Pilgrimage to Kalaupapa

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

When looking at places where Hawaiians move, Washington state is second only to California. At Seattle Pacific University, more than 10% of our incoming freshman each year are from Hawai’i.

As we considered this program, we thought about how we might enrich our relationship with Hawai’i while serving Hawaiian ministries. We want to involve them in our learning community, bring them to campus for our annual one-day spring conference, invite them to complete the Faith Formation Certificate, and bring ministry leaders in the PNW to Hawai’i – bringing rest, awe, and a pilgrimage experience to those who are feeling burned out by their ministries in rainy Seattle.

This pilgrimage is intended for Seattle-based ministry leaders, and may also include spaces for family members who are able to cover their own travel expenses.

In the future, we may further develop this into a study “abroad” course  open to students at SPU.

We have allocated funding to cover full or partial costs for a limited number of participants. It is possible that additional spaces may open up for applicants who wish to self-fund their participation in the trip. Further details will be available when applications open.

The pilgrimage is currently slated for Summer 2026. Exact dates to be announced.

Applications will appear on this page when available. To be notified when we start accepting applications, sign up for our email list!

We hope to extend the option for selected participants to bring family along, space allowing. Further details will be available when applications open.