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Hawaii Convention churches show ‘tremendous faith’ amid devastation of COVID-19 shutdown

Over the last year, Pastor Randy Pauley of Kahului Baptist Church has preached messages remotely from several areas around Maui. “We hope to give people some measure of joy and a break from the routine as we preach a beautiful message (the Gospel), with a beautiful backdrop (creation),” he said.

HONOLULU (BP) – The front desk workers and bellboys. Food service. Concierge. Restaurant staff. Custodians. Maintenance workers and lifeguards. Surfing instructors.

Those are just a handful of the jobs lost at Hawaiian hotels and resorts since the onset of COVID-19. Other businesses feeling the damage include helicopter and fishing tours, sunset cruises, and Uber and Lyft drivers. Retail businesses ground to a halt.

When COVID-19 all but put a plug into Hawaii’s tourism pipeline, the state suffered like no other in the union. Even when they could get there, travelers didn’t care for the 14-day quarantine upon arrival and certainty of getting ticketed should they leave their hotel without permission. In December 2019 daily passenger counts for Hawaii approached 43,000, but by late March those numbers had plummeted to below 500. That plunge put the state at Depression-era employment levels.

“Nearly everyone in the community is connected to the resorts or schools,” said Chris Martin, Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention executive director, on how the economic downturn has affected those areas. However, he noted that churches have continued to push in ministry and reaching others with the Gospel.

Pastor Arjay Gruspe of Pawa’a Community Church baptizes a new believer in April in a video shared on the church’s Facebook page. Despite being in one of the hardest-hit state economies, Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention churches have continued to minister and see new believers.

“Our churches have been very active in missions locally. And while they haven’t been able to engage directly with people as in the past, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in training and preparation by churches for ministry in this day,” he said.

The HPBC consists of 155 churches,121 of them located on the Hawaiian Islands. The rest are spread across the South Pacific Baptist Association (American Samoa and Samoa), Baptist Association of Micronesia (Guam and Saipan) and the Asia Baptist Network (Okinawa, Mainland Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines).

The physical expanse between convention churches led to an unusual timeline for adjusting to the COVID-19 shutdown. Members of the Asia Baptist Network were the first to directly experience its effects as Freedom Church, located in Seoul, suspended in-person worship in mid-February, a full month before churches in Hawaii did so.

Craig Webb, assistant executive director, had been visiting HPBC churches in Asia at that time and rushed back to Hawaii as COVID travel restrictions began taking shape. Governmental regulations, he said, have had a definite impact on how churches are allowed to gather.

“Hawaii is a more liberal state, so we’ve had more shutdowns. Things have opened up somewhat. Most of our churches have been able to start meeting again in person, but the recommendations to do so can be confusing. Still, we’ve gathered as best we can,” he said.

In the meantime, churches have ministered through outreach efforts, primarily through food distribution. Those leading the way include Lahaina Baptist, Kahului Baptist and Waiehu Baptist churches on Maui and Life Christian Church and Central Baptist Church on Oahu. Hawaii Chinese Baptist and Living Faith Church in Honolulu partnered to donate more than 1,000 face shields to medical workers. Guam Christian Life Fellowship partnered with other churches to provide weekly meals to the homeless in a park. That outreach has brought men and women to Christ and to baptism, said Pastor Pancho Madrid.

Pastor Jay Wright of Lahaina Baptist Church said members have stepped up their ministry efforts.

“We are witnessing a tremendous increase in active volunteers,” he said. “Roughly 60 percent of our church members are out of work and spending their time serving people in need throughout the community. Many are delivering groceries to the elderly and shut-ins and working with one of our weekly outreaches to the homeless.

“We’re seeing many new relational bridges develop between our members and those disconnected from the local church.”

Martin said that the early experience HPBC churches in Korea had with COVID essentially gave those on the Hawaiian Islands about a month to prepare logistically for ministry during a shutdown. Churches’ responses since then have been marked by determination to continue serving not only in their community but through fulfilling the Great Commission.

“We witnessed our pastors and church leaders exercising great faith in the past 10 months of the pandemic,” he said. “They embraced the uncertainty and faced the difficulties, determined to show the power of Christ to a world searching for hope.”

Furthermore, despite the bad economy Martin said Cooperative Program giving in 2020 actually exceeded its budget by 3 percent. Likewise, 2021 has brought a promising start.

“January is shaping up to be one of the strongest-giving months we’ve had in the last 10 years,” he said. “Our churches have been incredibly faithful. Even though their primary avenues of ministry were hindered, they’ve found new ways. They didn’t throw their hands in the air and wonder what they were going to do.”

That outreach has brought forward salvation decisions as well. Last Sunday (Jan. 24) Life Christian Church in Honolulu baptized five people. Those statements of faith came about because of the church’s evangelism and outreach efforts, Martin said.

Also on Sunday, one pastor reported that as he presented his sermon on the sanctity of life a new attendee – thirtysomething and unchurched – stood up and walked out. When reached later by church members, she admitted being troubled by the message, but understood. Simply put, she said she’d never heard anyone teach what the Bible said about the topic.

For all its beauty, Hawaii is a tough place to minister. Many of its 1.4 million residents aren’t native. Those who arrive and declare they’re never leaving often do within a year or so for reasons such as rock fever, a term referring to the claustrophobia, homesickness and feeling of being trapped on a “rock” in the middle of the ocean. They also tire of paying $6 for a dozen eggs , $9 for a fast-food combo meal and some of the highest gas prices in the country.

Martin, a 15-year resident, understands those hurdles but also the payoff for sticking around for the long term.

“For us, in spite of the challenges, our churches are showing tremendous faith in sharing the Gospel,” he said. “We’re very excited.”