KAHULUI - Back in Maui's plantation days, even as recently as 50 years ago, the church was the center of every community, said Maui County Council Member Michael Victorino.
There were few, if any, government social programs or nonprofit agencies providing social services. If the workers had trouble with the employers or needed food or medical assistance, they went to the churches, many of which had alliances, Victorino said.
Once again, Maui churches are banding together, this time with labor and other community groups as well, to form an interdenominational organization to carry the banner for social issues - such as affordable housing, a diversified local economy and immigration rights.
About 300 people gathered Saturday morning in Christ the King Church for the founding assembly of “Faith Action for Community Equity Maui,” or FACE Maui. The interdenominational group will join with nonprofits and unions to tackle social issues — such as more affordable housing, diversifying the local economy and immigration rights.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
About 300 people on Saturday morning filled Christ the King Church for the founding assembly of "Faith Action for Community Equity Maui," or FACE Maui. Victorino was among a phalanx of local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, seated in front of the altar to show support for the nascent faith-based advocacy group.
FACE Maui has 27 churches, nonprofits, unions and foundations listed as charter members. The organization was initiated by the FACE Oahu chapter and been in the planning stages for 15 months, said Deacon Stan Franco of Housing for the Local Persons.
"The churches used to be at the forefront of dealing with social injustice," Victorino said. "I think what we're seeing is a return to that kind of resolve."
FACE Maui is also affiliated with Chicago-based Gamaliel Foundation. President-elect Obama was an organizer for the national foundation; and Saturday was part of its campaign to fulfill a request from the new administration in Washington to help shape Obama's agenda by gathering community input from grass-roots meetings, like Saturday's, according to the Gamaliel Foundation.
Many of those in attendance said they were curious coming in about what the focus and organization would look like.
"This is just step one, our introduction to the community," said Franco, who added that they still need to elect officers.
Franco and other speakers made the purpose clear, though. They have three main priorities:
= Better and more diversified jobs and holding employers accountable.
= Affordable housing and appropriate land use.
= Immigration sensitivity and outreach.
"I believe Maui FACE is a 'can' and not a 'no can' organization," Franco said to applause.
He said it seems as though only those with land and power are making decisions for Mauians. Islanders need more choices for work, he said. But businesses no longer value keeping on employees by reducing hours until the clouds pass, but instead hand out pink slips and then bar the doors the next day, he said.
A few of the speakers echoed Obama's hopeful "Yes, we can" calls. But Franco also cautioned the crowd not to make Obama their "hero," but rather accept his call to organize and make things better together.
Adding to the rare open mixture of the political and religious, Franco also evoked the compassion and determination of Blessed Father Damien, who will soon be canonized for his work with Kaluapapa's leprosy patients.
West Maui resort employee Joyce Afalla used the forum to push back against Mainland corporate hotel owners who she said fail to recognize unions and quietly lay off people.
"To all fellow island workers, with the help of the unions, yes we can fight for our rights," Afalla said. "We can fight for our jobs."
Afalla also railed against Maui developers building homes for the rich rather their own. More than half the population can't afford to buy a house, she charged.
FACE Maui leaders said they were planning a housing summit for this spring. From her seat behind the lectern, county Housing and Human Concerns Director Lori Tsuhako gave an impromptu pledge to participate.
The Rev. Tasha Kama of the Christian Ministry Church called for equity for immigrants. Families should not be separated, she said, while the immigration service should speed up the citizenship process and citizens should demand that authorities treat immigrants with dignity.
"I'm not into politics, and like Congressman Abercrombie said, they do make a lot of promises," said Rheena Campbell, youth minister for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Wailuku. "If they follow through, that would be a great way of showing they truly care about the community and will do what they can to help us out."
As the child of immigrants and hotel workers, and a new wife looking for a home, Campbell said she connected with the issues presented Saturday.
The Rev. Matt Jim of the new Maui Intersection Church also said he liked what he'd heard at the Saturday gathering.
"I'm interested to see how all the denominations mesh together because we have different beliefs or ways of doing things," Jim said.
Congregations and organizations involved in FACE Maui are: AFL-CIO Community Services, Ala Lani United Methodist Church, Catholic Charities Hawaii, Christ the King Church, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Honolua United Methodist Church, Housing for the Local Person, Jewish Congregation of Maui, Kula Catholic Community, Lahaina United Methodist Church, Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, Maui Marshallese Ministry UCC, Maui Unite, Ministerio Elim, Na Ho Aloha, New Life Community Church, Pilipina Rural Project, Save Honolua Coalition, St. Anthony Catholic Church, St. John's Episcopal Church, St. Rita's Catholic Church, The Christian Ministry Church, UNITE HERE Local 5, United Church of Christ Pohnpei, Vipassana Metta Foundation and Wailuku Union United Church of Christ.
Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.