By Patrick Downes
Hawaii Catholic Herald
The talk was one of confidence and hope, delivered to a congregation considerably thinned by social distancing. It was also an invitation.
“I need your help in showing compassion for the vulnerable, to advocating for abundance to be shared with the less fortunate and, standing up for the voiceless,” said guest speaker Brandee Menino, CEO of HOPE Services Hawaii, to the public servants gathered in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace for the Red Mass Jan. 19.
The annual prayer to the Holy Spirit for wisdom and guidance for Hawaii’s civic leaders, like all public events these days, was significantly altered by the need to keep the coronavirus at bay.
“We are here at the first pandemic Red Mass,” Bishop Silva said, greeting the congregation. “I hope it is the last pandemic Red Mass.”
He thanked the public servants for coming and asked for God’s blessing on the president-elect Joe Biden, the day before his inauguration.
In his homily, the bishop lauded the work of the many non-profit organizations dedicated to easing the suffering of people in poverty, comparing their work to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitudes recounted in the Gospel reading of the day.
However, he said the services of these agencies should be considered interim measures.
“We need to work for the day that the work will be done,” he said.
That will only be accomplished when we find the root causes of poverty, homelessness and addiction, he said.
“How can we strengthen family life? Why is housing so expensive in Hawaii?” He suggested it might be easier to feed 5,000 people “than to find an answer to these very difficult questions.”
In her 14-minute talk, delivered near the end of Mass, Menino said that success in eliminating homelessness — the mission of HOPE Services Hawaii on the Big Island — comes from a community together acknowledging the problem and being part of the solution. (See text on page 6)
The “relationships and partnerships we’ve nurtured over the years have been essential to successes thus far,” she said.
This cooperation has enabled HOPE Services to respond successfully to the calamitous events the Big Island seems to attract, like lava flows, hurricanes and now, like everyplace else, a pandemic.
“Each time, we hui’d (partnered) up and came together,” she said.
“For anyone to die of this virus, because of a failure to provide housing and healthcare was simply not acceptable on our watch,” she said. This is our ‘ohana, and they deserve a fighting chance just like you and I.”
“Housing is healthcare. Healthcare is housing,” she said. “This is something doctors have been saying for years and I think for the first time, people got it.”
Community collaboration is what keeps her organization “driven and committed … to deliver on our mission of functionally ending homelessness,” she said, “meaning experiences of homelessness in our community are rare, brief and non-recurring.”
She gave the example of Sacred Heart Shelter, a village of 20 micro-shelters for elderly and persons with disabilities made houseless by the Kilauea eruption in 2018. “This hui of over 50 local businesses and 200 volunteers, erected all 20 tiny homes in just 30 days,” she said.
Experience has moved HOPE Services from being “known around Hilo as ‘all things to all people’ to a housing-focused system that has reduced family homelessness on Hawaii island by nearly 40% in the last four years.”
“This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because we came together, by thinking and acting collectively for the common good,” she said. “It takes prayer and action.”
She invited the lawmakers to partner with her during this legislative session.
The need is great, she said. “Last year on Hawaii Island, one-third of the people experiencing homelessness were children, almost half under 5.”
The vast majority are local people, she said.
She concluded with a list of specific legislative requests. “Starting tomorrow, I ask each of you to champion legislation that will allow Hawaii to do what we do best — to take care of each other as one human ohana sharing a common home.”
“We can come out of this pandemic better than when we entered it,” she said, “but we cannot do it without your creativity and courage.”
The bishop celebrated the Mass with four priests and four deacons in a sanctuary brightened by rows of red potted Christmas poinsettia. By comparison, last year there were 17 priests and eight deacons.
The Red Mass congregation is normally a packed crowd of members of Hawaiian royal orders, Knights of Columbus, diocesan staff, cathedral parishioners, all of which had token representation this year.
The music was provided by a single voice accompanied by the cathedral organ.
The number of civic leaders attending, however, was only down a few from 2020.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green was there. So were three state senators, Kurt Favell, Donna Mercado Kim and Bennette Misalucha.
State representatives attending included Henry Aquino, Bob McDermott, John Mizuno, Val Okimoto and Jackson Sayama.
Also present was associate judge of the Hawaii Supreme Court Michael Wilson.
Honolulu City Councilman Brandon Elefante also attended.
At the end of the Mass, Bishop Silva, priests and deacons extended their hands over the public leaders as the bishop recited a blessing:
“Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed your glory to all nations. God of power and might, wisdom and justice, through you authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted and judgment is decreed.”
He prayed that all those “entrusted to guard our political welfare” be enabled by God’s “powerful protection to discharge their duties with honesty and ability.”