Noble past renews
urban church

Its 115th anniversary prompts
Harris United Methodist Church
to look ahead with hope

When members celebrate the 115th anniversary of Harris United Methodist Church at a 10:30 a.m. service tomorrow, they will honor a handful of members in their 90s, whose memories bring history right into the present.

The downtown Honolulu church has published a compilation of its history that would be the envy of many church centennial committees. It all starts with its founding pastor, the Rev. Kanichi Miyama, sent here from California in 1887 to provide a mission for new Japanese immigrants. The story goes that church folks were concerned that the bachelor plantation workers were seeking solace in gambling, drinking and wild living.

Miyama worked with Japanese Consul General Taro Ando and his wife, Fumiko, to establish the Japanese Mutual Aid Society, providing health care and burial assistance for immigrants who contributed 20 cents a month from their meager wages.

The effort was the beginning of what is now Kuakini Medical Center. And Miyama was such a compelling minister that the Andos were among his first converts and founding members of the church. And that's just chapter No. 1 in the church's story.

The church moved from River Street to its location at 20 S. Vineyard Blvd. in 1961, part of a municipal urban renewal project that wiped out blocks of ramshackle Chinatown buildings.

But, said the Rev. Gary Barbaree, the current cosmopolitan congregation of about 400 people wants to tap those old urban roots for its future focus. "We are marking what we think is a turning point for the church. We have this mythology about being the downtown church," he said. "Our membership now is from all over the island. We see we are called to serve the people in our neighborhood.

"We want to make accessible to newcomers the history and legacy of the church, at the same time placing an emphasis on the gifts and insight they bring. The theme is for us to become an inviting church."

In a project that began 26 years ago, volunteers in the "soup ministry" chop vegetables on Sundays and cook on Mondays to create 20 gallons of soup weekly for the Institute for Human Services. "Our direct relation to IHS since its beginning is a good model, but beyond that, we aren't hooked up with any programs downtown. That is where we expect to turn," Barbaree said.

Harris has become a center for social justice activities in recent years.

It provides meeting space for organizations including the Japanese American Citizens League, the NAACP, the American Friends Service Committee and Believers All, an interfaith group.

The church was the site of anti-war demonstrations this year.

A weekly "silent witness for peace" gathered along the curb of the busy intersection in the weeks of buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, reflecting the stand of United Methodist Church bishops nationwide who proposed alternatives to war. It hosted a March 27 candlelight peace vigil which brought participants from several island faith communities together to protest the Iraq war.

"Harris has a number of members in the military," said Barbaree, so "at the same time, we are supportive of families in the military. The military are peacekeepers in their own perspective. It didn't seem to be a conflict in our hearts to do both those things."

Besides Barbaree, the church congregation is served by the Rev. Yuji Sato, who presides at Japanese-language services, and the Rev. Son Hye Kim, spiritual formation minister, who also teaches Korean language classes at the church.

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