Sermon: The Spirit of Aloha

2022 April 3

The Spirit of Aloha

Ana Levy-Lyons

March 27, 2022

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

When you do a little internet research on the history of Hawaii, as I had occasion to do this week, you find a fascinating case study in alternative narratives. There are two Hawaiis – at least two – and which story you hear depends on who you ask.

One Hawaii, as painted by the tourism industry, is a happy-go-lucky state with beautiful “natural resources” and a colorful history. The descriptions of this history include strangely worded milestones like, “1887: The Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii is signed, … This became known as the Bayonet Constitution due to the force used to gain the King’s cooperation.” There’s a lot of passive tense – “is signed” and “the force used” – without any details of who’s doing the signing and who’s using the force. There’s a mention of how, what with plantation production on the rise, “a need for more labor is realized.” And that’s all interspersed with sunny tidbits like: “1889 Joseph Kekuku invents the steel guitar.” In tourist Hawaii, the word aloha means “hello,” “welcome,” “we’re nice here!” A surfing website informs visitors that aloha means “keep that smile on your face!”

Then there’s the other Hawaii. The story of this other Hawaii is told by some of the indigenous people, originally Polynesians who had been living on the Hawaiian islands for 1500 years when the Europeans arrived. To some of them, much of that “colorful history” is a history of trauma. The sons of the first Christian missionaries started sugar plantations in the 1830’s. They took land from the people who were living on it. Their agricultural machinery devoured the rich, volcanic soil, churning it into sugar cane. They extracted the sweetness from the earth and grew wealthy.

The Europeans who flocked to Hawaii for this sugar rush brought with them foreign diseases that devastated the population. White businessmen forced their way into the government, using their financial power to change the laws to their advantage. They forbade the speaking of the Hawaiian language and imposed European education. Eventually, they forced the king at bayonet-point to sign a constitution that turned power over to them.  It wasn’t long after that they overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii with military power backed by the U.S. government. Queen Lili’uokalani was reigning at the time, and she was arrested. Sanford Dole became president – yes, Dole of the Dole fruit company. You can’t make this stuff up.

In this second story of Hawaii, the word aloha has a more complex meaning. It’s a beautiful word, and it does have the laid back vibe of hello and peace and welcome and warm, easygoing acceptance. But it also goes much deeper than that. And it seemed to me, as I learned about all this, that in that deeper meaning of the word aloha, a third story of Hawaii emerges. Aloha is the mission statement of a people with such dignity that as much as they lost in lives and livelihoods and land, they never completely adopted the mental categories of the colonizers. Some did for sure, but there has been a persistent thread of spiritual defiance that’s still loud and clear to this day.

Dirk and Julie Elting, who chose today’s theme, lived in Hawaii for twenty years before moving to Brooklyn, and they talked with me about how deeply moved they were by what they experienced in the spirit of aloha there. They said that aloha is hard to put into words but that it represents a culture and a spirituality that is both kind and loving and can be fierce when necessary. It warns, “I love you and don’t mess with me.”  It’s determined to protect what is sacred.

The word aloha has two parts: alo means to be in the presence of, to join with, to combine with. Ha is the living breath of everything around us, the spirit, the essence of one’s being. Here’s how one Hawaiian spiritual teacher explains it: “When you say aloha, you’re saying to be in the presence of, to join with the spirit and the essence of person who’s across the table from you, with the place that you’re in. It also speaks to the notion of connecting to the creative forces, however you define them, God, nature, that ha, that heat energy… to connect with that and to live in balance with that thing. …It’s also something that speaks of giving and receiving, not giving and taking. So if we don’t find aloha, oftentimes it’s because we didn’t bring it with us… Aloha is also about leaving people and places better than when you found them. It’s about leaving people whole; leaving a place whole.”

This may sound like a gentle spirituality, but it has a fiery core. Because sometimes to leave a people whole or leave a place whole, you have to fight. Queen Lili’uokalani was a human embodiment of aloha. She had a huge heart. She built schools and Hawaii’s first hospital. She wrote music. But she was also a fighter. After the coup and her arrest, she travelled to the U.S. – which, for a woman of color in 1800’s was a great act of courage in itself – to argue against the annexation of Hawaii. President Cleveland was convinced by her appeal but Sanford Dole turned out to be more powerful than the president and he got his way. She continued fighting her whole life – for her people and for the land.

A lot of these battles fought by Queen Lili’uokalani and other Hawaiians over the last 200 years centered around land. Who gets to live on the land, cultivate the land, enjoy the land, and care for the land? The sugar barons brought with them a commercial concept of land ownership and productivity. But this was a foreign concept. In those early years of colonization, attempting to keep the land in the people’s hands, the king of Hawaii passed the Kuleana Act which set aside one third of the land for the native Hawaiians. But almost no one claimed their land because to them land ownership was not a thing. It didn’t compute. After all, if aloha is the connection of all things, and everything around us lives and breathes and we are interwoven with all of creation, how could any piece of it belong to any one person?

This clash of worldviews is still live today. To whom does the land belong? Who belongs to the land? Take beach access, for example. By Hawaiian law, the public has the right to the entire shoreline of Hawaii. But wealthy homeowners with beachfront property will sometimes try to restrict access and make their beach private and then there’s resistance from the people. In one of these cases where the owner of a beachfront mansion had tried to prevent local kids from coming to the beach, a Hawaiian woman explained the struggle this way: “This is how we slowly lose access to our shorelines. Entitled outside investors come here, throw their money and influence around, and if no one does anything about it then they get away with it.”

In another case, a landowner tried to force dozens of his relatives to sell him little plots of land that they had inherited so that he could consolidate the land and own it all and pass it on to his children. Where did he get the money for this aggressive legal action? From the owner of the neighboring property, Mark Zuckerberg. The family members who are fighting this lawsuit are acutely aware of the through line from sugar barons to tech billionaires. One said this: “For people like myself, our connection to land and ancestral property is more than just about money. We’ve been dispossessed for the last 150 years at least, so every little bit to us matters.”

Every little bit matters. There is so much at stake in every little plot of land, in every inch of beach. Like the tide rolling in and out, moving sand bars and carving away at cliffs, over time these struggles gradually change the shape of the world. Will it be a world where people and land are churned into capital or a world of reverence where we are all part of the interbreathing, interconnected ha? This struggle is going on in Hawaii and it’s going on here in New York in a thousand ways every day. It may be easier to see in Hawaii because the issues are so stark and the land is so spectacular. You look at a place like that and it’s easy to know that the beaches, the rich soil, the fruiting trees, the waterfalls, the extravagant flowers – they’re not natural resources, they are the living communities with whom we share this earth. And the people with their ancient culture and language and religion are not just obstacles or workers, they are – we are all – faces of the divine.

But here in New York there was and is natural abundance. Here in New York there are people who lived here – the Lenape people – when the European settlers first arrived. We have our own beautiful histories and traumatic histories, people who found freedom here and people who were enslaved here, blendings of cultures and clashes of cultures. We have our own questions of who belongs and what is our right relationship to the land. Who has a right to housing? Who has a right to food? How can we fight with integrity to protect the natural world and our future from the ravages of our economy?

It’s Sanford Dole and Queen Lili’uokalani in one generation, it’s Mark Zuckerberg and his neighbors in another. It’s Pono the Garden Guardian in the world of cartoon fantasy that is altogether real. But the struggle is the same. How do we take a loving approach to healing this world, knowing that such a fight is required?

I think we might find guidance in the spirit of aloha – the spirit that teaches over and over again of our oneness, our interbeing with all of life. The voice that says, “I join with you, your essence, and with this place where we are. I honor and welcome you. I will give and I will receive, never take. But I will not be silent if you harm me or my siblings on this earth. I am committed to leaving you whole and leaving this place whole, whatever it requires.”

If we are lucky enough to have a lei laid upon us – literally or metaphorically – if we are graced with an experience of the spirit of aloha, I pray for us that we might be guided by that spirit. May we fight lovingly but consistently for a world that is whole and beautiful and where we all live in peace with each other and the land. And may we be guided in all of our work by love.

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