‘God’s Hands and Feet’
Lutherans care for the Maui community following a devastating fire.
On Aug. 8, 2023, a wildfire near the village of Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii, rapidly spread out of control. The origin of the fire is unknown, but like other fires on the island at the time, it was fed by extremely dry conditions and high winds. Residents received little warning of the impending danger, and as a result, at least 99 people died, hundreds have been displaced and six are still missing.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School in Kahului, Maui, was not directly impacted by the fire, but shortly afterward, the Rev. Michael Lange, president of the LCMS California-Nevada-Hawaii District, reported that Emmanuel members were serving “as God’s hands and feet to the people of Maui. They are Christ’s ambassadors and bear the presence of the Savior.”
Lange added that Emmanuel’s presence for over 50 years enables a robust response to those in need, as school families at Emmanuel have many relationships with those personally impacted.
The congregation is currently in a pastoral vacancy. Emmanuel temporarily paused the call process after the fire, but in the meantime the congregation is being served by the Rev. Les Self, a trained interim pastor who has served several other Hawaiian congregations during pastoral vacancies. Lange describes Self as a “tremendous pastoral presence” who understands the people and culture.
In addition, Lange said that he “can’t say enough” about Emmanuel’s school principal, Joshua Rempfer. “Joshua comes from a family of Lutheran pastors, three generations deep, and he intuitively understands the kind of leadership needed to respond in this context. He is God’s provision for this moment.”
Shortly after the fire, LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response issued a grant to help cover costs associated with the initial response, including pastoral and spiritual care for those affected. Several weeks later, Lange updated the district, saying that he had been “privileged to watch, pray and facilitate our church’s resources.” He reported on multiple efforts, including:
• The enrollment of four children at Emmanuel who had been displaced by the fire, with tuition paid for this year;
• The training and mobilization of 35 volunteers by the Synod’s Lutheran Early Response Teams (LERT) and Lutheran Church Charities, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization (RSO);
• The shipment of three boxes of LERT materials, along with $5,000 worth of $100 Visa gift cards and a box of devotional materials, by Disaster Response; and
• The distribution of “tens of thousands” of dollars’ worth of goods and supplies, including by RSO Orphan Grain Train.
On Nov. 11, Emmanuel hosted a gathering to dedicate a memorial to those who died in the fire. The congregation is also distributing approximately $100,000 donated by people around the Synod to assist surviving family members. Along with the cash gifts, recipients will receive a letter with a message of Christian comfort and welcome to Emmanuel. In January, Emmanuel will host a retreat to offer respite care to those who have so diligently cared for others since August.
In early November, Lange visited Maui and said he was shocked at the level of destruction. But he is grateful for the care Emmanuel is bringing to the island.
“It is a tight community,” Lange said. “The school has many families who are not LCMS but who are deeply grateful for the Christian teaching and care they receive.” He added that most of the school staff are Emmanuel members, and “they have been invaluable in ministering to the needs of people who are on the front lines of the response.”
The Maui fire is being called the deadliest in the U.S. in over 100 years, with damages approaching $6 billion. Emmanuel’s congregational president, Leif Sjostrand, is thankful for all who continue to pray and help. “We don’t feel alone … [but] part of a bigger community, for sure.”
Managing editor of Reporter and staff writer for LCMS Communications.