KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Maui's Fire, Oʻahu’s water, and Hawaiʻi’s Overthrow with Dani Espiritu

Maui's Fire, Oʻahu’s water, and Hawaiʻi’s Overthrow with Dani Espiritu

Season 3, Episode 7

Our guest today is Dani Espiritu, a native Hawaiian educator, minister, and activist (as well as one of the authors from our anthology). We talk about the wildfires in Maui, her activism around the Oʻahu water crisis, Hawaiʻi’s complicated history with Christianity, and theology about our relationships with land and cultural stories. Dani is a deep, compassionate thinker and a sharp, dedicated advocate. You don’t want to miss this one!

Links mentioned in the episode:

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Subscribe to get our newsletter and bonus episodes at KTFPress.com. Transcripts of every episode are available at KTFPress.com/s/transcripts.


Jonathan Walton – follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Mastodon.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify.

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.

Production and editing by Sy Hoekstra.

Transcript by Joyce Ambale and Sy Hoekstra, with special thanks to Dani Espiritu for helping us out filling in and proofreading Hawaiian words.

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode.


[An acoustic guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]

Dani Espiritu: God determined our times and our lands and then specifically placed us there. And I think that comes out, right, It's in direct response to Babel. And this desire for this mono-culture, this mono-linguistic society that vies with the Lord in terms of control. And so instead we are placed in these specific locations and develop this intimacy with God, and this intimacy with creation in those places. And none of us has the entire picture. Each of us has these different pieces and then together we get to see more of the tapestry of who the Creator is.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the kingdom of God. I am Jonathan Walton.

Sy Hoekstra: And I'm Sy Hoekstra. We have a really great conversation for you today. It's going to be on indigenous sort of everything [laughs]. We'll get to the specifics in a minute, but we're going to be talking about education and culture and theology and things that are going on with activism, through specifically the lens of our guest’s life, and work on the island of Oʻahu. Before we get into that really quickly as always, please remember the best way to support this show. And the centering and elevating marginalized voices that we do in our attempt to get ourselves out of colonized faith, is to go to KTFPress.com and become a subscriber on our Substack. That gets you the bonus episodes of this show and the newsletter that we do every week, where we bring you highlights for media to help you in your discipleship and your political education, and that supports all the work that we do at KTF Press, the books and everything else.

You can hear that I'm sick, I'm sure, and I apologize for that. That's just an unavoidable truth about the state of my respiratory system right now [laughter]. Thank you for everybody's grace listening. Jonathan, could you… you know what, I should say before I go to you Jonathan, you can always get a free month on our subscription to ktfpress.com by going to ktfpress.com/freemonth. Start that subscription out with a free month. Okay, Jonathan, tell everybody who we have with us today.

Jonathan Walton: Absolutely. Today we have with us soon to be Dr. Dani Espiritu. She is Kanaka Maoli (a Native Hawaiian) and educator raised in Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu and currently living in Waimalu, ʻEwa, Oʻahu. Her ancestors come from Maui, Hawaiʻi Island, as well as China, Samoa, Puerto Rico, Korea, the Philippines, Spain and other parts of Europe. Dani is on staff with InterVarsity’s Hawaiʻi Justice Programs where she develops programs and resources that focus on the intersection of justice, ʻāina (meaning the land, that which feeds), Hawaiian culture, and faith in Jesus. She also works with Hoʻōla Hou iā Kalauao, a community organization that seeks to restore life and abundance in Kalauao, a land division in ʻEwa, Oʻahu where they focus on education, advocacy and the restoration of loʻi kalo which is an irrigated taro field.

In addition, Dani is a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, College of Education, where her work focuses on indigenous food systems, ʻOiwi (or native identity), and resurgence. And she organizes with the Shut Down Red Hill Coalition and the Oʻahu Water Protectors. Dani, thank you so much for spending the time with us to be with the audience so that we can sit at your feet to learn and listen. We are deeply, deeply appreciative.

Dani Espiritu: Mahalo, Jonathan and Sy. Thanks so much for having me. It's an honor.

Sy Hoekstra: So we came up with the questions and the topics for everything for this episode before the wildfires started in Maui. So we just wanted to give you the opportunity to say anything that you think our listeners should know about what's happening there and kind of just give you some space to talk about that topic before we jump into everything else that we had planned, if you wouldn't mind.

Dani Espiritu: Yeah, thank you so much. Mahalo nui to you folks for the opportunity to be here and to share. And also thanks so much for the pule, the prayers and support that folks I think internationally have been offering. I think it's important to put the fires that are happening currently on Maui in the context of what has happened historically as well as politically, in Lahaina, more specifically. Lahaina is the main area there. There were also fires in other parts of the island, but in Lahaina, Lahaina in the 1800s was known as the Venice of the Pacific. And so it was filled with water that had since been diverted for things like sugar, and then subsequently continued to be diverted, for things like resorts, hotels, gentlemen, what they call gentleman estates, and things like that.

That creates a huge part of the catalyst for the landscape being extracted in the way that it is that set up for the potential for the fires. And so that's, I think, one piece that is ongoing. In the midst of everything, Maui was continuing to see upwards of 2000 tourists a day, in the midst of people having lost their homes over about 1000 people who are still… The searches are continuing to happen, many of us have family members and have close friends who've lost all of their belongings, and some people have had to escape the fires. And at the same time, while that is happening we have tourists that are swimming in the same waters that like, our family members and bodies of loved ones were retrieved from less than a week previously.

So those are some of the… to kind of put it within the context of this heavy tourist industry that's been pushed. We also have families who've lost everything that are getting calls from people who want to buy their land, while they're still grieving…

Sy Hoekstra: Gosh…

Dani Espiritu: … while they're still grieving loved ones. And companies that are using this as a way to kind of leverage the tragedy and use it as a way to do large land and water grabs. And so, most recently within the last week, the Deputy Commissioner for what we call CWRM [pronounced: C-worm], the Commission on Water Resource Management, was removed from his position and he has a long history of advocacy for Hawaiian farmers, particularly in Maui. And there are a series of articles that accused him of withholding water for the fighting of fires and later on that information came out to be false—that the water that was in question wasn't even connected to fire hydrants that could have gone to protect homes.

But yet he was removed and the state now under this emergency proclamation of affordable housing is getting ready to rebuild. Rebuild Lahaina is kind of like the code phrase, while the Lahaina community itself is saying to wait and allow folks to grieve. And that emergency proclamation that was made by the governor of Hawaiʻi sidesteps cultural protections, sidesteps environmental protections and sidesteps historical preservation protections by law. It also sidesteps Sunshine Law which is like a protection created in the government that allows backdoor deals not to happen. And so all of that kind of is happening amidst this incredible tragedy that I think a lot of folks are not aware of.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, that is not the story that a lot of us are hearing from the media. And it's hard to say we appreciate you bringing the perspective when the perspective is a lot of corruption and tragedy. But it is typical. I mean, my wife's family is from Haiti and the exact same thing happened after the earthquake in 2010. A bunch of foreign mining companies came in and said, now's the time to grab land. And it is what happens, and it's horrible. And I would want to know, actually, where our audience can go to either find ways to support through prayer or through giving money to the right places. Where would you send them?

Dani Espiritu: Yeah, I would say the Intervarsity Hawaiʻi website, we've put together a page specifically focused on Maui that has a number of links tied to general resources, background information for folks who want to sign petitions and advocacy things, they're there. And then what we've done is also compile the pictures, brief stories, and donation information from our own family. So it's everybody connected with the Intervarsity Hawaiʻi family, essentially, they're listed there and then we also linked to the donation sites of other organizations who are hosting over 800 Lahaina families who have been displaced or lost loved ones and other things like that as well are on there.

Sy Hoekstra: Okay, great. So we will put the link to that in the show notes for this episode. So you can just check your player if you want to go there and help out. Thank you for giving us that context and that update and those things to do in response. Let's maybe get into you a little bit more so people have a little bit more of your context as we continue to talk about these similar types of issues throughout everything we're going to talk about today. Can you just give us a sense of what you are doing right now, as Jonathan mentioned, you're a PhD candidate. Can you explain to us what you're studying and what you're doing your thesis on?

Dani Espiritu: Yeah. So I'm a candidate at the College of Education at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in the curriculum studies department. And so my research looks specifically at the restoration of loʻi kalo, or one of the main indigenous food systems for us here in Hawaiʻi, and ways that restoring loʻi and really restoring the pilina, or the relationship between us as Kanaka, as people, and ʻāina, or land or that which feeds us—how us restoring those relationships really helps with health, it helps with identity, it helps us to remember who we are and how we're built. And really, it leads to resurgence for the community, both culturally, as well as in terms of like we're talking about on this show in terms of justice, and wholeness.

And so a good chunk of it will focus on my own journey and restoring that relationship, as well as work that I'm doing with an organization called Hoʻōla Hou iā Kalauao, which Jonathan mentioned, as well. So we're a community org in Kalauao ʻEwa, Oʻahu where we're restoring loʻi kalo. So it's an area where traditionally, it was all spring fed loʻi kalo. Today, it's a complete urban area. And that's the last agricultural space in several land divisions in either direction. And so really what we're doing is holding space amidst urbanization where families, not just Hawaiian families, but families can reconnect with ʻāina, yeah with land, can reconnect with one another, can grow food. And I think in particular in Hawaiʻi, in Hawaiian context kalo, or taro, is an indigenous food.

Yeah that food literally kept our people alive from the beginning of time. And it also is a part of our own genealogies. It links us back to kalo, it links us back to that ancestral food or that ancestral plant. And so the transformation that happens as Kanaka are allowed to do that, and we'd learn and relearn how to do that together in a cultural context. And so a lot of it will focus on that, as well as just how do we reconnect in the 21st century, and the importance of remembering the names of our winds and rains and peaks and valleys and the wisdom in those names and in the messages and lessons of our kupuna, our ancestors.

Jonathan Walton: In your work like restoring, like the identity and abundance through land and stewardship, what did that look like for you as a little girl? Was there a conversation or an interaction, or prayer meeting that sparked that desire to go back and connect? Because I think for a lot of us as we decide to leave colonize faith or want to “decolonize”, there's a process that happens. And so it's rare that we're able to walk in that process, and I feel like you're walking in that process every day. So if you could just explain a little bit about that, I think that'd be a gift to our listeners.

Dani Espiritu: Yeah. I think a huge part of my understanding of it actually came as an adult. And so I feel like I was raised in a pretty American household. I grew up speaking English, I grew up… the push in Hawaiʻi to assimilate to the American culture came really hard, where the folks who were responsible for the overthrow created this pamphlet that told their story of the history. That pamphlet became the textbook in Hawaiʻi for about 40 years. So that was what informed… and coupled with that, Hawaiian language was outlawed. And so that informed the education of my grandparents and my parents. And so just some historical and I guess, political context in that. And so, I think me and those in my generation in my family were raised very American.

And it wasn't until learning more about the overthrow, and more of the history and getting activated in that way in high school and then in college, and realizing the disconnect and the harm that that has caused our family in particular, and then Hawaiians more collectively. It was after that, and coming back home, I was in school in Oregon and I came back home really wanting to reconnect. And that was when I started getting more involved in restoring loʻi and connecting with ʻāina and things like that. I learned Hawaiian and whatnot, but I think seeing the seeds of the importance of connection with ʻāina. My mom and my mom's family were fishermen, fisher people, and grew up gathering. And so that was something that I grew up in, but didn't necessarily realize that it was a particularly Hawaiian thing and didn't really realize the importance, I think, politically and in terms of our community until later on as an adult.

And then during the pandemic, getting to sit with my kupuna, my grandparents and hear about, or in our community that we live in now, in an area where we can't even touch the ocean anymore, because of toxic dumping and illegal dumping from the US military, we live on the shores of Puʻuloa, also known as Pearl Harbor. And in my entire lifetime, I've never been able to touch the water because it's contaminated. But then hearing from them the stories of where they would go and gather, the stories of where they would fish and the streams that they would swim in and gather from, I think there's been a more of an appreciation of that. So realizing that it's incredibly complex, like my family didn't grow up speaking Hawaiian, didn't grow up necessarily continuing certain Hawaiian practices, but at the same time we did.

And so what are the seeds within that in our own family and how do we elevate the oral history elevate what we say ʻike kupuna,  like the ancestral wisdom that's embedded in our own family practices that aren't necessarily elevated at the university, or aren't necessarily always elevated in certain sorts of situations. But that are incredibly important in terms of our people and our health. I don't know, did that answer your question?

Jonathan Walton: Absolutely. I think it makes the connection between like all of us to leave, whatever their ethnic background or racial assignment that we find ourselves in, to leave colonized faith, you have to do that simple, important work, of piecing together that tapestry of who were we before we were labeled? What did we do before we were forced to work explicitly or implicitly, because of the systems that came down? And that that Reconnective work, particularly in academic settings can feel belittled. But it's the most important thing, what are we eating? What are we drinking? How are we spending our time? How are we waking up? Those actions are the foundations of resistance. And so thanks for showing us what the seeds look like in your life. You definitely answered the question.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Dani Espiritu: Mahalo. And I think like, I'm super grateful, even at UH and in the academy in general, I feel like I'm several academic generations, I guess…

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Dani Espiritu: …back from those who really were the only ones, and were portrayed as incredibly violent in the university. And these voices that needed to carve out space, especially Hawaiian women who were portrayed a certain way. And I think because of that, those of us who are in grad school now have the ability, like there is always more work to do in the fighting. Like I think a lot about Nehemiah and the building and the fighting. There's an incredible amount of work to do in the defense and the fighting, but I think we can also build, and that's an incredible privilege because of those who've gone before us. And so I'm also very conscious of that, that the reason I can focus on this and food and family and all of that is because of those who've kind of paved the way in a lot of senses.

Sy Hoekstra: In case any of you were wondering about what Dani was just talking about with mentioning the overthrow, and a couple of other things there about Hawaiian history, we're going to get to those in a second. I promise. We're not going to leave that hanging there because I know there are way too many people who do not know about that history. But what I wanted to get in to with you for a second first, is you were actually one of the authors in the anthology that we published a few years ago, and you wrote a beautiful and tragic and just incredible piece for us. And one of the themes that you talked about in that essay, you talked about the idea of following the footsteps of our cultures back to God as a particular idea of how just Native Hawaiians view the idea of culture. Can you talk to us about what you meant by that?

Dani Espiritu: Yeah. So I think a lot of it has to do with language. So when we in Hawaiʻi talk about genealogy, the word is moʻokuʻauhau. Yeah, moʻo means succession. So a succession of people going back, our word for culture is moʻomeheu. Again, moʻo that same succession and meheu means footprints. The succession of footprints that have shaped and formed what we eat, what we say, the way that we view and see things and that's intimately tied with our connection with creation, or ʻāina, that which feeds and has fed us and all of the other pieces of creation in addition to humans, and it's a familial one, that is viewed generationally.

And then when I think about even biblically if we look at Romans chapter one, it talks about how the pieces of the Creator are evidenced in creation. The eternal and divine power of the Creator, is seen in creation. And for me, knowing folks who are subsistence fishermen, or who gather food or who are farmers, there is a level of faith that they live by that I don't know that I will ever have in my lifetime. There's a level of dependence and understanding and connectedness with the rest of creation, just simply because if you don't understand what is happening you will not eat. And there is a generational wisdom that's tied to that for folks who have learned how to subsist in a particular place for thousands of years. And I think those folks have an insight into the fingerprints or the footprints of the Creator in that specific area in ways that only they will know.

So there's pieces like that in Acts 17, where it talks about how God determined our times and our lands and then specifically placed us there. And so there's this ancestral wisdom that ties us to specific places on the earth. And I think that comes out, it's in direct response to Babel. And this desire for this mono-culture, this mono-linguistic society, that vies with the Lord in terms of control. And so instead we are placed in these specific locations and develop this intimacy with God, and this intimacy with creation in those places, and none of us has the entire picture. Each of us has these different pieces, and then together, we get to see more of the tapestry of who the Creator is, and it was created, like it was meant to be that way.

And so I think when I think about culture, and returning to certain cultures, you know cultures are birthed out of generational intimacy with land, out of survival out of our people's histories, and our people stories, in the places that we live, and out of our people's relationships with the Creator. And the ways that the wisdom of that relationship helped us to survive and helped us to thrive in those places. And so I think that, yeah, if I just focus on my relationship with God, and I just focus on my relationship with other people, I can live a good life, but I think it wouldn't be the fullness of what is meant for us. Like there's something about relationship with creation and remembering in a lot of ways that ancestral wisdom and intimacy that we have been given and meant to, I think, cultivate.

Sy Hoekstra: Yes, amen to all that. And then you went on a little bit further in the essay and said part of the reason that you reject a story, or a narrative like make America great again, specifically, because there's so many reasons to reject it, but you were saying specifically because it doesn't tell the truth about the story of our cultures, of American culture, of the history of White people, everybody else here. And I just thought that that was interesting. That it was like, to me, it is something that does not fit my culture but fits my personality to say like, we just want to reject, this is an objection to this narrative is that it's not accurately telling the history of our culture in and of itself. Like I said, there's many other reasons to do it, but that just false story or that, like not watching the footsteps of who came up before you and what they did, I think is a really powerful idea in a way that I'm a little bit struggling to articulate at the moment [laughs]. But there it is.

Dani Espiritu: No, you're good. I mean, I think, like when I think about make America great again, as this political platform, really, it was based on tapping into the nostalgia of White supremacy without calling it that. It’s upholding that same controlling, mono-cultural culture that America was built on that is embedded with things like manifest destiny and eugenics, and that were used to justify the stealing of lands and oppression of peoples. But painting it as this nostalgic America of the past that that must be resurrected.

Jonathan Walton: One of the themes of your essay was all of the emotional work that you did to get to the point where you could pray for forgiveness and blessing over America, even as it hurts you and your people over and over again. In doing that, you're following the lead of the last queen of Hawaiʻi Queen Liliʻuokalani. And I've been to her home, I’ve been to that that place, the room where she was under house arrest, sat in the bathroom, listened to the audio, read the prayers that she wrote. And it boggles my mind how she sat there praising God writing prayers, pleading with her people to be nonviolent. I think of MLK in that way with my people. How does her example resonate with you today, particularly as you think about the disaster capitalism that we're just talking about with taking advantage of the fires, what's happened with the diversion of water that you were talking about in the beginning? How does her example resonate with you? How does it impact you when you lead, and do you see or hear calls to violence?

Sy Hoekstra: And I would just add, if you wouldn't mind giving a brief bit of context for what we're talking about when we say when the Queen was under house arrest and the overthrow and all that. Just so everyone's up to speed.

Dani Espiritu: Yeah, yeah. So I guess a little bit of context in terms of the overthrow. In January 1893, Liliʻuokalani who is the last reigning monarch of Hawaiʻi was overthrown with the help of the United States Marines. In the 1870s and 1880s Hawaiʻi had become this hub, this booming hub for sugar exports. And so they had a lot of trade agreements with the United States and they had treaties with US, one of which was the Reciprocity Treaty, which essentially allowed Hawaiʻi to ship sugar and goods to the United States tax free and vice versa. When it came time to renew that treaty in the 1880s, the United States wanted full access of Puʻuloa or Pearl Harbor. And the king at the time who was Liliʻuokalani’s brother, Kalakaua said no, Pearl Harbor, Puʻuloa was the breadbasket of almost the entire south side of Oʻahu.

Yeah, there were over 100 fish ponds in Puʻuloa, none of which are functioning today. And also to allow a foreign military to have access would not be wise. And so he said, no. The response of the business community, the White business community in Hawaiʻi, who were the descendants of the missionaries, who had come from the East Coast of the United States was to hold Kalakaua, the king, at gunpoint and force him to sign a new treaty… Not treaty, sorry, a new constitution, the Constitution of 1887, commonly known as the Bayonet Constitution, which essentially stripped his power as a monarch and stripped political power away from the Hawaiian people. So it created property requirements for anyone who wanted to vote and at that time, the majority of Kanaka, the majority of Native Hawaiians did not own property.

And so with one fell swoop, it took power away from the monarch or the king and it also took power away from the Hawaiian people. Fast forward to 1893, the people are pleading with the Queen to draft a new constitution because essentially, they have no power within their own government. And she has no power within the government. And there's an incredible amount of affection and trust, which is different, I think, than a lot of other monarchies, but there's an incredible amount of affection and trust between the Hawaiian people and the Hawaiian monarch. So she drafts a new constitution, and less than a week later, she's overthrown. And so I share that context because it's directly tied to the overthrow, which is directly tied to the descendants of the American missionaries who come to Hawaiʻi.

So it's literally, the children and grandchildren of the missionaries who came from the east coast of the US to share about Jesus and to share about Christianity who got involved in sugar, and got involved in business and became very wealthy land owners, and then left the church and ended up overthrowing the Queen as a way to ensure the perpetuation of their own political power. I mean, I think across the board, the Hawaiian community and those who are involved in activism and politically and just Hawaiian people in general, I think across the board, people have an incredible amount of respect and reverence for the Queen. She's become a symbol of ʻOiwi, or like native innovation and strength and humility and a love and a care for her people that is respected across the board, whether folks are Christian or not, or whether folks are involved in more of the Hawaiian political movements or not, I think the across the board, she's definitely become kind of an example for a lot of folks.

And I think across the board also, I think especially for folks who are involved more politically, there is a push for nonviolent direct action. And so I don't know any major groups who are advocating for violence. I think in general, folks, maybe fall in different places in terms of what they think about Christianity, and some of the other things that the Queen was sharing about. And part of that is that by the end of the 1800s, Hawaiʻi was considered a Christian nation. There was an incredible revival that had happened where I think people saw being Hawaiian and Christian as influencing each other. And that is not necessarily the case anymore. Part of that is directly tied to the overthrow and the fallout of the overthrow, where following the overthrow Hawaiians who chose not to back America were excommunicated from their churches.

And so you have a huge juxtaposition of identity, where to be Hawaiian was seen as completely contradictory to being Christian, so that for those of us today, we kind of have grown up in that. But that is a reality that our kupuna didn't necessarily face in quite the same way. And that is the direct result of the descendants of the missionaries wanting to control the idea of what it meant to be civilized. It wasn't enough that you were a Christian and educated because Hawaiians were all of those things. They had to recreate what it meant to be civilized. The folks that were pushing for annexation recast what it meant to be Christian, where in order to be Christian, you had to support being a part of America and being a part of the United States. And that led to a huge fallout in Christianity from a lot of folks in the Hawaiian community.

So for those of us who are Kanaka and who would say that we believe in God we believe in Jesus and the revolutionary that he was, and the ways that he stood for justice, I think, to look at Liliʻu and to look at her example, both in terms of strength, in terms of humility, in terms of compassion is an incredible example. Yeah, to be able to pray for and forgive those who were holding her under house arrest, those who had overthrown her and to bless them, while also taking trips to United States to advocate for the return of sovereignty to the Hawaiian Kingdom, she did both. There was the action and advocacy and ways that she responded in that way, there was direct, caring for the needs of people. Liliʻuokalani Trust still exists as a way to care for children and orphans. Because that was an incredible need in the Hawaiian Kingdom at the time that it was created, and giving her own personal funds for the actual caring of community, there is a lot of that. And then there is a lot in her writings that she shares about her heart posture, and the ways that that she lives this life of grace, beyond what I think I can’t even imagine being in a position like that.

Jonathan Walton: In the Black community, there exists a strong resistance to Christianity as a quote unquote “White man's religion”. And I think you extrapolated on that a little bit. We're already where you talked about this downstream, y’all’s generation having to deal with the conflation of Hawaiian identity which would conflict with a Christian identity or not. I didn't know that Hawaiians who refuse to back annexation to the United States were excommunicated.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, me neither.

Jonathan Walton: So these new developments that create these fissures. And I think within the Black community there are similar sentiments, particularly in these flashpoint moments.

Dani Espiritu: And I think too the version of, I'll just say, White American Christianity that has come, in many ways also casts certain things that are tied to Hawaiian culture as paganistic, as evil, things like Hula, certain other practices.

Jonathan Walton: Oh, absolutely.

Dani Espiritu: And so I think for many today, similar to what you shared in terms of the Black community, I think for many today it's seeing Christianity as the White man's religion, or as the tool for colonization that was coming in, especially because of the complicity and direct role of the church. Not just members of the church, but the church itself in the overthrow.

Jonathan Walton: Right. It's almost like the merchant, the military and the missionary being the three chords of a whip.

Dani Espiritu: Right.

Jonathan Walton: They all come at one time…

Dani Espiritu: Absolutely.

Jonathan Walton: …and it's devastating. So part of the work of decolonization that you've already talked about is untangling those things, and then… like untangling them as individual then uncoupling them from following Jesus. Because the work of colonization is a complete in all-encompassing work. That's what makes it so destructive. So yeah, I just appreciate the steps and the leaders and the things you're laying out.

Sy Hoekstra: Tell me if this is a [laughs] worthwhile thing to say, or if it's just too obvious . And I'm just being a White guy. I keep coming back… to some extent this is true of anytime anyone forgives or tolerates or doesn't meet harm with the return of harm or violence. But when I think of what you're talking about, for what you do in your position, Dani, what the queen did in her time, I just keep thinking we don't deserve you. Like we don't deserve it, we don't deserve any of it. We certainly don't deserve your land. And I don't know, I want people to feel that and be willing to just feel that. And when I say people, I mean my people [laughs]. Jonathan's not involved in this we right now. Yeah, I don't know, I just I want people to be able to feel that and, not be comfortable with it, but just be comfortable with acknowledging that it's there. And then going and doing the stuff that Dani is asking you to do. Like going and donating and getting involved in the advocacy and reading about it and learning and all those kinds of things. I don't know if that’s a helpful thing to say or not, but those are the thoughts that were swirling around in my head.

Jonathan Walton: I think for anyone who is sitting in Sy’s position, and I would say if we're on the front, the top side of a power dynamic, it is incumbent upon me as a man to enter into the pain and struggles of what it looks like for those who suffer downstream of patriarchy. Like it is my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to enter into what it looks like to sit in the shoes of someone who is not educated because I have an Ivy League education. It is my responsibility to enter into the structure that makes it possible for me to have a mortgage and have a home, while others suffer on the other side of that. I think what the glaring gap in our discipleship is the ability and willingness to sit in the tension where we can't fix it, but we need Jesus to make it possible for us to have the ability to fix it, or just be present in the unfixed-ness of it.

Because the incarnation is that. Like the incarnation is that Jesus came with all power and privilege, giving that up to be among us, and not fix everything, but just be present, and fix what he could. And then ultimately fix everything by laying down his life and offering us eternity. So I think there's something holy about being in power, and sitting with those who have suffered under power that we represent sitting before them and benefit from. That is a lot, I think a lot like Jesus, sitting with Lazarus when he died, and weeping even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. And that Lazarus was going to die again, because Lazarus did die again. This is a discipleship message for all of us who inhabit a power structure. In this context, I think the gospel is a beautiful gift to White people to be liberated from the burden of supremacy as Michel Higgins would say.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, I appreciate that. I think, Dani, if we could just turn to another aspect of your work. You work with the Oʻahu Water Protectors, and we've written a couple times in our newsletter about the water crisis there. Could you just explain a little bit about what's going on there, and then what the work is that you're doing to try and do something about it?

Dani Espiritu: Yeah. So I mean, dating back to before the overthrow to why Hawaiʻi was supposedly annexed, it all ties to our location, and the desire from the US military for a central place for fueling, for heading up the naval fleet. And so the head of the Indo-Pacific Command, so all of the US bases in Indonesia and throughout Oceania, throughout the Pacific is here on Oʻahu. About a quarter of our island is restricted military on this island. So in the 1940s, there was a secret wartime build of an underground storage facility at Kapūkakī, which is a ridge that sits between two districts. So it's between the Kona district which is kind of where of Honolulu is, and between the ʻEwa district, which is where my ʻohana lives, which is more toward Puʻuloa.

And what they did was they built an underground storage facility to fuel essentially the naval fleet. It was underground because they were worried about attack. The public wasn't informed of it. And there are 20 tanks that are each 250 feet tall, that have a carrying capacity of over a million gallons. It’s in a mountain, so you can't see it from the outside. Currently, there's still over 100 million gallons of fuel in those tanks. And they began leaking in the 1940s, less than 10 years from after they were built. And so there have been over 100,000 gallons that have been documented to have leaked and we all know that it's probably much, much more than that. Just because that's the amount that has been admitted to by the Navy. The way that our islands get our water is through what we call the aquifer.

And so the rain that falls in about 20 years will hit the aquifer. So it's kind of like a huge Brita filter in our mountains, where it'll filter through soil and it'll filter through layers of volcanic rock. Then hit the aquifer and what the Board of Water Supply does is it pumps that water out and it goes to people's homes. Culturally, there's no cultural practice that's not tied to ʻāina, and everything from the aquifer will eventually come out. So for example, in certain areas, the aquifer will pressurize and the water will come out in springs. A lot of times springs are the start of streams in our mountains. And so whatever happens in the aquifer not just affects drinking water, but it affects everything on our island that'll pressurize it'll come out of springs. It'll enter streams, streams enter into the ocean and all of that is tied to basically every cultural practice that we have. So the poisoning of the aquifer, which has already happened is an incredible one, because really we're talking about the feeding of individual people, like people had jet fuel in November and December of 2021 coming out of their faucet, because the Red Hill shaft, which is a part of the military's joint base Pearl Harbor water line, was literally pumping water from the aquifer that was downstream of the fuel facility and the fuel facility had leaked, and people had not been notified. So a lot of folks that were on that joint base Pearl Harbor or Navy water line had fuel coming out of their faucet, and were drinking and bathing and using water from their homes.

There is no distinction, or there's no separation within the aquifer, so all of that fuel and whatever chemical additives have been added to the fuel in the facility are just moving around in our aquifer, currently. And so defueling is supposed to start in October of this year, and it's supposed to wrap up sometime the start of next year.

Sy Hoekstra: When you say defueling, do you mean emptying the tanks that are in the mountains?

Dani Espiritu: Yes. So they're going to be removing the fuel from the tanks. One of the issues is that the facility has been left in such disrepair that like, in terms of praying we need to pray that nothing will happen. Like, yes, we want to defuel as quickly as possible, but also, the facility was constructed in the 1940s. So even to get that to happen, a huge number of repairs have had to happen and the amount of transparency for folks who, communities have been affected by the US military, there's not a lot of transparency. Yeah, a lot of prayer going into that in terms of our advocacy, it's just keeping folks up to date about what's happening, and really continuing to hold the Navy and the military and also the state offices accountable.

The Department of Health for the state of Hawaiʻi refused to hold the Navy accountable. And it took the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi suing the state for them to begin to do any sort of restrictions to the US Navy. And so before that the facility was just getting passed and passed and passed and passed with no check ins, no need for repairs. There was a huge leak in 2014 where over 20 gallons spilled from a single tank because somebody forgot to flip on a switch, and it just hemorrhage from the tank. Things like that have happened and it wasn't until the public and community organizations started to raise concerns that the state started to do anything. Part of the reason goes back to money and that the state gets a lot of money from the US military to allow them to be here.

Sy Hoekstra: If they defuel the tanks I'm guessing that does nothing to what's already in the aquifer. Is there any plan for that?

Dani Espiritu: Yeah, so the three stages are defueling, are decommissioning, which is supposed to be making the tanks unusable. One of the things that we've been facing is that the Navy has kind of started to redefine what decommissioning means, which includes repurposing, and makes it so that should war happen, should a new administration come in that wants to refill the tanks that that's possible. So that's something that we're continuing to fight against. The last piece, which you asked about is remediation. And remediation is supposed to be clean up. It's supposed to be actually figuring out and getting together the brilliance of indigenous and Western scientists and figuring out what does that look like in this situation. What the Navy has defined it as in a lot of the meetings that we've been in is what they call natural attenuation, which basically means leave it there and it'll eventually disperse.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, I was going to say that sounds like a euphemism for do nothing.

Dani Espiritu: [laughs] Yeah. And then so it's like natural attenuation, and then monitoring, which has nothing to do with cleanup. It's basically just drill wells and see where it's spreading. And so those are all areas that folks are continuing to need to speak up about.

Jonathan Walton: Oh my gosh, somebody got paid thousands of dollars to come up with those two words.

Dani Espiritu: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: Natural attenuation?

Dani Espiritu: And a pretty PowerPoint.

Jonathan Walton: Oh my gosh. So one of the things that I think is powerful about Jesus is he offers a counter vision of how to be in the world. And so in your mind, what would justice look like for Hawaiʻi? If you were to give a few tangible things of what that would look like for reparations, restitution, that citizens, the church, the US could do and be fighting for, what would some of those things be?

Dani Espiritu: I think part of it is the structural shifts, and so a huge part of kind of, even to what we were talking about in terms of Red Hill and what's happening in Maui. Our economy is so dependent on the military and so dependent on tourism, that we need huge structural shifts, and the empowerment of community. And then I think indigenous-led initiatives to be able to begin to shift that. And so I think in terms of advocacy, it's supporting those. I think another part of it is the cultural shift. I think because of the way that the tourist industry has grown from the late 1800s, early 1900s to now, in particular in Hawaiʻi there's an infatuation with the exotic experience of Hawaiʻi. And I think there's a cultural shift that needs to happen, like we've talked about with Maui, the fact that people can be swimming in the waters that our relatives have died in less than a week before.

Or thousands of people continue to go to Maui as people are still living in shelters, and not able to return back to their homes. I think there's a cultural shift that needs to happen in terms of what it means to travel, what it means to travel to Hawaiʻi, and the image of Hawaiʻi. And then I think there's also the meeting of real needs. The lies that were told in the 1800s and early 1900s and that continue to be told today have real impacts. So to this day, Hawaiians have, still like all the statistics in Hawaiʻi, like highest rates of incarceration, some of the highest rates of drug use, some of the highest rates of health effects like diabetes, heart disease, all of those things, some of the highest dropout rates. There are ways that we can also meet real needs in the community and support organizations and community members who are trying to do some of the building.

And so kind of to go back to Nehemiah, it's something that I've been sitting in a lot, it's like there's need for building and there's need for fighting. Part of that building is cultural, part of it is empowering communities and leaders in the communities who really have the best interests of their people, of our people at heart. And I think part of it is also some of the bigger structural shifts, in terms of economy, in terms of cultural perceptions of Hawaiʻi. And I think some of those shifts will require investment in people. Investment in people who are on the ground trying to do the work.

Sy Hoekstra: Speaking of investment in people who are on the ground trying to do the work, we already mentioned the link to the IV page that we'll have in the show notes. Is there anywhere else that people can go to follow you or work that you're doing or involved in anywhere online, social media, anywhere else?

Dani Espiritu: Yeah, on the InterVarsity side a lot of our donation links are on that page, but you can also follow ivHawaii_justice, and that's the IV Hawaiʻi justice page, where we try to promote things like that that I was talking about. And then if you message that you'll get me [laughs] I run the back side of that. And then for folks who are interested in more of the ʻāina work, it's long so hopefully there's a clickable link, but Hoʻōla Hou iā Kalauao we have both a website and an IG handle. Same thing I run the back side of those. So if folks are interested in supporting either of those, and then also to stay abreast of Red Hill things. I think Sierra Club Hawaiʻi and Oʻahu Water Protectors are two good places to follow.

Sy Hoekstra: Awesome. Was that first one, that ivHawaii_justice, Was that an Instagram handle?

Dani Espiritu: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: Okay, great. Cool. So we will have links to all those things in the show notes. Dani, I may be emailing you for some of those links later [laughs].

Dani Espiritu: For sure.

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for being here. I mean, this has been an incredible conversation on so many different levels. My thanks feels a little bit inadequate, but thank you for being here.

Dani Espiritu: Yeah, thank you both so much. I appreciate you reaching out, and again, just the opportunity to chat and share and talk story.

Jonathan Walton: Yes, ma’am.

Sy Hoekstra: For all the listeners, a reminder like I said up top, please if you support what we do go to ktfpress.com, consider becoming a paid subscriber there. It feels a little bit silly to say in the [laughs] wake of everything else we were just promoting, but it is what it is. Right, I said it. But please go check out Dani's stuff. I may just cut that out [laughs].

Dani Espiritu: Don't cut it out.

Jonathan Walton: Don't cut it out.

Dani Espiritu: We all need help.


Jonathan Walton: Yes, it is all important and God's economy certainly has enough resources for all of it.

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you all so much for listening. Our theme song as always is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all in two weeks.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: Do you have like other stuff open right now?

Jonathan Walton: Do I? That is always the question. Yes?

Sy Hoekstra: Are there things you can close or no?

Jonathan Walton: Listen, everything can be opened. That's fine. This is the most important thing right now. And history can always be found. Unless you're my daughter and you deleted 1000 messages from my inbox.

Sy Hoekstra: Oh no.

Dani Espiritu: [laughs] That’s not good…

Jonathan Walton: Oh, yeah. I woke up Thursday, and I opened my Outlook and it says zero.


Dani Espiritu: No…

Jonathan Walton: I was like, “how did that occur?” And I said, “Everest, did you delete my email?” She goes, “No baba.” [laughter] Like she would know how to use Outlook.

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Seeking Jesus, confronting injustice–Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we resist the idols of America.