People-Watching on the Bus: A Report from Hawaii by Gene Ciarlo

Last year, in my April offering for Today’s American Catholic, I addressed the need for the Catholic Church to be more authentic in word and deed as the reflection of the gospel of Christ. I said, “The clericalism, dogmatism, and organizational autocracy has mushroomed to the point that the Catholic Church is hardly recognizable as the same post-resurrection discipleship that set the world on fire with a zeal for the spirit and message of Jesus.” I called for the clergy and the whole bureaucratic church to “get on the bus” and mingle with the people, find out what they feel, think, say and need. The story that I referenced, whether true or not, was of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former Vatican Secretary of State, who is said one day to have hopped on the local bus going to the Vatican. The people, shocked at first to see a cardinal on the bus, were overwhelmed with his down-to-earth attitude, style, and bearing and went away with a different impression of the church and at least one member of its ruling class.

I used to get on the bus nearly every day in Honolulu, where I am spending time this winter. I did it for years, from the time I began working in these islands. No, there are neither cardinals nor bishops nor priests using the local means of transportation in this big city. For me, this time around, I am not looking for the clergy to prove anything to the people on the bus. Instead I am trying to read the people. I am a people-watcher.

The daily bus ride in Honolulu is a fantastic study in human diversity. The sheer number of ethnicities is astounding. If you want to visit a place where people of native Hawaiian ancestry, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Samoans, and, yes, even Caucasians live together in relative harmony, come to Honolulu. It is an amazing melting pot whose cultural multiplicity and yet compatibility and cooperation have not been given nearly enough acknowledgment and attention.

At least 20 percent of the population of the city is working-class Filipino, and they are mostly Catholic. At the end of a work day I see lots of women in their uniforms from the hotels and restaurants, slow moving and exhausted after hours of work. They are bone tired as they look forward to “pau hana,” a Hawaiian term for the end of the week. By standards in the Philippines their wages are very good, even at $10 or $12 an hour—so good that they are able to send money back home to relatives who look forward to the bounty from their American family members. But these women are working not only to send money “home,” but for their families here too, mainly for their kids. They want them to go to school, to get a good education and hopefully go to college so they won’t have to work in hotels and restaurants and cater to tourists.

At the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace on a Sunday morning, every one of the six well-attended masses is peopled mostly with Filipinos. The masses are filled with good music, good musicians, and enthusiastic people who sing and respond wholeheartedly. The homilies, however, leave something to be desired. It becomes obvious to me that the priests of the cathedral and the visiting priests, who are numerous, have not “gotten on the bus.” Among other things, one learns compassion on the bus, a different language and sensitivity to the human condition. I’ve been to other parishes in Honolulu as well, and it is always the same homiletic style.

Parish priests, not only in Honolulu but in other major cities, ought to meet the people where they live and work if for no other reason than to learn their language, come to understand their lives, their hopes and dreams—and their pain. This leads to learning compassion, the compassion that characterized the life of Jesus. Homilies might then contain more than pious platitudes and spiritual nosegays. As it is now, priests and people seem to be living in two different worlds, the difference between a rectory and a three-room apartment for a family of five.

But there is an important element that seems to be lacking in the lives of the people on these islands. This is an interest in the world in which they live, and a concern for the political life, the domestic and foreign affairs, of the United States. Through economic necessity, many are so tied up in their work, and in the material goods that their work affords them, that they don’t care very much about the country which is responsible for their perceived—be it real or unreal—success. Perhaps I am mistaken about the lack of interest that this cultural melting pot has in civic affairs. But statistically, voter turnout for major elections is consistently lower in Hawaii than in any other state in the union. That is a gauge of the interest that people living and working there have in the country which supplies their daily bread.

This needs to be addressed by local pastors of hearts and souls in their homilies. It is not about preaching politics from the pulpit. It is about helping people to understand that the country they have chosen as their surrogate home needs their interest and attention. They have to be participating members of society. The United States needs them to be interested in what is happening here. Preaching the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus is about preaching the Jesus who cared about what happened not only to the inhabitants of Judea, Galilee, and even Samaria, but also to the land in which they lived, worked, and struggled to find peace and happiness. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Why? Because it was part and parcel of who the people were, how they lived, how they grew or withered.

Unfortunately—and I’m sorry to say it—but the “aloha spirit” of the islands is not alive and well “on the bus” or even in the church environment. Cultural diversity is an island phenomenon, and mutual acceptance appears to be free of the terrible racism that characterizes life on the mainland. But I feel that this acceptance has its base in an attitude of indifference rather than acknowledgment and acceptance. It seems to be founded on a passive attitude of “live and let live” rather than an active and intentional desire to welcome and embrace the neighbor and the stranger.

I focus on Hawaii as a way to suggest a more comprehensive spirituality than simply exclusive focus on one’s personal spiritual life and interpersonal relationships. It is about the full spectrum of mindfulness, of loving the land, the people, and more specifically the country in which we live, move, and have our being. It is about caring for what happens where we live. It is about considering the fullness of our lives, with all that it entails. As my moral theology professor used to say, we must always consider the Sitz im Leben, the full, dynamic, living situation in which our subject matter is located.

To be a Jesus person is to be mindful, as the Buddhists have taught us. We cannot be satisfied with categorized prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. These are too limiting. Prayer is that in which I surround what I think, do, and say every day, whether on or off the bus, and it includes looking up, out, around, over, and into. Prayer is much more than the standard definition of raising the mind and heart to God. It is to divinize everyone and everything that embraces life and that life enfolds in turn, both on and off the bus.

Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication. 

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