Cover Story

Rev. Kaleo Patterson

Kahu Kaleo Patterson works to spread an old idea in a new way


Cover image for Dec 3, 2008

Rev. Kaleo Patterson / Forget what you’ve been taught, what you’ve heard, what you’re conditioned to believe. Violence, says Rev. Kaleo Patterson, needn’t beget more violence.

Patterson, president of the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center and co-director of the Center for Indigenous Leadership and Peace Making at the University of Hawai’i, is not only convinced that peace is possible, he says he’s seen it achieved by a number of societies that consciously chose to go that way.

“People who are considered peaceful and nonviolent today, indigenous societies in Micronesia, the Philippines, New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, have been through a lot of violence: massacres, slavery, genocide,” Patterson says. “But they came to a point in their history when they said, ‘Enough is enough. This is not the way of doing things.'”

Despite America’s track record of war and violence, Patterson believes that such a shift can be achieved in the West, too. And he sees Hawai’i–guided by the teachings of deposed Queen Liliu’okalani and the traditional practice of conflict resolution known as ho’oponopono–playing a key role in that transition.

“People talk about the teachings of Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, the Jains in India, but right here, we’ve got Liliu’okalani,” he says. “Read her book, man, listen to her songs. There’s hardly a harsh word breathed in her material. That’s the essence we’ve been handed down.

“That’s what we’re trying to bring into clarity now at the Peace Center and the University. The absolute core of ho’oponopono is to be non-violent. What we want to do is inject that essence into our thinking, our values, the language. We want to instill it into the process of achieving change and social justice.”

Patterson, who holds a doctorate in ministry from the Chicago Theological Seminary, has a long history of participation in social justice issues, including militarism and Hawaiian sovereignty. But while his activism has helped to establish a tenor of non-violence in the Hawaiian movement, it’s also proven to be a stumbling block of sorts in his calling as a kahu, or culturally-based religious leader, in the United Church of Christ (UCC).

From the beginning, Patterson’s efforts to intertwine the church and social activism raised eyebrows among his conservative congregation at the UCC in Anahola, a Hawaiian Homesteads community on Kaua’i’s east side. While serving as pastor there in the early 1990s, he participated in demonstrations against the Navy’s decision to launch test rockets for the “Star Wars” missile defense system at Nohili, a burial dune at Kaua’i’s Pacific Missile Range Facility.

He also helped organize the January 1993 “March on Sovereignty” to recognize the centennial of the illegal overthrow of the monarchy. Events, scheduled on all the islands, kicked off on Kaua’i with Patterson leading a march from Nukoli’i, a place of struggle and conflict since ancient times, to Hikinaakala, a pu’uhonua, or place of refuge, at the mouth of the Wailua River, where he and others had formed a curatorship to care for the sacred sites that remain there on the grounds of a resort.

Patterson says the march was intended to commemorate Queen Liliu’okalani’s own nonviolent response to the overthrow, and he believes it played a pivotal role in the burgeoning sovereignty movement. “You do have something of a tone being set, a style of resistance, a response to the violence in the world,” he says.

Patterson’s highly visible activism unsettled his congregation–his arrest on trespassing charges during a February 1993 protest at the missile base sealed his fate with the church. “My life on Kaua’i had already become very controversial,” he recalls, “and it was kind of a strain for the church to deal with it.”

A peace of O’ahu

Patterson and his family returned to O’ahu, where he formed the Hawai’i Ecumenical Coalition “and went into the movement–organizing, working on issues, trying to draw the churches in.” He was active in urging the UCC to issue its 1993 public apology for its role in the overthrow and initiate a process of reconciliation with the Hawaiian people, and was arrested again during the eviction of homeless at Makua Beach on O’ahu’s Wai’anae coast in 1996.

He also helped organize two demonstrations at the Honolulu International Airport that were widely covered by the media. The first was staged to protest then-Gov. Ben Cayetano’s decision to withhold payment of revenues generated by the so-called “ceded lands,” which include the airport, to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “We wanted to destabilize the prevailing moral authority on that issue,” he says, noting that organizers first met with airport officials, “who helped us coordinate the event. There was cooperation, even if it was unspoken, because they understood the issue. They know there’s been a terrible wrong.”

The second protest involved picketing duty-free shopping, which owed OHA revenues of about $60 million. That action resulted in the airport’s promise to pay rather than have bad relations with the Hawaiian community.

The demonstrations brought in representatives from about 30 organizations involved in a wide range of issues throughout the Islands–restoring fishponds on Moloka’i, reclaiming Kaho’olawe and halting geothermal development in a Big Island rain forest–and served to create an effective network of nonviolent social activists.

“We had a group of good people who were naturally already there with the Gandhian principles, they already had aloha. They were good children of Liliu’okalani, and they knew how to be arrested without fighting with the cops. We had a network that would come in, or we’d go to other islands, and go toe-to-toe with authorities on access or other issues. We did quite a few things around the Islands with that group.”

Following the 9/11 attacks, however, Patterson’s organizing and activism work shifted even more into nonviolence. The Ecumenical Center changed its name to the Pacific Justice & Reconciliation Center, and “we went into this peace mode,” he says. It opened a center in Chinatown, which has been used by organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Code Pink and The Forgiveness Project, as well as artists staging such exhibits as the boots of dead soldiers. The organization also has assisted “houseless communities” in Waimanalo and on the Wai’anae coast.

About four years ago, Patterson began working with the University of Hawai’i to get the peace curriculum and classes “up and running again.” The Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace had offered some programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they were shelved when funding dropped off.

What emerged was the Center for Indigenous Leadership and Peace Making, housed at the UH School of Social Work, which he co-directs with Ha’aheo Guanson, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for Global Nonviolence. “She’s the peace person,” Patterson says. “I’m the guy who came in out of the night.” This year, they offered 10 classes with such titles as “Gandhi, King, Liliu’okalani,” “Nonviolent Political Alternatives,” “Personal Peace” and “Indigenous Peacemaking and Ho’oponpono.”

Rev. Kaleo Patterson

Peace in their time

In searching for “new methods of peace-making,” Patterson says, he and Guanson began exploring non-violent values and practices that various indigenous people throughout the Pacific Islands had adopted “just to survive.”

What they found, Patterson says, is that the nonviolent societies paid a great deal of attention to language, emotions and managing emotions, and tended toward gender equity and non-hierarchal governing systems. They worked on “aggression reduction,” valuing humility over courage and bravery, he says, “and since competition seems to lead to violence or aggression, many didn’t engage in that. They also worked hard to avoid conflict. There’s not so much eye-to-eye or full-on facial contact, and if there is conflict, you walk away.”

Among the Inuit of Alaska, Patterson says, an angry man must go into the streets and sing about the problem he has with the other man. “Everyone laughs about it,” he says. “They diffuse the anger with humor. You come up with ways to control your emotions, diffuse anger. It’s being mindful and present every moment of the day.”

Guanson and Patterson say they also discovered that the language of nonviolent societies often did not include certain words, such as war or anger, “or else they had many words for anger because they wanted to be very attentive to it,” he says.

“The culture of the world is a culture of violence, and we need to shift that. Language is very important. We have killer tacos in Hale’iwa, bullet points, target populations. Violent language desensitizes people to violence in the world.”

As evidence that such a shift is possible, Patterson points to the awareness of racist and sexist terminology that arose in the 1960s and ’70s, “resulting in a more inclusive language. What the other two eras show us is it is possible to change our language and culture.”

In their exploration of what they call nonviolent indigenous societies, Patterson and Guanson also became aware that many of these shifts had been sparked by severe oppression, genocide, intense warfare and other acts of extreme violence. It got them thinking about what had happened in post-contact Hawai’i, Patterson says, and raised the question: If you’re constantly occupied, what happens to your mindset?

That, in turn, led them to the Hawaiian practice of ho’oponpono. While it’s often purported to be an ancient tradition, Patterson isn’t so sure. He notes that Mary Kawena Pukui, in recounting all the family traditions of Hawaiians in her 1950s book, The Polynesian Family System in Ka’, made scant mention of ho’oponopono. “The one reference is to healing. If you want to be healed, you should go through ho’oponopono first, you should cleanse, release. It’s the beginning of any healing process,” he says.

“The ho’oponopono we see now, my estimate is that this is something that has been developed post-contact,” Patterson says. “The ali’i system was breaking down, societal norms were collapsing, families were having to take care of themselves. You have this environment where Hawaiians are dying, and you want to make sure your family survives, so you check in with your family, make sure it’s in balance, nothing’s going wrong.

“It’s about families coming together. Before, it was allegiance to the ali’i, or those in the ahupua’a system to which you had loyalties. But with that gone, your family is all you have left. I think this thing is coming out of the holocaust, and the resulting intimacy of the family. Before that, we had a whole different society, a sacrificial society.”

In attempting to address the needs of Hawaiian families in the 1960s, the Queen Liliu’okalani Children’s Center worked with Pukui and others “to create and refine this system of ho’oponopono,” Patterson says. “I think what we’re seeing is culture being dynamic. We know that this is coming out of 200 years of suffering and turmoil. Whatever the form was before was probably different. This is rooted in who we are, a tradition we’ve had as a people for time immemorial. It sounds cliche, but I’m talking about aloha. This is rooted in love, forgiveness and compassion.”

Old and new

The practice of ho’oponopono continues to evolve, Patterson says, and many of its current practitioners have been featured speakers in PJRC classes. The system now has many modern applications, and currently is used in varying forms by hula halau, churches, courts, psychological counselors and programs that deal with addiction recovery, incarcerated youth, the homeless and reintegrating inmates into the community. It’s also been merged with a similar Maori process, Patterson says, “and Kauwila Clark in Wai’anae even does [an] energy and quantum physics rap with ho’oponopono.”

Not all practitioners are comfortable with the diversity, which Patterson likens to “developing a product line of ho’oponopono,” but he has no objections because it’s effective. And anyway, he says, it’s impossible to stem the tide. “I don’t think anybody’s going to control the form of this now. It’s a tradition that’s becoming contemporary.”

The center’s interest in “creating a science of nonviolence” has helped some of the current ho’oponopono practitioners more precisely define what they’re doing and encouraged them to “write it down, diagram it out,” so it can be used by others, Patterson says. The center has developed curriculum that addresses peace-making and ho’oponopono, and Patterson is meeting with community college instructors in an effort to integrate those concepts into the educational system. He also envisions materials created by the center being used as tools for organizing people, and training them in nonviolent initiatives.

“Ho’oponopono can take whatever form people need,” he says. “If the goal is to create a nonviolent world, this is definitely a way to monitor our emotions and learn how to forgive.”

The idea of a nonviolent world isn’t so far-fetched, he says, noting that the United Nations passed a 1999 resolution proclaiming the next decade as one for creating a culture of peace and nonviolence.

Patterson’s pursuit of peace hasn’t smoothed his relationship with the UCC. When his nomination as senior kahu at Kawaiaha’o Church was rejected in May 2003, Patterson and others speculated that his arrests and activism, particularly in the sovereignty movement, were at least partly to blame. The following month, Kaumakapili Church in Kalihi, where he’d served as associate pastor since 1995, failed to renew his contract.

For the past eight years Patterson has been pastor of Ka Hana O Ke Akua Church in Wai’anae, although he’s now transitioning out of that position because he feels it’s time to move on. He isn’t sure what lies ahead with the UCC, but he has no doubt he’ll continue his pursuit of peace and nonviolent social activism.

“I just want to help people,” he says. “I believe in God, and I believe this God wants us to get it together and I want to be a part of that. I believe we should be helping each other on this earth.

“The whole answer is love. Hey, does it have to be any harder than that?”