How can families heal from the damage of disease, racism, and colonization?
Situated on the island of Moloka’i in Hawai’i, surrounded by the ocean and by steep sea cliffs, is the remote community of Kalaupapa. Now a national park, this area functioned for over a century—beginning in 1866—as a leper colony, where people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were forced into isolation from the outside world. Over this period, over 8,000 people lived and died at Kalaupapa.
The colony is now open to visitors, and those who were once banished there are now free to live there. As of 2015, 60 individuals between the ages of 73 and 92 were still living. Similar to the initial positive environmental impact of “the world shutting down” at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the colony at Kalaupapa remains a uniquely protected environment, home to a third of America’s endangered species list – exposing the complicated interconnectedness of human and ecological thriving and suffering.
To prepare for the trip we will read the historical fiction account of this colony, Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert and watch and discuss Molokai: The Story of Father Damien directed by Paul Cox (1999). The spring conference the year of the pilgrimage will focus on disability research as it relates to family structures and social isolation, specifically when certain members are labeled as diseased or disabled and are therefore distanced from the community.
We believe this type of theological thinking and learning is especially significant considering the social and individual impacts of the COVID pandemic. Families have been divided in their homes when they have needed to quarantine or protect medically vulnerable grandparents. They have been separated from their congregations when worship services went online. Some have been distanced from family members because of differing views on vaccines and masking. The negative effects of social isolation on our faith communities and our families has been significant and it is clear from our focus group interviews that ministry leaders are still unclear as to how they can encourage healing and reconciliation in and across families. This pilgrimage will offer us the space to consider what healing and health look like and the ways the pandemic has exposed deep fissures in our social structure.
This will truly be a pilgrimage as the road there is steep and difficult. The colony is only reachable via a 3.5-mile hike on foot or by donkey or plane. SPU Faith Formation pilgrims will stay in Honolulu, spending two days learning together, a third day on Moloka’i, and two following days debriefing the experience and considering how what they have learned will inform their ministries.