Out of the Woodwork – Open House Sunday

Once upon a time, a group of people who thought a little differently about religion than those around them began looking for a spiritual home, a place where they could experience the divine in the way they felt called to do so. And after some negotiations, they were able to secure a place to do just that. It was the sixties after all. There were a lot of wild ideas floating around. The 1660s, that is. And that group of Puritans, whose families fled England for fear of religious persecution, were staking out territory for settlement in land inhabited mostly by the Pequot Nation, in what would be called Connecticut by those settlers.

Relations between the new settlers and the Pequot were good when Norwalk, Connecticut was founded, though those relations would sour one day into warfare. One of the first founders of this town was a man named John Platt. He had come over from the colony in Milton, Connecticut with a few brave industrious souls. A man of faith, John Platt also served as a Deacon of the church there in Norwalk. We can say “the church” because there was only one church at the time. And it was the one all of the Puritans attended. And a fine church they built, for it flourishes to this very day.

John dabbled a little in politics, mostly out of necessity. Some of his primary work was starting a plantation just north of Stamford, Connecticut. But John Platt had a son named Joseph. Joseph took more to the political life than his dad did. He served terms in congress, both local and colonial. And Joseph’s family prospered, including his eldest daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth went and married a minister, bless her heart. Well, to be fair, at the time, a minister was considered quite a catch. She and her husband Reverend Samuel Cooke, Yale class of 1750, had a few children. And here it gets a little confusing.

One of the sons of Elizabeth Platt and the Reverend Sam Cooke. I know it’s Samuel, and my apologies to the Sam Cooke, but I couldn’t help myself. One of the sons of Elizabeth and Sam was named Joseph Platt Cooke, after his maternal grandfather. Joseph took a bit more to the military life, perhaps out of necessity. Joseph Platt Cooke fought for years in the Revolutionary War, attaining the rank of colonel, seeking independence from the Crown. Joseph’s house was burned badly during the battles that raged. But later Joseph’s house would be a meeting place for George Washington to confer with French military leaders. And just to make things even more confusing, Joseph Platt Cooke, born 1730, Yale Class 1750, had a son also named…Joseph Platt Cooke, born 1760. Not Junior, not the second. Just the same name. Puritans were not known for their creativity, I fear, at least not in naming children.

And so it was in 1810, that the second Joseph Platt Cooke, had a son named Amos Starr Cooke. Amos Starr Cooke was trained for the ministry, also at Yale (class of 1834). And Amos and the spirited Juliette Montague were married before getting ready for their mission here to this island. And many of us know well that when Amos and Juliette arrived in Hawaii in 1836, the Royal Family put them in charge of the Chief’s Children’s School.

The Chief’s Children’s School was founded by Kamehameha III, and it was from this school that virtually all of the future leaders of the Royal Family would be selected. The five rulers of Hawaii after Kamehameha III were all educated at this school operated by Amos and his wife Juliette. It was a kind of proving ground for young people. Amos and Juliette were very, very close to power and the grooming of the next generation of power on these islands. And then something happened.

The funds that had allowed Amos and Juliette the time and the means to support themselves in service as educators began to dwindle. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions began to slow their financial support slowly at first, and Amos and Juliette starting thinking about money and where it would come from if the Board of Commissioners stopped funding their work. Amos had struck up a good relationship with Samuel Northrop Castle. They sailed together on the Mary Frazier, a ship with a long history of its own. It was when the Mary Frazier sailed out of New Bedford, Mass, in 1936, when Amos Cooke met Sam Castle. But it wasn’t until 1849, thirteen years later, when Amos and Juliette started to worry about money, that Amos went to work for Castle. And it was in 1851, after the American Board of Commissioners began more significantly withdrawing financial support for Amos and Juliette when the Sirens of commerce added a new voice to the choir that sings their Siren songs: Amos Cooke and Sam Castle founded Castle and Cooke.

Castle and Cooke was a general store. It started out simply. The store supplied people with goods they needed in their daily lives, a lot like the store in Little House on the Prairie. But it grew into a food, shipping, and property holding and management company, aligning eventually with Matson Navigation. Castle and Cooke grew and grew until it became one of the “Big Five” companies that essentially ran Hawaii for generations. Amos eventually became a partner in one of the largest sugar plantations here, taking part and a vested interest in the most devastating form of cash-crop agriculture that depended on cheap labor, including indentured servitude.

Amos and Juliette had seven children. One of them was Charles Montague Cooke. Charles was a co-founder of the Bank of Hawaii and very much a part of the power structure in Hawaii that flowed from the alliances between the families who arrived as missionaries, but who now controlled Hawaii’s Big Five. It was immediately after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy on January 18, 1893, when Charles was selected as a representative of the provisional government, and he personally traveled to Washington D.C. on February 1, just thirteen days after the overthrow of the monarchy, to try to persuade the U.S. to annex the Hawaiian Islands. The attempt then was unsuccessful and he returned to Hawaii after a short time in California to take over leadership of Bank of Hawaii and to become president of C. Brewer & Company another of the Big Five. He was personally appointed by Bernice Pauahi Bishop, one of the most powerful women in modern Hawaiian history, as a trustee of her estate, the Bishop Estate, which is now known as the valuable land trust held by Kamehameha Schools.

And it was this very powerful man, Charles Montague Cooke, who was the father of the man who built the first parts of this very structure where we sit, Richard A. Cooke. The way I understand the history is that Richard A. Cooke was an executive at Bank of Hawaii and at C. Brewer and Company (wonder how he got those jobs?). He raised his five children here in this house, expanding the original structure after his family began to grow. But the Bishop Estate, the estate for which his father had been a trustee, retook possession and ownership. The Estate converted this building into a dormitory for forty-five women attending Kamehameha Schools for a time. And so it was roughly a decade later when members of church purchased the building and the land to continue its work that had started here on this island as First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.

When beginning to prepare my words on this day of openness, this day when we will share so much of what we are doing together here in these walls and out in our shared community, I did not expect to find some of the history that was uncovered. I certainly didn’t plan to talk about it for this long. I did not expect to find parallels to my birthplace in Stamford, my education, my professional life, both professions, I might add. I worked at a law firm with an office in Norwalk for a time. It was like the connections and similarities were coming out of the woodwork…literally.

But on a day for openness, on a day when we open our house to new people, on a day when we are opening up to opportunities people hadn’t considered themselves able to take part in before in our community, perhaps, it’s important to be clear about our history, and as thorough as possible. And my hunch is that this story set a few things straight for people. In the research for this sermon I discovered a few errors in the sources I used, with the most common mistake being confusing the two Joseph Platt Cookes. But the search for truth and meaning should be like that, right? Finding out the truth, the real stories behind a lot of what we hear, despite the errors and the false stories we may have heard, helps to reshape a view of the world we were taught. It can help to reshape our very view of reality.

For instance, I’ve heard some say that Charles Montague Cooke lived here. It’s a reasonable assumption based on the name of the house being the C.M. Cooke house at one point. But he didn’t live here. He lived in Manoa (in a very nice home, I might add). This building was named by Richard in honor of his father (who probably provided the money for it, or at least the means). It’s hard to miss that Richard worked at the same two companies that his father ran. I’ve also heard that the person who lived here was a scientist or a doctor. Well, Charles Montague Cooke, Jr., again with the same names, was a scientist here on the island. He studied mollusks and snails and worked as a curator at the Bishop Museum. He was the older brother of Richard, but he didn’t live here. He only shared the name of his father, in whose honor this building was named.

And I’m wondering how many of us knew that part of the reason Amos Cooke began his side gig with Mr. Castle was after he began to suffer from financial insecurity? I’m sure there are other stories we’ve all heard about how this building got here, how this history was made. But whose history are we really telling here? The history I just told was the kind of history that is most often told; the history of generations of successful dead white men. An entirely different history, beginning with the battles fought by the Pequot Nation in the 1660s against the settlers, a different history told by those who suffered the bonds of slavery to work the fields of the plantation in Connecticut, a different history of this island, and those who were forced to work in the sugar plantations owned by the one time minster and educator, turned master of industry, a different history of the lives and the feelings of the women, the mothers, who contributed equally, if not more than equally, to the generations that led to the very construction of this home—there are many, many histories that exist alongside the history I shared.

So, so many of those histories are left unrecorded to the depths of time. The story we continue to tell the most today began about three centuries from the time John Platt founded that church in Norwalk, Connecticut, when this church was founded and began meeting at a school in Makiki before moving to this, its eventual home. And even that history, which began only decades ago, has some differences of opinion. There remains a difference of opinion about whether two men or two women came together to found this church. And I love that.

See, history is used too often to find answers or support or argument. But its interpretation is open to errors, to misunderstandings, and to bias. And the bias that is most common is almost always personal. It is guaranteed that as I looked at the history I shared moments ago, I was drawn to the parts of this history I shared, those parts that resonate with my own history. As fun as it feels to be tied or somehow part of history, it is really my personal bias, my own perspective, my own self-centeredness at work. And it is in that bias, that worldview, that self-centeredness where lies a real warning. In a way it’s a song of warning that much of the history leading to the actual building of this structure involves: the song of “me, me, me,” rather than “we, we, we.” It’s a French tune. It’s quite lovely.

Another revolution began in 1961, when the Unitarian Universalist movement was born out of its two strands, but embracing so much more. A revolution began then in which this very church was a founding member. But this was a revolution in a different meaning of the word. It was a turn, a revolution, for so many who felt they had been left out of a history, of a story of faith, who felt they had been orphaned by a family of belief that had one answer, one ultimate, one supreme reality, a story of faith that had been used throughout time to support claims over land, over people, over knowledge by those who held to the story. But in 1961, a new story opened to those who would take part, a story that holds as its very first source of wisdom the “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

And on this Open House Sunday, it is this openness to those forces which create and uphold life that we celebrate. It is the direct, hands-on, experience of the mysteries we share that moves us ever toward more openness. Because coming here, coming to church, taking part in what we do here, how we serve our wider community, how we serve one another, is how we end the culture of me, me, me, and sing the new songs of we, we, we. We are family. We must share this gift all else above. We will stand together. We, we, we. For once we may have been lost but now we are found here.

The stories that got us here, all of us here, matter, yes. But the openness we find to the forces that create and sustain new life, the forces at work in the ways we express our love for one another, our love for a hurting world, are the forces of a revolution only just beginning.

Just yesterday, yesterday, what I would have given to see the look on John Platt’s face when members and friends of this church, a church that is a direct historical descendant from the faith of this land’s original Puritan settlers, marched in a Gay Pride Parade….with Methodists!!!! I think the Methodists would have been more shocking to him. But part of the story that we might not even know about how we came to march together began when this church facilitated a Our Whole Lives training for the leaders at Harris United Methodist Church, when we all took a good, honest, and real look at the ways we raise our children to be loving, generous, and safe—when we all saw how much more unites us, how much more important what unites us really is, than what could ever divide us.

At the parade yesterday, some of the members of Harris United Methodist noticed those protesters waving signs about a trip to hell for those participating in the march. The Harris folks wanted to “counter the narrative” and show that there are people of faith who are supporting of the marching community. It was wonderful to see our own members, some of whom have been marching in this parade for more than a decade, calmly assure our new neighbor marchers that those protesters are there every year. No one takes them very seriously. It’s much more powerful that we are adding voices of support than that we are countering voices of dissent. It was warming to witness this.

Across continents, across oceans, across centuries, or just down the street, we meet today, in this hour, to stand together, to open this house again and again to what is new and life giving. And to stand, too, in awe of the connections, the compassion, the common understanding, that in some cases are literally coming out of the woodwork.




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