A century of faith

WAILUKU – Wailuku Jodo Mission – a Buddhist temple that has served generations of Maui residents within its iconic white walls – will celebrate its 100th birthday on Friday.

The congregation that began as a small church that was lifted and renovated into a two-story marvel off Central Avenue will celebrate its centennial with taiko drumming, an ancient chanting ritual, and a historic photo and artifact exhibit. Festivities will continue on Saturday with a morning service and afternoon lunch.

“Our theme this year is honoring the past and embracing the future,” the Rev. John Cho-on Hara said. “There’s always going to be this connection to the past so we want to continue honoring them, but with the changing nature of Maui we want to open up to everyone.”

Constructed in 1914, the Rev. Shinko Uchiyama became the first resident minister of the small temple that had a home on the back of the property. Uchiyama guided the church for only three months and was succeeded by nine priests – none serving more than three years – until the Rev. Taizen Imamura became minister in 1929.

Imamura led the church for 52 years and was responsible for an extensive renovation project that lifted the temple to the second floor in order to dig up a social hall on the ground level in 1935. A kitchen and extra rooms in the minister’s residence also were added.

“The membership was really strong, and they fortunately got a lot of donations,” Hara said of construction.

Imamura’s son, Yuzen, was the second-longest tenured minister, serving from from 1981 to 2000.

Taizen Imamura’s most valued contribution was construction of the neighboring low-income apartments, which made the church self-sufficient and served a community need. The 9,200-square-foot Wailuku Central Apartments complex, built in 1970, went a long way in keeping the church afloat.

“He had the foresight to purchase the land and build some housing on the side for additional income. Without it, I don’t think we could survive,” Hara said. “Rev. Imamura showed a commitment to the church, and he made an effort to connect to the community.”

Older church members remember the longtime priest from their childhood days, but joked they could not understand most of the services.

“They used to say everything in Japanese, and I don’t understand Japanese too good,” said Alvin Kushiyama, who frequented the church as a child in the 1940s. “My mom and dad were very close to the church so we had to go all the time, but I used to get tired because (Imamura) used to pray too long.

“I used to tell my mom I want to go home, and she would say, ‘Shut up, don’t talk.’ “

Kushiyama, 77, has been a lifelong member of the church. It is where he was married and held his father’s funeral. He also served as a Boy Scout cub master for three years in the late 1950s, back when the church still had a troop.

Wallace Wally Seita, 71, also joined the congregation as a young boy and was active in the church’s Boy Scouts, Japanese school and Young Buddhist Association group.

“I’ve had so many memories of going to school and Boy Scout jamborees and tying knots in contests,” Seita said from his Kahului home. “And like most teenage boys, I joined YBA to meet girls.”

Seita said it was his grandparents who took him to the church and forced him to go to Japanese school. He said membership during Imamura’s guidance was in the hundreds and that church regularly held bazaars, weddings, funerals and other functions.

“He was strict,” Seita said. “He didn’t smile often, but he was a good reverend.”

During World War II, Imamura and his family were sent to an internment camp on the Mainland, and the temple was used as a first-aid station. The church later served as a meeting place for Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as a collection center for relief goods and supplies for Japan.

During the Korean War, female church members and others met every Tuesday evening to make cotton balls as medical supplies for soldiers. The congregation amassed more than 200,000 cotton balls over three years and purchased a piano with the proceeds.

Membership has slowly declined over the years with the earlier generations passing on and other members no longer attending. Seita acknowledged that he, too, was inactive for about 40 years until returning to the church in 2003. He hopes others will, too.

“This has been my whole life as far as church goes, and my father is there,” he said of his father’s ashes. “I’m actually really looking forward to the centennial celebration and hashing up old times.”

Hara, 37, who splits his time between the Wailuku and Kahului Jodo missions, was busy helping to set up the photo and artifact exhibit Tuesday. Heading the Wailuku temple since 2009, the son of longtime Lahaina Jodo Mission Rev. Gensho Hara has helped to bring more youth and excitement to the congregation.

“He’s really, really good for us, and he’s exciting,” Kushiyama said of the services on the second Sunday of each month. “I enjoy coming because the sermon is much more clearer and better. There’s more feeling to go on, and we do exercises. This reverend is fantastic.”

Hara said he hopes to reinvigorate the church with the centennial celebration, and he plans to repaint the church, and restore the minister’s residence behind the church. He said three previous Wailuku Jodo Mission ministers will be traveling from Japan to partake in the celebration.

“We left the temple the way it is to respect what was done by the previous generations,” he said. “Now we’re reaching out more to the public. One hundred years, let’s us look back at what we’ve done and come back with a renewed sense of devotion and commitment.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com