This is a story that I’ve never before told. I hesitate even now – perhaps twelve years after the fact. My hesitation still hinges on Thanksgiving, for goodness sake. Thanksgiving: uncontaminated by commercialism; serving up my favorite foods; and celebrating gratitude. It’s a hard holiday not to love.
But those many years ago ‘Iokepa and I had a Thanksgiving experience that I’ve done my very best to forget: the hurt and the humiliation on one side; the arrogance and entitlement on the other.
There is a climate in Congress, even now, that allows Representatives to partake of federal subsidies for their gentleman farms and their less gentlemanly businesses, while they cut off hungry families at the knees by slashing food stamps. Selfishness disguised as ideology is epidemic. So, I justify telling this antique, but not antiquated story.
Those who have followed 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani and my story know that his Native Hawaiian culturally-based journey required that we live our faith in tents on the land of my husband's ancestors without any income for ten years. The ancestral guidance prohibited accepting either government or church assistance. We were often hungry.
Let me tell you, from an experience that I never in my life expected to experience, hunger drowns out every other one of your senses. Allow me to tell you this also: hunger is never hungrier than when everyone around you is feasting. Consider now, Thanksgiving.
On this Thanksgiving, some twelve years ago, we were staying in an empty cottage for a couple weeks. The cottage was located in the extremely affluent town of Hanalei, on our Island of Kaua'i. We were housed (stranded?) for those weeks at the extreme northern end of the our Island with diminishing food and little gas.
A neighbor insisted that in that town of multi-million dollar beachfront mansions (and virtually no Native Hawaiians) there was a community Thanksgiving feast shared by all. It was sponsored by neither government nor church - and she insisted that we go. We assumed, of course, that she and a fairly representative number of the town would attend as well - it was, after all community.
It was held on at noon in the town's elementary school cafeteria. We dressed in our best. I still had a rather elegant silk shirt-waist from my earlier life of comfort. My Native Hawaiian husband had clean shorts, a clean shirt and beach slippers.
We entered the cafeteria, walked toward the food service. I was directed one way; my handsome aboriginal husband was sent another. The dispatcher assumed (because I was white and in silk) that I must be there to do charity - to serve the meal to the less fortunate. And 'Iokepa, who after all looked exactly like who he is (Native) must be there to accept charity.
That was our welcome.
When we clarified our relationship, and together entered the food line, here's what we saw. At every food serving station, people were crammed shoulder-edging-shoulder, five well-dressed local and national celebrities squeezing against each other and poised for the news photo with spoon in hand.
In other words, there stood in behind a dozen food dishes, four dozen people giving charity. We took our place in line. At each station, we were asked what we wished to have spooned onto our tray. We took our trays, entered the cafeteria proper and seated ourselves.
When 'Iokepa and I finished the first serving, we got back in line, and asked for another scoop of potatoes. I got mine without comment; not so 'Iokepa. "Now aren't we hungry!" the server shouted in a sing-song appropriate to a two-year old.
We sat in that room for one extremely uncomfortable hour - my belly was full. my soul was starving. Not one of the well-dressed servers (or anyone who looked anything like them) sat among us. They had spent their moment of glory ladling the sweet potatoes, and then they went home to their own feast. Never the communities shall meet.
Icringe to this day when I hear one of us repeating to one of them: "I just wanted to give back." The words still sound a lot less like compassion, and a great deal more like boasting.