Words of Welcome


This week and a half of welcomes, of greetings, of new beginnings for me, has been wonderful. I thank all of you who have played a role in welcoming me here. I am really starting to feel at home with you. Of course, I might feel at home because the room where I live is roughly forty steps from where I’m standing right at this moment. But still, the warmth that has been offered is greatly appreciated.

Now, for those of you who are wondering who I am and why I’m thanking you for being welcomed, maybe you’re not reading your church website. But I have been. See, a few weeks ago, when I was planning to come and visit with you here in the middle of August, I noticed an entry on our church website announcing my visit. And when I opened the announcement I read, “our 10-month, 1/2 time contracted minister” would be paying a visit. Very descriptive, right? I confess that I laughed a little when I read that. Some people contract colds, but it seems you all went and contracted a minister. But however I’ve arrived, contracted or otherwise, truly I am grateful for the warm, heartfelt welcome I’ve received.

And I am grateful because I am coming to find out that welcoming and being welcomed, even in the most everyday settings, isn’t as easy or as straightforward as I thought it was. For instance, on my first visit here, I was out for a jog, and as I passed others who were jogging, I would engage in the time-honored tradition of greeting each other right at the appropriate moment of proximity…with a wave. But something wasn’t quite right. Lots of the people I would pass weren’t waving. They would flash what I’ve come to know now as the “shaka.” And in that gesture, I saw that even the simplest ways of greeting or welcoming others, the ways so many of us take for granted, can be different, depending on where we are. And apparently, I have learned, flashing the shaka, can also smooth things over a bit when you do something like, say, cut someone off in traffic.

But one of the biggest differences I’ve encountered, more than flashing the shaka, is right at the heart of Hawaiian culture. Well, at least it’s on every license plate. Saying Aloha, and not Hello.

Aloha seems to matter a lot to people here, and that makes sense. The way we welcome people, the words we use when we do, matter. Sometimes they matter a lot.

Let’s take the word Aloha, itself. One of my favorite movies, Miss Congeniality, is a fun movie about an FBI agent who goes undercover to investigate a potential crime at a sort of Miss America-type beauty pageant. If you missed it, imagine “My Fair Lady” meets “Lethal Weapon.” In it, Sandra Bullock is having a little fun with the contestant from Hawaii and says:

“In Hawaii, don’t they use aloha for, like, hello and goodbye?”

The Hawaii contestant says, “So?”

“So, if you’re on the phone with somebody and they won’t stop talking, how do you get them to stop? You say, ‘Okay, take care, aloha.’ Don’t they just start all over again?”[1]

Don’t worry, you’re not really supposed to laugh at that—it’s more of a groaner. But this joke in a movie represents, well, how little people understand about Aloha. There are a number of other places to turn for more nuanced description of the word. Let’s look together at one.

“‘Aloha’ is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. ‘Aloha’ means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. ‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. ‘Aloha’ means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.”[2]

That’s really beautiful isn’t it? Well, that is a direct quote from Chapter 5 of…the Hawaii Revised Statutes. That piece of wisdom, that beautiful description of Aloha is the law of the land in Hawaii. And more than that, the statute has a second subsection that makes this suggestion to all those who work in, around, and with the laws of Hawaii.

“In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the ‘Aloha Spirit.’”[3]

Now as a retired lawyer, I confess, I’m not entirely up to date on how this statute might really be applied, let alone how it might be enforced. I’ll leave that to better lawyers than I ever was. But what you have, written into words that impact many people’s futures, many people’s freedoms, at least in some part, is such a deeper, such a wiser, such a truer understanding of this word we speak and we hear so often. Still, no matter how wonderful the meaning of the word is, no matter how much it is a part of the culture we take part in today, it comes from somewhere. It has an origin, like all words.

Roxane Hughes, an up-and-coming scholar of American Studies, contributed a surprisingly gripping chapter to a book about multiculturalism released earlier this year.[4] The surprise registered because the subject of her chapter might not strike the reader as anything too controversial: Hawaiian shirts or, as they are also called, Aloha shirts.[5] But what strikes the reader more than the surprise at the amazing work she does on the history of these garments and what they mean to the cultures on these islands is her frank discussion of the word Aloha. Relying on some of the work of the intensely passionate activist Haunani-Kay Trask, Hughes explains that to some, the word Aloha, when used outside of its original intent that is so clearly, so beautifully stated in Hawaiian law, when it is used only as a simple “hello” or “goodbye,” then Aloha, in her words, “epitomizes the appropriation of the Hawaiian language and the resulting cultural dispossession of Native Hawaiians.”[6]

The depth of meaning in words we say when we see others or when we leave others tells us something. Set against so many of the interactions we have everyday—at home, at work, at social engagements, or even here—we don’t spend a lot of our conscious time thinking about the depth of our love for the people we are in contact with.

What Aloha reaches for, what it touches, that Hello and Goodbye do not, is something illusive, something like a melody you can’t quite hear but keeps you awake, something like a dream you can’t quite remember but means so much.

But for far too many, even the dream of a simple Welcome, let alone the kind of deep, unspoken, abiding love that Aloha represents, that dream of welcome is only that: a dream.

This week, in yet another craven, confusing twitter screed, the current administration announced its plans to end Deferred Action on Children Arrivals, a program enacted by executive order in 2012 referred to as DACA. For years, those protected from expulsion from their homes—and since we are talking about using the right words, I choose expulsion over the more civil sounding “deportation” because that’s what it is—for years, those who arrived here as children, under no decision of their own, call themselves “Dreamers.” And they do not use that word by mistake. See, that name comes from the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that has been kicked and punted around in congress since it was first introduced in 2001. In various forms, attached to all sorts of other legislation or not, the Dream Act would protect those of us in our human family who arrived here as children and did not undergo the requirements of immigration, to remain in the U.S. And it is from this law that the name Dreamers was born.

It should not be lost on anyone that even the name DACA, Deferred Action on Children Arrivals, is literally deferring the Dreamers. And that dream that has been deferred now for sixteen years might end with a tweet.

And we have wondered before what happens to a dream deferred. The great poet Langston Hughes asks us in his poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

See as Unitarian Universalists, many of us know what it means not to be welcome, not really welcome. I hear things all the time like, “Oh you’d be happy at that church. They hardly mention Jesus at all.” Or, “Well, you’re Unitarian Universalist. Since you don’t really believe in anything, can’t you be happy worshiping anywhere?” And as I drive around the island, I see houses of worship all over with big signs out front that say, “All are welcome.” And I know that the spirit of that gesture comes from a good place. But the kind of welcome that permits someone over the threshold of a building, allows them to participate in events and worship, but then later, eventually, asks that some affirmation of belief be made, some creed agreed to, in order to become a real member, is part of the reason Unitarian Universalism exists.

A creed or an affirmation or a profession of faith of some kind is a set words one must speak or agree to in order fully to be welcome into a church, they are the words of welcome. And underlying them is the message that some are in, and some are out. Coming and going. Hello and goodbye. Welcome or not welcome.

What Unitarian Universalism at its very finest offers, what Unitarian Universalism strives for, yearns for, is to live outside the requirement of words one says to be welcomed. One of our favorite, old sayings is “Deeds not Creeds.” Because at our best, we seek the truest, the most profound, the most deeply human ways of being together, being with one another, being ourselves with one another. We are seeking true Aloha.

And my friends, we are going to need it. In the coming months, I suspect that we will be hearing more and more in the news about what should be done with the Dreamers. And I hope you’ll pardon some skepticism, but an administration that sees fit to pardon the likes of Joe Arpaio in one week, and then sets an end to DACA the next, is going to have to be watched, and watched carefully. Because Hawaii is a special place for Dreamers. Not only is Hawaii one of the only states that happily enrolls its DACA participants in its universities as in-state students, Hawaii is one of 15 states joining a lawsuit to halt the administration’s termination of DACA.

By one count, between 4,000 and 5,000 Dreamers live on Hawaii.[7] And 558 are enrolled in the DACA program.[8] Before DACA, there were so few choices for young people who were not permitted to enter the process toward citizenship. Among them are high school football stars, who couldn’t pursue higher education with the full athletic scholarships they were offered. Among them are men and women who arrived here as children, escaping violence in their homeland, who now do their best to cobble together under-the-table jobs to make ends meet. It was only through the first real offer of welcome, the invitation to provide information about their lives and their families, the decision to come out of the shadows and be known through DACA, that these Dreamers gained access to so many of the basic things to which every person should receive access: the right to drive, to pursue and education, the right to make a living. And now, the trust the Dreamers placed in a political system could be turned into a weapon to be used against them in someone else’s political grandstanding. And their dreams have been deferred long enough.

They deserve better than being a political football. They are owed mutual regard and affection, to receive warmth in caring with no obligation in return.

They deserve better than broken promises. They should know the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.

They deserve better than limited opportunities and limited potential. They are entitled, as members of our human family to know what it means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.

If anyone in the world deserves it, they deserve Aloha.

As people of faith, people possessed of a purpose and a power beyond what is enshrined in letters on a page, beyond what a politician thinks might get them elected again, beyond borders and beyond divisions, people like that, people like us, have the power to dream greater, more fantastic dreams. And as Unitarian Universalists, recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, holding fast to tending the interconnected web of our very existence, and not giving two hoots what someone believes or doesn’t believe about God or faith, the right here or the hereafter, we know what it means to be welcomed in, but not welcome to stay. And so we know what it means to find a home at last.

So in the coming weeks and months, as we work together to dream still greater and greater dreams, we will be watching. We will be watching to see how the children in our human family are being treated. We will be standing. We will be standing by the sides of those members of our human family with any support or witness we can offer. We will be acting. We will be acting in accordance with our purposes and our principles if anyone, anywhere tries to hurt our family.

We have seen enough of Hello and Goodbye.

We have had enough of who is in and who is out.

We have dreamed together long enough for an end to the political game of who stays and who goes.

It is time to stop dreaming.

It is time to stop talking with the same old words of welcome.

It is time to take a stand together, side by side, for the law of the land and the law of our hearts, to seek what it means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.

It is time for Aloha.

And may be ever be so. Blessed be and amen.


[1] Marc Lawrence, et al., Miss Congeniality, Castle Rock (2000).

[2] Hawaii Revised Statutes, Ch. 5-7.5(a) (2016).

[3] Hawaii Revised Statutes, Ch. 5-7.5(b) (2016).

[4] American Multiculturalism in Context: Views from at Home and Abroad, Sämi Ludwig, ed., Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2017).

[5] Ibid, see Roxane Hughes, “Multicultural or Destitute Hawai’i? Re-visioning the Symbolism of the Aloha Shirt.”

[6] Hughes, 287.

[7] “Hawaii’s Dreamers” by Beverly Creamer, Hawaii Business, August 2015.

[8] “Hawaii ‘dreamers’ restless after DACA repeal” by Kristen Johnson, Hawaii Tribune-Herald, September 7, 2017.

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