By Cheryl Magness
On Aug. 8, a wildfire near the village of Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii, rapidly spread out of control, part of a larger series of wildfires plaguing the island. The origin of the fire is unknown, but like other fires on the island at the time, it was fed by extremely dry conditions and high winds.
In the ensuing confusion, many were trapped in their homes and cars. By the time the fire was under control, at least 99 people had died. Hundreds more have been displaced, and six are still missing. As the investigation continues, the fire is being called the deadliest in the U.S. in over 100 years, with damages approaching $6 billion.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School in Kahului, Hawaii, was not directly impacted by the fire, but the congregation has been on the forefront of the response since the beginning. That response has included facilitating training and deployment of volunteers, collecting and distributing supplies, assisting with housing needs for the displaced, and distributing $100,000 collected from people across the Synod for the families of those who died.
On Nov. 11, Emmanuel hosted a gathering to dedicate a memorial honoring the dead. Emmanuel members and staff worked with Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), an LCMS Recognized Service Organization (RSO), to install the memorial, which consisted of 98 of LCC’s “Hearts of Mercy and Compassion” — hearts mounted on crosses to provide a “physical and spiritual symbol of … the love and hope of Jesus.” (The crosses numbered 98 rather than 99 because the name of one of the fire victims has not been released.)
Volunteers from Emmanuel and LCC assembled the hearts, placed them on the crosses and set up the crosses on the memorial site. During the dedication, volunteers prayed and sang together.
The crosses bear the names of those who died, along with the words of Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” The memorial was placed one block from the entrance to Lahaina on land provided by a local business, Goodfellow Brothers Construction, because the village is currently open to residents only.
In August, shortly after the fire, the Rev. Michael Lange, president of the LCMS California-Nevada-Hawaii District, updated the district, saying that he had been “privileged to watch, pray and facilitate” Emmanuel’s and the broader church’s response. He reported on multiple efforts across the Synod, including:
- A grant from LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response to help cover initial costs of the response, including pastoral and spiritual care for those affected;
- A shipment of three boxes of Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT) training materials, along with $5,000 worth of $100 Visa gift cards and a box of devotional materials, also from LCMS Disaster Response;
- The training and mobilization of 35 volunteers by LCMS Disaster Response and LCC;
- The distribution of “tens of thousands” of dollars’ worth of goods and supplies, including by the LCMS RSO Orphan Grain Train; and
- The enrollment of four children at Emmanuel who had been displaced by the fire, with tuition paid for this year.
Lange added that Emmanuel’s presence for over 50 years on the island helped enable the timely and robust response, as school families at Emmanuel have many relationships with those personally impacted. “They are Christ’s ambassadors and bear the presence of the Savior,” Lange said.
‘A tight community’
The congregation of Emmanuel is currently in a pastoral vacancy. After the fire severely impacted housing on the island, Emmanuel decided to pause the call process. They hope to restart the process soon, but in the meantime the congregation is being served by the Rev. Les Self, a trained interim pastor who has served several other Hawaiian congregations during pastoral vacancies. Lange describes Self as a “tremendous pastoral presence” who understands the people and culture of Hawaii.
In addition, Lange said that he “can’t say enough” about Emmanuel’s school principal, Joshua Rempfer. “Joshua comes from a family of Lutheran pastors, three generations deep, and he intuitively understands the kind of leadership needed to respond in this context. He is God’s provision for this moment.”
In early November, Lange visited Maui. He said that, as someone who has visited the island many times before, he was shocked at the level of destruction: “My heart just ached the whole time.” But he is grateful for the care Emmanuel is bringing to the island.
“It is a tight community,” Lange said. “The school has many families who are not LCMS but who are deeply grateful for the Christian teaching and care they receive.” He added that almost all of the school staff are members of Emmanuel, and many are commissioned workers. “They have been invaluable in ministering to the needs of people who are on the front lines of the response. Recovery and rebuilding will continue in the months and years to come as we work through the leadership of Emmanuel to care for the community.”
Principal Rempfer said the memorial project is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work to bring a message of hope to those impacted by the fire.
“Members of Emmanuel met Thursday evening [Nov. 9] at church to prepare the Hearts of Mercy and Compassion. The following day, a group of volunteers … drove over to Lahaina for assembly.
“On Saturday morning, another group of volunteers — many people contributed all three days — drove back to Lahaina for the memorial dedication. … It is our hope and prayer that as word spreads, these hearts will … offer hope and comfort to families who have lost so much.”
Rempfer singled out a few volunteers he believed deserved special recognition — “namely Desi Omura, who immediately led donation drives and still continues to connect with groups in need, and both Leif Sjostrand and Russell Wilson, who have been in regular communication with LCC. They coordinated the Orphan Grain Train shipments as well as the Hearts of Mercy and Compassion memorial.”
LCC President and CEO Rev. Chris Singer said, “To see this long row of hearts and crosses creates a[n] … impression of both the magnitude of life lost and … the hope that we have in Jesus.”
LCC Project Coordinator Tim Laabs said, “Listening to the stories from [the] family members of those lost in this fire was an incredible experience. It was heartwarming to hear their words of thanks for honoring their loved ones.”
The Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response, said, “In catastrophic disasters like this, it is a blessing to see the LCMS come together to serve their neighbor. The Maui response is an excellent example of LCMS RSOs, LCMS Disaster Response, the district and the Synod coming alongside a Lutheran church and school to help them be the light of Christ in their community in a time of darkness, hopelessness and despair.”
On Nov. 11, those who gathered for the memorial dedication sang Lutheran Service Book 763, “When Peace, like a River” (also known as “It Is Well with My Soul”). The second stanza of the hymn aptly captures the truth that, at times of disaster, loss and death of the magnitude seen in Lahaina, the only source of peace and comfort is that found in Christ:
“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate And hath shed His own blood for my soul.”
Posted Dec. 4, 2023