Call her Father Heather and she'll laugh. After all, the Rev. Heather Mueller was only the second woman in Hawaii to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Once she exhorted me to attend some function at St. John's in Keokea. "But, I'm an agnostic Jew," I said. "SHE doesn't mind," the priest said with a twinkle.
Mueller was her ebullient self on the telephone last week. After 37 years as an ardent social activist on Maui, she retired as rector at St. John's in Keokea, spent a year in Jerusalem and is now a half-time pastor at St. Augustine's on the Big Island.
Only days from her 70th birth date anniversary, she enthusiastically talked about the challenges she faces in tiny Kapa'au, just down Highway 270 from Hawi in North Kohala. It's a calling she first heard in 2010, a few months before heading off to St. George's College in the Middle East.
From the beginning of January to the end of last December, Mueller served as warden at the educational center. Warden is a British term that "summoned up visions of a prison for Americans. I described myself as the minister of hospitality."
She worked with a Palestinian staff, making sure attendees were suitably housed and fed. There were Brits, Australians, Americans, Canadians, Christians from other English-speaking places and "a couple of Jews."
Most of the educational efforts were done "in the field," traveling to West Bank settlements, among other places. The center had a state-of-the-art audiovisual room where documentaries were shown. Lecturers included both Palestinians and Israelis. "We tried to present different points of view." She came away with an overriding appreciation of "what the Palestinians have suffered."
Mueller left Jerusalem Dec. 23, spent Christmas in Los Angeles and arrived on the Big island Jan. 5, just in time for Epiphany services that same day. The unplanned timing delighted the priest.
Her work in Kapa'au has it roots in a 2010 Episcopal conference in Honolulu. Was she interested in being the rector at St. Augustine's, a mission set up in 1884 "to serve British plantation owners?" In her usual enthusiastic way, Mueller said "yes," but first she was committed to going to Jerusalem. It turned out that wasn't a problem.
Mueller was a guest priest at St. Augustine's the last Sunday in November and the first Sunday in December in 2010. "I loved it," she said. "It's delightful." The church itself "is exactly like St. John's without the three-sided lanai. They must have used the same plans."
She charmed the congregants. "They kept saying 'Come and be our priest.' "
Emails from Maui girl Barbara Ferriera went back and forth during her year in Jerusalem. There were several applicants for the post at St. Augustine's but "the search didn't go well." They again asked Mueller to come. That was in April 2011. They were willing to hold the part-time post open until she could arrive.
There was no culture shock. Mueller had served the church on Kauai, in Lahaina and at Seabury Hall before going to St. John's - a total of 36 years in Hawaii. In addition to the building, there is one major similarity between the Episcopal Church in Kaha'au and the one in Keokea. St. Augustine's has about 160 members, about the same small number that St. John's had when Father Heather arrived. It's now one of the most vibrant churches on the island. Congregants often overflow the small sanctuary.
What worked in Keokea could work in Kapa'au, although the economy is depressed "and a portion of family income often goes to relatives in the Philippines. There's more poverty here" than at St. John's. Otherwise, Kaha'au "is a lot like Haiku. It rains a lot and the place is very green." It's also rural and remote.
Since January, 15 feral pigs have been trapped on church grounds. "They are a major problem," she said. So is distance. "It takes an hour to drive (her Prius) to Kailua and more than two hours to Hilo." She paused for effect and added "Hawaii is a BIG island."
Summing it all up, the Rev. Heather Mueller said, "I have a wonderful life." Besides, she is sure she will "end up on Maui." Father Heather can be assured she'll have a warm welcome home.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.