Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saints and Others

On October 11, 2009, Joseph de Veuster of Belgium will be canonized by Pope Benedict as St. Damien of Molokai, patron saint of lepers, HIV/AIDs patients, and of Hawaii. You can read his biography, published by the National Park Service, online.

Kalaupapa, the peninsula that has been home to the majority of Hawaii's lepers from 1866 to the present and was Damien's home from 1873 until his death in 1889, became a National Historic Site in 1976. As leprosy, now called Hansen's Disease, became treatable in 1949, patients were able to transition back into "normal society". Some chose to return to their homes. Others remained at Kalaupapa. I don't blame them. It is a magical place, filled with what Hawaiians call mana -- spiritual elelctricity. But as the patient population dwindled, residents became concerned that this special place would become another high priced commercial spot in the state. To protect their home, they invited the National Park Service to manage Kalaupapa.

After 30 years of living in Groveland, I have a basic distrust of the National Park Service. My experience is that their personnel pay lip service to the concerns of the resident community and park neighbors, and then ignore those concerns if they conflict with "the way we do things in Washington DC" or the personal views of park staff. Examples abound. There are ongoing threats of entry fees at Great Smokey Mountains National Park, despite the original agreements made with residents in the 1930's that if they gave up their land to form the park, it would be forever free to the American public. In fairness, I see that there is still no fee at GSMNP. At Yosemite, the Park Service badly wanted to take over maintenance of 8 miles of road accessing Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. After only 2 years of ignoring ground squirrel tunnels under the road, in what was admittedly a major rain event, the road collapsed in 3 separate locations and was severaly undermined over approximately 1/3 of its length. Who paid to rebuild the road? The City of San Francisco, who needs road access to their primary water source. I think of all the private homes at Foresta and Aspen Valley within Yosemite National Park that have burned in wildfires the last 15 years. The most recent was a 7425 acre escaped NPS control burn in August, 2009. NPS isn't fond of private landholders within their areas of jurisdiction.

What does this have to do with Kalaupapa? Federal legislation was passed this year authorizing the construction of a memorial to patients who lived and died there. That's at least 8000 individuals. The patient population, and a support group (Kalaupapa Ohana) including many descendants of former patients, want the memorial near Fr. Damien's church and the known but unmarked graves of at least 2000 Hawaiians (photo above,right), in an area called Kalawao. The mana, the spiritual energy, there is extraordinarily powerful. The NPS appears to want the memorial on the other side of the peninsula, nearer Kalaupapa Village. They are fond of a site near the garbage dump. Public hearings are being held. Input is needed. The input must reflect your perspective, not mine.

And why am I interested? Because my grandmother's grandparents and at least two of their sons lived there as patient(s) and kokua (personal caregivers) from the late 1880's into the 1890's. Among those thousands of unidentified graves are my kupuna, my ancestors. They likely lived at Kalawao.

Give thanks for those in every profession, but especially in public service, who do their jobs because they truly care about those they serve. Pray that they are given the tools, resources and support they need to be effective.

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