Father Alapaki Kim knows a thing or two about racism. His paternal grandfather emigrated to Hawaii from Korea to work on the pineapple plantations. His paternal grandmother arrived as a mail order bride. Together they had eight children, one of whom was his father who married his Native Hawaiian mother.
He identifies as half Korean and half Hawaiian and he is the pastor of the largest Hawaiian parish, St. Rita’s Parish. His parish is on Hawaiian Homelands in Nanakuli, Oahu and celebrates both Hawaiian culture and Catholicism. They’ve found a way to seamlessly integrate the two.
Father Kim focused on his Hawaiian heritage as this year’s Mackey Lecture speaker, a lecture series that continues the legacy of Father Robert Mackey, founder and first president of Chaminade University.
This year’s lecture focused on racism in Hawaii, a timely discussion given current national events and sentiments. Chaminade students, faculty and staff joined St. Louis School, the Marianist Center of Hawaii and the general public to view the lecture, streamed as a YouTube video because of pandemic social distancing requirements.
Kapono Ryan, a lay community member, set the stage for an open and honest exploration of racism by sharing a prayer of humility and hope. “All of us have our personal ignorances and arrogances,” said Ryan. “Forgive us. We humbly ask for your mercy and for your discernment, understanding and wisdom. May this session awaken in us a new way…such a way that we can respond to each other with greater humility and greater love.”
Right off the bat, Fr. Kim created common ground by acknowledging that throughout history racism has affected people of all skin colors.
“In the U.S., it’s not just people of color who have suffered racism. The Irish did when they first came. The Italians did. The Jews did. The Chinese came to build railroads, and Chinese children weren’t able to receive an education until priests and nuns violated laws in San Francisco.”
But, he says, people of Native American and African American heritage have experienced the worst of it. He followed with an example of the horrific treatment of the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Despite so many ethnic communities having similar histories based on discrimination, we struggle to find common ground when discussing systemic racism. “If we don’t have the same experiences, we have a hard time understanding,” says Fr. Kim.
But to Fr. Kim, the key to understanding is through education. That was what inspired him during this year’s Mackey Lecture about racism in Hawaii.
Fr. Kim took participants on a journey through Native Hawaiian history. Because, as he mentioned during the question and answer session at the end, “If we don’t know, we cannot empathize.”
Along the way, he used poignant examples to help everyone relate to Native Hawaiian experiences.
For example, when describing Hawaii’s first constitution in 1843, he explained that the constitution introduced division of land for the first time in Hawaii. “Hawaiians didn’t own land, they believed land was their grandmother,” he explains. “How can you sell your grandmother?”
Throughout the lecture, Fr. Kim spoke from experience. He has experienced racism and has seen it in his community throughout his whole life. And his upbringing was shaped by the racism his mother experienced as a child.
His mother grew up in a household that only spoke Hawaiian. By the time she went to grade school in the 1920s, Hawaiian was her primary language. One day, after speaking in Hawaiian with her cousin on the playground, a teacher called them over.
“She called them ignorant and stupid in front of all the kids,” says Fr. Kim. “Hawaiians were not rugged individualists at the time, and did not like to be singled out for praise or to be chastised. My mother was horrified.” The teacher then began to beat the two girls in front of the whole school.
The trauma his mother carried as a result was lasting. She hardly ever spoke in Hawaiian when he was young. His grandmother was the one that taught him his native language. She would come and stay at their home for a while and speak only in Hawaiian. But as soon as she left, his mother would pull him aside and say ‘you don’t talk that, it’s bad luck.’
As a young priest on the Big Island of Hawaii, Fr. Kim witnessed a family be evicted from lands they had lived on since before the arrival of Captain Cook. Their land had become Hawaiian Kingdom government lands earlier in history, but they were still allowed to live on it. Eventually, the lands became part of a seeded land trust which came under jurisdiction of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and when they found the deed they handed it over to the National Park Service.
Suddenly, the National Park Service was telling the ‘ohana what they could and couldn’t do with their land. For centuries they had relied on a loi kalo and a fish pond for food. But the park service said that was no longer allowed.
“They ignored it, because it was how they got their food,” explains Fr. Kim. “Eventually the DLNR police came and evicted the family in riot gear. Now, the National Park Service brings tourists there to show them how Hawaiians used to live.”
With systemic racism dominating conversations across the U.S., Fr. Kim says the first step we can take is to educate ourselves. Once we understand the historical context of what is happening, then we can determine how we best fit in to tackling the issue of racism. And as Christians, it’s our duty to do the work.
“As Christians, we are called to stand for equal rights in racial issues and religious issues,” says Fr. Kim. “Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love one another. He also says if you say you love God but you hate your neighbor, you’re a liar. God chose to become human…therefore we must love our brothers and sisters, that’s a requirement. If we don’t love them, we can’t love God.”