chapel supports its homeless shelter.

A street corner named ‘redemption’

An ex-convict claims a second chance
at life, ministering to the homeless

By Betty Shimabukuro

Years ago, Laki Kaahumanu raised marijuana and dealt in cocaine. These days, he deals in butterflies and raises other people's children.

"There is always hope," says a close friend of the Kaahumanu family when she considers the 180-degree turn in this man's life.

If ever you have doubted the power of redemption, you need to meet Laki Kaahumanu, look him in the eye, hear his story, shake his hand.

There is always hope.

"Pastor Laki," as he is known in Lahaina, is the minister of Harvest Chapel, which sits -- ironically enough, when you consider the pastor's history -- near the corner of Prison and Luakini streets. His calling, though, reaches far beyond services on Sundays.

Laki and his wife, Malie, take in the homeless, offering them shelter in the back rooms of the church and sometimes in their own home. The Kaahumanus have an expansive view of the concept of family. With no children of their own, they take as their family these people of little means and no hope. "They're beat and battered, busted and disgusted," Laki says.

art:The Family Tree

They formally adopted three abandoned children and continue to raise a changing roster of kids in need. Laki says he has 16 "hanai" children. Malie says she is uncertain of the exact number -- so many have come through her home, sometimes returning as adults with their own kids. There are no set rules for who calls them Mom and Dad.

"I'm the only papa most of these kids know," Laki says. "Most of them have been thrown away."

Because they require church attendance as a condition of receiving shelter, the Kaahumanus have limited access to government funds. So they support this extended family through a patchwork of cottage industries -- they raise monarch butterflies and doves for release at weddings, maintain a garden of Hawaiian plants, smoke meat, sell Hawaiian plate lunches, conduct weddings, play concerts, even provide security at concerts. "We do whatever kind of jobs," Laki says.

Everyone who stays at the shelter helps with these varied projects, or, if they have jobs, they contribute financially. Meals can be a challenge. "Anybody cooks, anybody eats," Laki says. "Plus, we got chickens running around here." His own specialty is Spam and eggs.

"Whatever we put on the table with blessings, you going eat."

This is not the kind of life Malie had envisioned, as she grew up middle class with a dream of marriage and family. "I just wanted it to be me, myself and I -- a normal life," she says. "Well, normal is this."

What dismantled her plan was meeting and marrying Laki, a troubled Vietnam veteran with a drug problem. In 1979 he was arrested for growing marijuana on his family's land in Kihei (it was 870 plants, he says). He was given probation, but by 1983 he was in trouble again. "I never learned. I was dealing -- heavy distribution of cocaine. When I got busted they looked at me and said 'career criminal.' "

His record shows convictions on three counts of promoting a dangerous drug. He was given a total of 45 years in Halawa Community Correctional Facility on the various counts, and his probation on the earlier offense was revoked, but with sentences running concurrently, his time amounted to 20 years. Thanks to the parole board, though, and credit for good behavior, Laki says he was out in 22 months.

This time, he did learn. He became a licensed minister of the Church of God. His first ministry was in Makiki, then he and Malie moved to the Gospel of Salvation Church in Hauula. From the beginning they were taking in the homeless, sheltering them in their own house in Aiea. "I tell people that's what the church should be for," Laki says, "to help people through the hard times."

Laki and Malie Kaahumanu minister to Lahaina's homeless at Harvest Chapel. The walls of the church were painted with murals of Bible scenes by a member of their congregation.

Laki's conversion, although it finally took place in prison, was years in the making. It began with his friendship with Clement and Cecilia Hoopai, district overseers of the Church of God in Wailuku. (They met, Sister Cecilia recalls, when her late husband went to Laki's Kihei farm and asked to buy a pot. Laki at the time was growing pot. Some confusion ensued.)

They tried to help Laki and Malie, but Cecilia says the religious teaching didn't quite take with Laki. Still, the couples remained close. "My husband was always taking people in. ... He looked at people with no hope and said, 'There is always hope.'"

When Laki was sent to prison, the Hoopais gave Malie a place to stay. It is a kindness Malie has never forgotten and which she tries to repay through her own work with the homeless.

In 1992 the pastor at Harvest Chapel left, and the Hoopais decided it was time for Laki to return to Maui. "We always felt that one day he would be able to come back, because he's an island boy. ... When he came back, we just let him loose."

Cecilia says Laki and Malie have done extraordinary work for the church in Lahaina, but Laki at first resisted the move. Lahaina was too hot, he says; there was no place for his truck or his boat. "I was comfortable, I was situated there in Hauula -- good squid grounds."

But he had made a pact with God, dating back to his release from prison. "I got on my knees and said, 'Lord, if you can see fit to use someone as stupid as me, I'll do whatever you want me to do.'"

And outside Harvest Chapel was that street sign -- Prison Street, it read, loud and clear. "The Lord sent me out here and showed me the sign. ... I said, 'I don't want to go to Lahaina.' ... The Lord said, 'Well, do you want to go back to prison?'"

Charlie Ridings, executive director of Maui County's Homeless Resource Center, Kahale A Ke Ola, says the Kaahumanus meet a desperate need on Maui's west side.

Most services for the homeless are offered in the central towns of Kahului and Wailuku, Ridings says, but many of the needy are in the tourist areas out west. They may be employed in the hotels but still can't afford housing and have no way of getting to shelters and services in town.

"It seems the Lord sends me places where there's nobody," Laki says.

Pastor Laki is on the Kahale A Ke Ola board, offering a perspective no one else can as the county prepares to build a shelter in the Lahaina area, Ridings says.

Not only does Laki run a church and a shelter, but he patrols the streets at night as part of a neighborhood watch. "He probably has more insight than just about anyone I know of. He's out there, day and night, and he has people living with him."

The Kaahumanus were given that rare gift -- a second chance -- but it is one of their own making and reflects nearly two decades of struggle.

They've even changed their names, as if to complete the transformation. They were Adrian and Maria Akina until a few years ago, when they took his great-grandmother's last name. Adrian also took his grandfather's name of Laki (his nickname had been "Lucky"). Maria took a modified Hawaiian version of her given name.

Diane Moore has known Laki and Malie for three years, through her work managing the Maui Nei tour company and the Pioneer Inn. She conducts walking tours that pass through the Harvest Chapel gardens, and her hotel occasionally hires shelter residents. "They're all just wonderful people, very kind, good-hearted, good-natured people. You can just see how Pastor Laki rubs off on them and how he helps people get back on their feet."

What the Kaahumanus are doing is remarkable, Moore says, and rare. "I think it's very unique in the sense that people who make a place for themselves in life still stay in touch with people who are less fortunate. They give them a window of opportunity, helping them see their own window and make the right choices."

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