The Mauna Kea Conflict: UCC Bodies Reflect and Respond

By Eric Anderson, Pastor

When activists blocked the access road to the summit of Mauna Kea on July 15, 2019, obstructing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, existing divisions of opinion and of experience between neighbors on Hawai’i Island came into sharp relief. The dissension has reverberated around the communities of this island and around the state. No organization, no association, and no institution has remained unaffected, including Church of the Holy Cross.

This post does not seek to present or to clarify any of the opinions or commitments around the issue of Mauna Kea. It does not survey the different ideas or approaches to the conflict. It simply provides links to a set of documents that have directly affected Church of the Holy Cross, its ministries, and its members.

After the protest began, the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center drafted a statement and asked religious leaders of multiple traditions to sign it. It was presented to Governor David Ige with 100 signatures on July 20 and published by Big Island Now. By July 29, Big Island Now reported that the signatories had risen to 200, but the link to the statement is broken.

In the first week, United Church News editors asked Pastor Eric Anderson to write a story about the conflict and the demonstrations. Pastor Eric has spent some years in a ministry of journalism that included a fair amount of writing for United Church News, including last summer’s General Synod. “Conflict of Souls Around Hawai’i’s Sacred Mountain” was published at on July 21.

Also on July 20, the Justice and Witness Missional Team of the Hawai’i Conference voted a statement explicitly opposing the TMT project. Under the UCC’s system of government, the Team is entitled to speak for themselves, but does not have the authority to speak for any other entity of the United Church of Christ: the Hawai’i Conference, the national offices, or the Church of the Holy Cross.

In the next edition of the Hawai’i Conference’s Coconut Wireless email newsletter on July 24, the editors provided links to these three items – the Religious Leaders Statement, the Justice and Witness Missional Team statement, and the United Church News coverage, along with a fund for raising bail for the kupuna arrested on July 17.

The Conference placed a page on its website on July 24 linking to the three documents and including some thoughts Pastor Eric wrote while sharing the United Church News story on social media.

At Church of the Holy Cross, members and friends responded to the situation, the statements, and the coverage in different ways, but the community was shaken. The Church Council asked Pastor Eric to draft a letter to the Hawai’i Conference sharing our distress, asking for clarification of the Conference’s official position and seeking assistance in navigating the conflict. They reviewed the letter, asked for some revisions, and approved it to be sent. The full text follows:

September 27, 2019

The Rev. Dr. David Popham
Conference Minister
Hawai’i Conference UCC

Dear David,

We are writing at the request of and on behalf of the Church Council of the Church of the Holy Cross UCC. We write to make you aware of conditions here on Hawai’i Island and in our congregation due to the ongoing dispute about construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, and to urge you and other bodies of the Conference to consider ways in which you might support us and our neighbor congregations on this island. We could use help.

Within our community and within our congregation we know that people hold widely diverging views about appropriate activities on the mountain, and the appropriate ways in which to decide what happens there. Since a construction date was announced and the encampment took its place on the access road, tensions have risen. The week or so after thirty-eight arrests and an emergency proclamation found anxiety running at its highest. During that time, the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center released a statement with over 100 faith leaders’ signatures, including that of yourself and of our pastor, calling for prayer and ongoing conversation. United Church News published a story Rev. Anderson wrote about the conflict. The Hawai’i Conference Justice and Witness Ministry Team issued a statement utterly opposing TMT construction.

For some in this congregation, these three items together implied that the Hawai’i Conference and the wider UCC had taken a position against TMT and more broadly against the astronomy program on Mauna Kea. Leaders in this congregation, including Rev. Anderson, have tried to clarify the way in which different bodies of the UCC speak for themselves and not for others, but we are also aware that the wider public does not make such distinctions.

As a result, a long-time valued family has departed, including an officer and a board member. Other families have warned that they may withhold financial contributions from the church, or at least withhold those that support the UCC through Our Church’s Wider Mission.

As one of our Council members said, we fear for the fabric of our congregation.

We also fear for the fabric of our community. We see existing fractures widening. Elements of our island people were already divided. We now face the realities we have ignored or hidden.

How do we live into this?

That is where we seek guidance, support, and leadership. Our island does not share a common sense of justice in this conflict. Competing claims of justice fly back and forth, gaining in volume each time.

We need a better way.

We ask that the Conference, through you or through the Conference Council, publicly clarify (such as through the Coconut Wireless) that the Hawai’i Conference itself has not taken a position on the construction of the TMT, and that the national bodies of the UCC have also taken no position. It would also help if you would state (as we have) that different bodies of the UCC have the right to speak for themselves, but do not speak for other settings of the Church.

Blessings to you,

Eric Anderson, Pastor     G. Robert Smith, Moderator

On October 9, Hawai’i Conference Minister the Rev. Dr. David Popham issued a statement via the Coconut Wireless and the website. Acknowledging the statement of the Justice and Witness Missional Team, he wrote: “At this time, neither the Hawai‘i Conference through the ‘Aha Pae‘aina or its Council, nor the national offices through any of their entities, has taken a position on the TMT or the astronomy program on Mauna Kea.” He went on to recommend discernment and informed conversation about the issues within congregations.

On October 13, the Council decided to post their letter of September 27 and Dr. Popham’s letter of October 9, and asked for all the materials to be combined here at

The intervening months have reduced some of our alarm, but the strains remain. As pastor, I observe that we have work to do. We had not prepared ourselves for a situation in which we faced deeply held and earnest disagreement. That reality has arrived. How do we build a present in which we take one another seriously, seriously enough to disagree without dismissing? How do we build a present in which we acknowledge real divisions and embrace equally real unity? How do we build a present greater than the present we know?

How do we make Hawai’i look more like the realm of God?

Categories Community | Tags: | Posted on October 25, 2019

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