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Missionaries from North America see Hawaii's less exotic side

By Baptist Press

For most Americans and even for world travelers, Hawaii is the ultimate exotic tourist destination. After all, it's paradise.

But for Southern Baptist missionaries Chris and Monica Woodall, Hawaii is not just a paradise but islands inhabited by the lost and hurting.

While visitors crowd Waikiki Beach in Honolulu for sunning and shopping, surfers invade Oahu's North Shore for some of the world's most daredevil surfing, and tourists enjoy the green flora, dark-sand beaches and blue Pacific waters of Maui, the Woodalls see Hawaii's underbelly.

"When you get behind the glitz of Waikiki, you find a lot of needs," Chris Woodall said. "When you get away from there and get back into the communities, it's just like anywhere else in the world. There are real people who have real problems, real hurts and needs. They just happen to live in a place that others like to come to on vacation.

"Yes, the beaches are beautiful. But Hawaii is home to many, many people. These people have names and souls and are in need of the Gospel," said Woodall, director of prayer and evangelism for the Hawaii-Pacific Baptist Convention in Honolulu. He also heads up the convention's disaster relief and chaplaincy teams.

The Woodalls are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and Southern Baptist churches' gifts through the Cooperative Program. The theme for this year's March 2-9 Week of Prayer for North American Missions is "Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment." The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering goal is $61 million.

Woodall's friend, Robert Wittekind, a pastor at Waianae Baptist Church in Honolulu County on Oahu, knows about the poor and illiterate in the Waianae community.

"There are a lot of broken homes here," said Wittekind, who the locals call "Kahu," the Hawaiian word for pastor. "According to statistics, six out of 10 prisoners have relatives in the Waianae area. We have a lot of drugs, a lot of homelessness -- people just running the streets. We have a lot of broken families and marriages. Many are not married but just live together. One of the highest populations of teenage pregnancy is on this coast."

Chris met Monica while they both served the International Mission Board in East Asia. They married after they returned from overseas, and a year later they had their first child, Moriah, now almost 2 years old.

"Because of what God has put on my heart," Monica said, "we wanted to live our lives somewhere where the Gospel is not being readily accepted or abundantly shared, and not where there's a church on every corner. Although Hawaii is a hard place to live, we want to live where we can be salt and light, and Hawaii is definitely one of those places."

Monica, who first served in Hawaii as a semester missionary after college, said her experience in Hawaii has taught her that people on the islands are spiritually searching, and it's fairly easy to get them to talk about spiritual things.

"But then when you start talking about Jesus and Jesus being the only way, that's when it gets a little bit more complicated," she said. "While it's easy to get into spiritual conversations, I was heartbroken by how that never meant Jesus."

The Woodalls' role is to support pastors.

"There are 115 churches in our convention, worshiping in 15 different languages," Chris said. "Our convention is not made up of just Hawaii but includes American Samoa, 1,000 miles away, and Guam, Okinawa and Saipan, more than 3,800 miles from Hawaii. Of course, we have churches on all of the Hawaiian Islands (Oahu, Hawaii or the Big Island, Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai)."

As if the spiritual challenges were not enough, Woodall and Wittekind agree that Hawaii is a closed society among the state's indigenous residents.

"This community is a tight, local Hawaiian community," Chris said. "We just don't ease our way in after a few short years, or even 10, 15 or 20 years. This is a hard culture to get into. It's tough. I'm a minority, and so is everybody else who comes from the mainland."

Another challenge is that Hawaii is an expensive place to live. Usually, a husband and wife both must work because it may take one entire paycheck to cover the mortgage on their home each month. Honolulu, for instance, is one of the most expensive places for housing in the United States. A four-bedroom house worth $303,000 in Atlanta would cost $738,000 in Honolulu.

"In Hawaii, there are people working multiple jobs," Chris said. "You have people working the night shifts, so it's important to have churches that hold services when the night shift is over. That may be at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. Or you have worship services in the middle of the night when people have time to attend."

Despite these cultural and economic challenges, Southern Baptists have used the state's natural disasters as a way to demonstrate the love of Christ to the local population through disaster relief.

Chris described Hawaii as "just a little speck of dirt in the middle of a big ocean." It's a geological and meteorological time-bomb. One or more of the state's six inhabited islands is constantly ripe for hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes.

"The next earthquake here is not 'if' but 'when'," said Karl Ragan, pastor of First Baptist Church in Waimea and a friend of the Woodalls. Waimea is on the Big Island.

On Sunday, Dec. 15, 2006, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale hit Hawi and Kapaau, small towns on the north Kohala coast of the Big Island around 7 a.m. For 45 seconds, the earthquake rattled local homes. All of the 3,000 homes in the area suffered damage, and most were jilted off their post- and pier-foundations.

"Since last January, we have been working alongside our partners in California to assist families whose homes were either heavily damaged or destroyed by the earthquake," Chris said. "This has provided many opportunities to minister to families who have never set foot into a church."

Ragan said most of the houses shifted about two inches off their foundations.

"We didn't try to put a house back in its original position, but put in new piers and cement posts," Ragan said. "We wanted to do that quickly before the next quake."

The work was done by Baptist Builders who rushed in from California and Utah, Ragan said. Southern Baptists also have the only feeding unit on the island for assisting volunteers and victims of disasters.

"People were just amazed that Baptists would come over from the mainland at their own expense and help," he said, adding that folks also were amazed that Southern Baptists would help anyone, not just other Baptists. It has opened doors to share the Gospel.

"Chris has been really wonderful," Ragan said. "He's on Oahu, which is 200 miles away, so we have to rely on airplanes. He's been really great in facilitating and connecting with the North American Mission Board. He has assured us that bills will be paid and has helped us get volunteers from the other islands."

Chris said the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and the Cooperative Program provide "a means by which we can help the churches do what God has called them to do: share the Gospel, equip leaders and start new churches all over the Pacific."

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