The Spirit of Ohana

Asian-American college students travel to Hawaii to help build God's family.

  • by Becky Hill
Photo by Tom Mills

Before they knew his name, Amanda Sham and her friends began praying for Keenan Tenno.

On Wednesday just before lunch, they finally met him.

Amanda was part of a group called Epic, a branch of Cru that specifically reaches out to Asian-American students. Amanda, a 20-year-old Chinese American, had joined 25 other college students from 10 campuses on a summer mission trip to Honolulu.

The city is the only one in the United States with a population over 100,000 where Asian Americans comprise a majority of the total population.

The students came to Hawaii to help reach Hawaiian college students for Christ, and to experience ministry specifically to Asian Americans. The trip, called the Epic Summer Project, was also a time to embrace their identity as Asian Americans, and to wrestle through the challenges of their ethnicity.

When they returned to their campuses in the fall, they hoped to be better equipped to reach fellow minority students.

Amanda Follows the Lord's Call to Hawaii

Amanda, a senior at Penn State University, had been involved with an Epic ministry at her campus for several years, but until now she had never been on a mission trip for more than a week.

She didn't know anyone on the project, and all the other students seemed to have at least one friend from their schools. She missed her family and boyfriend, and she cried herself to sleep on the first night.

But she also knew God had called her to Hawaii for a reason. "I needed to take a step of faith and get out of my comfort zone from Penn State to see God really change me," says Amanda. "I specifically chose Hawaii because I've had a heart for Asian Americans—I can really relate to them."

The students broke into groups and each spent time on one of five college campuses around Honolulu. Amanda's group visited the University of Hawaii-Moanoa, praying that they would meet local Hawaiian students with an interest in God.

Keenan's Encounter with the Students and Christ

One of their answers to prayer was Keenan. A fourth-generation Japanese American (his great-grandparents immigrated to Hawaii), Keenan was also an incoming freshman at UH. That summer he was taking his very first college class, Hawaiian Studies.

Sitting on a bench by the television in the student center, Keenan had met Will, a member of the Epic project. They began talking about spiritual things, and Keenan explained that he had gone to church for a few years with an old girlfriend, and still went occasionally.

Will was able to explain the gospel to Keenan and clarify things he hadn't understood in church. Keenan understood the truth about Jesus, and he prayed with Will and invited Christ into his life.

Will took Keenan to lunch at Yummy's Korean B-B-Q on campus, where he met Amanda and some other project students. While Keenan chatted with the guys of the group, Amanda spent the lunch talking with Donna, a student she had met earlier on campus, who had many questions about Christianity. Donna was not ready to invite Christ into her life, but the girls agreed to meet again and talk more.

"Evangelism was never a part of my lifestyle before," said Amanda, halfway through the project. "Now it's becoming more natural to talk to people. It will be even better during the school year."

Project Centers around the Idea of Family

The goal for the Epic Summer Project, and their summer motto, was to "build our family, expand our family." Keenan was an example of expanding the family—he had just joined the body of Christ.

The project used the Hawaiian word for family, ohana, as a teaching tool, emphasizing that the real ohana is the family of Christ.

"Family so much affects who we are," says project director Adam Go, talking about typical Asian-American traits. "Our self-confidence and our personal identity is tied into family."

Once she got to know some other students on the project, Amanda started to love being there. The project students quickly found common interests, like frequenting the 7-Eleven to grab the Hawaiian treat Spam musubi (a slice of Spam on top of a block of rice, wrapped with a piece of dried seaweed) or playing the Chinese tile game mah-jongg most nights.

Amanda had found friends, but being friends was not the same as being a family.

Forgiveness Found at Family Time

Every Sunday night, the students met for a time they called Ohana to talk as a group. It was a time to be honest with one another, to keep emotions from being hidden.

"Bringing up conflict is a very abnormal thing to do," explains Adam. "While it's true many Asian families tend not to talk about feelings and heart issues, the emotions are there. They are simply bottled up. Like many other areas of anyone's life, Asian Americans must overcome this cultural barrier."

During Ohana time, the students spoke one by one in a circle, talking about their weeks, each person giving a word to describe how they felt. Some were joyful. Others were exhausted. Some felt lonely.

Then Annie, a junior at the University of California-San Diego, spoke up.

"I guess I feel betrayed," she said, "because I heard that some people were saying things about me this week."

Her words dropped like a rock, and the room was quiet as Annie continued to explain how she felt. The gossip might not have been intentional, but it had created conflict and caused a rift in the group. For Amanda, it was painful to see her friend hurting. She felt distant from the gossip, not really knowing the details, but she was connected with the pain.

"We're a family here," Cru intern Franklin Ng emphasized. "If you need to talk to someone on your own, please do. But if there's anything that you want to talk about publicly, we want to open up this time, as a family, to clear things up."

Initially there was silence. Then Edison spoke up.

"I'd like to apologize to Annie" he began, confessing that he had been inconsiderate of Annie's feelings.

After Edison, Andy also apologized to Annie, then to another student, Fauzi, for things he had said that week.

"I'm just feeling really convicted tonight," Andy said, dropping his head.

With the honesty of the three students, something began stirring. Forgiving them, Annie hugged Edison and Andy. Fauzi came across the room and embraced Andy.

Then other students began talking—tears came for the first time during the Ohana meetings. At the end, the group formed a circle to sing a cappella. "I love you, Lord" they began.

Later Amanda acknowledged the significant impact the evening had on her. "I finally felt the family," she said.

That was the week Amanda's group met Keenan, a new brother in Christ.

Students Encouraged to Keep Telling People about Jesus

After lunch with the students, Keenan took them to meet his sister on campus, and he came the following day for lunch, as well as to the weekly meeting the group held on campus. He met several other Christian locals who could help him continue to grow in his faith once the summer-project students left. He started learning what it meant to be part of the body of Christ.

At the weekly meeting, Hawaiian Cru staff member Kent Matsui emphasized to the group why their presence in Hawaii was so important. "If you want to grab this part of the world," he said, referring to the state's influence in Asia and the South Pacific, "you've got to have Hawaii.

"Tell everyone you can about Jesus while you're here," he said.

In just four weeks on the project, the group had seen 52 people become Christians. The next week, Amanda and her friends followed Kent's advice, telling people about Jesus, and praying for more students like Keenan, not yet knowing their names.