Background – Honolulu and Kosrae
As I hinted at previously, I was fortunate enough to have an exciting adventure during my winter break. My little sister has been working as a high school chemistry and biology teacher on the island of Kosrae. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either until a year ago. It’s one of the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), out near Australia. They are affiliated with the United States, similar to how the Vatican is affiliated with Italy. You can find a good overview of the FSM here.
My parents used this Kosrae bit as an excuse to take that family vacation we’ve been putting off for around six years. With this as our catalyst, they picked Honolulu as our Christmas destination. In addition, I wanted to visit my sister in Kosrae, so I spent a week in Honolulu with my family, followed by a week with just my sister in Kosrae, where I rang in the new year.
During these two weeks, I had the opportunity to visit many different religious sites. Since both areas have a different culture than the US, I wanted to give a quick rundown for people to refer back to while I highlight each religious site in subsequent weeks.
Although I was aware that there was some Japanese influence in Hawaii, I had no idea how much. That was quickly cleared up once I started looking into religious sites to visit.
Japan had an early relationship with the Kingdom of Hawaii and sent several workers over to maintain the sugar fields in the late 1800s. Since then, the Japanese subculture has held a prominent place in Hawaiian society, with roughly 15% of the current population being Japanese. Given it’s unique history, Hawaii has the highest population of Asian Americans and the lowest population of White Americans in any US state, with the white population being about 25%.
I’ve been told that the Japanese sometimes say they are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist, reflecting the synthesis of religious outlooks. While I’m not sure this same attitude is taken in Hawaii, the prevalence of all three groups indicates that it may. As you can imagine, some of the Shinto shrines have a history that reflects issues raised after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I’ve mentioned before that I love Japanese culture. After the cuisine, my favorite part of Japan was all of the religious sites. Anyone who traveled with me that summer knows I wanted to stop and photograph every single Shinto shrine I came across! To be able to see more of them in Hawaii was absolutely wonderful and helped with a bit of the nostalgia/homesickness on my part for Japan.
Of course, there is also a large Christian influence in Honolulu. I’ll be highlighting a few churches in the area, as well as the Mormon temple located at the Brigham Young University campus on the north side of the island.
- The weather is quite odd. It was mostly sunny with the occasional sun shower every single day.
- The previous point probably explains why I saw at least one rainbow every day, hence why it’s on Hawaii’s license plate.
- Dodge Chargers are either the car of choice amongst residents or car rentals, maybe both. Regardless, I saw more Dodge Chargers in my time here than I think I did this past year or so. For some reason, they rub me the wrong way, so I don’t think I could ever move to Honolulu.
- Watching Sunday football when I wake up at 8 AM and eat breakfast is downright bizarre.
- The Hawaiian Royalty was overthrown on the island in 1893. 100 years later, President Clinton signed an apology from the US, making it the first time the US has ever apologized for overthrowing a government.
Finally, a selection of photos from my trip to Honolulu:
Kosrae is a 42 square mile island out in the Pacific. Many of the islands in the FSM were courted by multiple religious missionaries throughout the mid to late 1800s, and the religious makeup of each island heavily reflects that history. The Congregationalists were the first to visit Kosrae, and the majority of the local churches (including the village church that is the focal point of each municipality) are of that same denomination. In addition, I saw churches for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ, and a smattering of non-denominational buildings. The Latter-Day Saints also have a church on the island, as well as their famed missionaries. I happened to see them out driving one day, and – even on this humid island – they are still wearing their traditional white button down shirt and black pants. Given the culture shock of some parts of the island, it was nice to see something familiar.
That all being said, my sister managed to land herself on the only island in the FSM that is predominantly Protestant rather than predominantly Catholic; Kosrae is 95% Protestant. Even then, most of the Catholics are not natives of Kosrae. Rather, they are mostly Filipino, with a few Chinese and Japanese.
From my sister’s experience, you can find a church of just about every flavor on Kosrae. Because religion plays such an important community role in their society, Sunday is revered as a day of rest, and going to church is expected. Although the local government is not a theocracy, my understanding is that it is practically one, given the amount of clout the local religious leaders have.
Despite all that, I had a lot of trouble deciphering how much the locals understand about Christianity. For example, Christmas wasn’t celebrated on Christmas this year. Sounds confusing, right? Because Christmas fell on a Sunday (which is a day for rest and attending church), all village Christmas celebrations were moved to days on either side of Christmas.
The cornerstone of Christmas here is organized marching. Groups get together to sing songs and put on marching performances for the Christmas celebration. The marching is recorded and it seems to be constantly played back on the local TV station. It was on at the post office, the telecommunications office, the power office – everywhere. They even show reruns from previous years. Here’s what the island’s website has to say:
One of the most unique activities of Kosrae is celebrating Christmas. The whole island practices “marching” and singing daily from the 1st of December right thru Christmas Day. Christmas Day is spent at church from sunup to sundown observing each group perform their “marching parade” routine accompanied by song. Some groups are 100+ people! This event is quite unique as each group has a matching “uniform”, local style bright floral print dresses for the ladies and shirts for the men. Bring a bag as candy and other goodies are thrown around like you were at a parade. Every 4 years is a reunion year, where Kosraeans from abroad will venture back to Kosrae to celebrate Christmas Kosraean style.
Some random thoughts unrelated to churches:
- I have to wonder if Kosrae is the closest to a utopia I’ll ever come to seeing. There’s no jail, no homelessness, no hunger, and not even much bullying. An English teacher here explained that – when learning about the Holocaust – the concept of things like genocide and discrimination were absolutely foreign to his students.
- Island time* really does exist. Showing up at the assigned “start time” for something is futile – no one else will be there. I heard stories of events starting as much as four or five hours late.
- People here have awesome names. Some of my favorites are Beheart, Shammi-Maria, Steely Dan, and Inch. Given that my sister teaches science classes, she advocates the use of metric units. Poor Inch was renamed Centimeter by his peers.
- There are dogs that will chase you, either while you’re walking or on a bike. The best defense mechanisms seems to be to throw rocks or carry a large stick to bat at them with. I chose to hide behind my sister or pedal ridiculously fast.
- Our gas attendant at one point was smoking. It would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so, you know, dangerous.
- Kosrae is called “the island of the sleeping lady”. Here’s why. Can you see her?:
* Island time – The idea that begin and end times are only suggestions. People will show up when they want to. Best way to combat your western sense of order? Be (very) flexible.
Finally, a selection of pictures from time on Kosrae: