Hawaii church takes on the U.S. Navy — and wins

Hawaii church takes on the U.S. Navy — and wins

August 31, 2005
Written by Daniel Hazard

For awhile, it seemed as if the United States Navy had forgotten Pearl Harbor.

In 2003, Pearl Harbor Memorial Chapel, home of Hawaii's Moanalua Community UCC, stood in the way of a redevelopment project on Navy property. Navy officials expected the small Honolulu church to go down as easily as two Samoan UCC churches that were razed to make way for a Naval Exchange parking lot.

Instead, the battle between the Navy and Moanalua Community UCC evolved into a classic David and Goliath story — with the Navy as Goliath and a determined church historian named Joy Lacanienta as David.

"We knew going in that we were up against insurmountable odds…but we had faith and we had God," Lacanienta says.

Church members knew the building itself was their only bargaining chip. The Navy owned the land, and the church's post-World War II lease had long since run out. The only way to preserve the building was to prove its historic significance and have it declared a state historic landmark.

"We said the church's saving grace will be its history, its roots, and God will do the rest," Lacanienta says.

Aided by history

Luckily, previous church historians had kept good records.

Preserved in a vault were documents and photographs dating back to World War II. Lacanienta was able to trace the church's history to 1941, when what would later become known as the Pearl Harbor Memorial Community Church was established as a Navy housing congregation, composed mostly of military families served by a chaplain.

In 1956, when the church membership and school outgrew the Quonset huts in which they were housed, members began raising money for a permanent sanctuary.

Financial support for the $80,000 project came from the Hawaii Evangelical Association, the Congregational Church Building Society, Congregational Christian churches and private donors. The five building chairpersons consisted of representatives from the Marines, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as the Navy.

Lacanienta's thorough history focuses on the most notable feature of the low A-frame building — the Pearl Harbor Memorial Window, which serves as the front wall of the church.

The window, created by John Wallis of Pasadena, Calif., is described by Lacanienta as "the largest continuous stained glass window in Hawaii." The window incorporates both military history and religious symbols, including (in a church completed in 1958) Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Confucian symbols. At the center is Christ, surrounded by people of different races and cultures. At Christ's feet and above the doorway is Galatians 3:28, "For you are all one in Christ Jesus."

God at work

There was one gaping hole in Lacanienta's research, however. She had no information about the building's architect, Clifford F. Young. Not knowing if he were dead or alive, she opened the phone directory and found three to four pages of listings for "C. Young." After weeping and praying, she closed her eyes, pointed at one of the numbers and dialed.

Clifford Young, Oahu native, UCC member and M.I.T.-trained architect, answered the phone. Her history was complete.

"After that, I knew it was God's will. People noticed that I wasn't afraid of the Navy anymore," Lacanienta says. "If God is for you, who can be against you?"

Moanalua Community UCC was placed on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places in August of 2003.

"By late August, we were supposed to receive a letter from the Navy telling us they were going to evict us — which meant [the Navy] had to go back to the drawing board," Lacanienta says. "Then, the real work began — negotiations with the Navy. They might have to keep the structure up, but they could still kick the congregation out."

Ultimately, it was the developer — not the Navy — that came to an agreement with the UCC's Hawaii Conference, says John Derby, executive secretary of the Hawaii Conference Foundation, which manages the Conference's assets.

The Hawaii Conference Foundation's lease with the Navy expired in 1982, so Derby and his predecessor had been negotiating with the Navy for years. The decades-long struggle became critical in 2003 when the lease on an old shopping center expired and the Navy decided to send out a request for proposals to develop the property that included Moanalua Community UCC.

Hawaii Conference Board Chair Russell Kaupu, serving as the Conference Foundation's attorney in the transaction, convinced a friendly developer, the MacNaughton Group, to submit a proposal allowing the church to remain, Derby says.

In July of 2004, the Navy granted the MacNaughton Group a 40- year lease with development rights to the Moanalua Shopping Center parcel. The MacNaughton Group, in turn, granted the Foundation a 40-year sublease on the Moanalua Community UCC site. The new lease became effective last October.

New lease, new life

The hard-won victory was not without cost. The church, which had to put its search for a permanent pastor on hold, went for several months without a pastor and cut back on what had been a thriving community services program.

Two years ago, the church was one of 20 faith-based agencies to receive a Capital Compassion Grant under the Bush Administration's faith-based initiatives program — a grant church members would have to refuse because they had no guarantee they would win their battle for survival against the U.S. Navy.

The $80,000 over three years was to help build the church's Community Services Program, including a "Women in Transition" (WIT) project, "Bread Ministry" and children's programs.

WIT provides employment supportive services to women who are in transition due to domestic violence, homelessness, incarceration, economic challenges and career changes. The church's Bread Ministry collects unsold bread and pastries for Oahu's only homeless shelter, the Institute of Human Services.

"At that time, the Navy was telling us we would be gone in less than a year. There was no way we could tell the federal government that we would be here for the next three years. We had to give back the grant," says Lacanienta, who also is director of the church's community services.

Moanalua Community UCC now has an interim pastor, the Rev. Wally Fukunaka, who is helping them to rebuild, Lacanienta says. Today the church, which joined the UCC in 1961, shares its sanctuary with the Cup of Freedom Samoan UCC and the New Life Pentecostal Church. Pre-school and day care programs also continue to operate on the site.

Lacanienta describes her church's struggle as "a story of faith" and "a story of blessing," a story that could inspire other struggling churches. "This is God's divine hand, saying, 'Be still and know that I am God. I've got your back,' " she says.

Sandra Hoy, a freelance writer in Evansville, Ind., attends Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., where her husband, Phil, is interim pastor. 

Please review our Community Guidelines before posting a comment. If you have any questions, contact us.

Section Menu

Contact Info