For most Americans, and even for world travelers, Hawaii is the ultimate exotic tourist destination. After all, it's paradise.
But for Southern Baptist missionaries Chris and Monica Woodall, Hawaii is not just a paradise, but islands inhabited by the lost and hurting.
While visitors crowd Waikiki Beach in Honolulu for sunning and shopping, surfers invade Oahu's North Shore for some of the world's most dare-devil surfing, and tourists enjoy the green flora, dark-sand beaches and blue Pacific waters of Maui, the Woodalls see Hawaii's underbelly.
"When you get behind the glitz of Waikiki, you find a lot of needs," Chris says. "When you get away from there and get back into the communities, it's just like anywhere else in the world. There are real people who have real problems, real hurts and needs. They just happen to live in a place that others like to come to on vacation.
"Yes, the beaches are beautiful. But Hawaii is home to many, many people. These people have names and souls and are in need of the Gospel," said Woodall, director of prayer and evangelism since 2005 for the Hawaii-Pacific Baptist Convention, headquartered in Honolulu. He also heads up the convention's disaster relief and chaplaincy teams.
Chris' friend, Robert Wittekind, a pastor at Waianae Baptist Church in Honolulu County on Oahu, knows of the poor and illiterate in the Waianae community.
"There are a lot of broken homes here," said Wittekind, who the locals call "Kahu," the Hawaiian word for pastor. "According to statistics, six out of ten prisoners have relatives in the Waianae area. We have a lot of drugs, a lot of homelessness — people just running the streets. We have a lot of broken families and marriages. Many are not married but just live together. One of the highest populations of teenage pregnancy is on this coast."
Chris met Monica while they both served the International Mission Board in East Asia. After they returned from overseas, they married and, a year later, became the parents of their first child, Moriah, now almost two years old. They're currently expecting their second child.
"Because of what God has put on my heart," said Monica, "we wanted to live our lives somewhere where the Gospel's not being readily accepted or abundantly shared, and not where there's a church on every corner.
"Although Hawaii is a hard place to live, we want to live where we can be salt and light, and Hawaii is definitely one of those places."
Monica, who first served in Hawaii as a semester missionary after college, says her experience in Hawaii has taught her that people here are spiritually searching, and to get them to talk about spiritual things is fairly easy.
"But then when you start talking about Jesus and Jesus being the only way, that's when it gets a little bit more complicated. While it's easy to get into spiritual conversations, I was heartbroken by how that never meant Jesus."
Woodall says his and Monica's role is to "support pastors in doing what they do.
"There are 115 churches in our convention, worshiping in fifteen different languages," he said. "Our convention is not made up of just Hawaii, but includes American Samoa, one thousand miles away, and Guam, Okinawa, and Saipan, more than 3,800 miles from Hawaii. Of course, we have churches on all of the Hawaiian Islands (Oahu, Hawaii or the Big Island, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, and Lanai)."
As if the spiritual challenges were not enough, Woodall and Wittekind agree that Hawaii is very much a closed society among the state's indigenous residents.
"This community is a tight, local Hawaiian community," Woodall said. "We just don't ease our way in after a few short years, or even ten, fifteen, or twenty years. This is a hard culture to get into. It's tough. I'm a minority, and so is everybody else who comes from the mainland."
Another challenge is that Hawaii is a very expensive place to live. Usually, a husband and wife both must work because it may take one of their entire paychecks to pay the mortgage on their home. Honolulu, for instance, is one of the most expensive places for housing in the United States. A four-bedroom house worth $303,000 in Atlanta would cost $738,000 in Honolulu.
"In Hawaii, there are people working multiple jobs," according to Woodall. "You have people working the night shifts, so it's important to have churches that hold services when the night shift is over. That may be at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. Or you have worship services in the middle of the night when people have time to attend."
Despite these cultural and economic challenges, Southern Baptists have also used the state's natural disasters and disaster relief as a major way to demonstrate the love of Christ to the local population.
Woodall describes Hawaii as "just a little speck of dirt in the middle of a big ocean." It's a geological and meteorological time-bomb. One or more of the state's six inhabited islands is constantly ripe for hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanoes.
"The next earthquake here is not 'if' but 'when'," says Karl Ragan, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Waimea, and another close friend of the Woodalls. Waimea is on the Big Island.
On Sunday, December 15, 2006, an earthquake — measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale — hit Hawi and Kapaau, small towns on the north Kohala coast of the Big Island around 7:10 a.m. For forty-five seconds that seemed like an hour, the earthquake rattled local homes. All of the three thousand homes in the area suffered damage. Most of the homes were jilted off their post- and pier-foundations.
"Since last January, we have been working along side our partners in California to assist families whose homes were either heavily damaged or destroyed by the earthquake," said Woodall. "This has provided many opportunities to minister to families who have never set foot into a church."
"Most of the houses shifted about two inches off their foundations," said Ragan. "We didn't try to put a house back in its original position, but put in new piers and cement posts. We wanted to do that quickly before the next quake," he explained, adding that Hawaii records hundreds of little quakes each month.
Ragan said the work was done by Baptist Builders who rushed in from California and Utah. Southern Baptists also have the only feeding unit on the island for assisting volunteers and victims of disasters.
"People were just amazed that Baptists would come over from the mainland, at their own expense, and help," he said. Ragan said folks were also amazed that Southern Baptists would help anyone, not just other Baptists. It's opened the doors wide-open to share the Gospel.
"Chris has been really wonderful," said Ragan. "He's on Oahu, which is two hundred miles away so we have to rely on airplanes. He's been really great in facilitating and connecting with the North American Mission Board. He's assured us that bills will be paid and has helped us get volunteers from the other islands."
With such a significant list of challenges and needs, Woodall said the congregations in Hawaii must have the support and financial assistance that the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering brings.
"The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering provides a means by which we can help the churches do what God has called them to do — share the Gospel, equip leaders, and start new churches all over the Pacific."
Mickey Noah is a staff writer with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.