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Plantation Roots: How Wahiawa Became Home

From food to language, the history of the plantation workers in Hawaii continues to shape what people know about life on the island. Learn how Hawaii’s plantation economy made way for individuals to find a place to worship God in small farming communities like Wahiawa and why there was a need to renovate a new worship building to accommodate the growing number of worshippers in the area.


Voiceover: What comes to mind when you think about Hawaii? Beaches, surfers, and probably hula.

Nan Zapanta: So we’re here at the old Waialua sugar mill, it’s pretty cool to see that being done for this smokestack. That’s pretty, pretty cool to see.

Voiceover: While this isn’t the Hawaii you pictured, this place, these fields and the history behind them have probably influenced pretty much everything you think you know about Hawaii.

Nan: Right behind me is the Waianae range. You can see these are the pineapple plantations here. 

Voiceover: But how did the history of this island create a home for so many? Well, that’s what we’re about to find out.

[Show Open]

I’m Nan Zapanta. As an industrial designer I spent years admiring the great designs of products, vehicles, and architecture from all over the world. But I found architecture to be the most captivating. I love learning about each building, discovering the characteristics that make it unique and understanding the purpose behind it’s design. Most of all I love hearing about the stories behind each structure and seeing God’s plan in putting it all together. Join us as we discover the Blueprint of the buildings and structures inside the Iglesia Ni Cristo.

Voiceover: Driving north on the island of Oahu, away from the busy crowded streets of Honolulu, you begin to notice a change. Buildings begin to spread out. The clusters of homes and businesses become smaller and less frequent, replaced slowly by trees and wider stretches of fields, plantations with rows and rows of pineapples.

Kelsey Inouye: It’s interesting because Wahiawa itself is a very, very mellow town very laid back. But it’s also busy because you have all the people heading to the North Shore that pass through, so Kamehameha Highway right here is always a super busy road.

Voiceover: I met up with Kelsey Inouye, a lifelong resident of Wahiawa at the Dong Yang Inn, a local go-to spot for the past 40 years serving up classic Korean plate lunch.

Nan: Your family, what brought them here to Hawaii?

Kelsey: My family first settled here in the Waialua side, so the North Shore but farther down and over there, there’s a lot of farm plantation.

Nan: So you’re what generation?

Kelsey: In Japanese we have different generations, it’s called Issei, that’s the first generation, Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei. So I would be Yonsei. 

Nan: So the fourth generation, so you got your family’s—like deeply rooted

Kelsey: My family? Yeah. 

Voiceover: But while this family is deeply rooted in Hawaii, like many of those that live here, I was surprised to find out that he didn’t consider himself Hawaiian. 

Kelsey: There’s people who are of Hawaiian descent and there’s the people who live here. So we can say to the people of Hawaiian descent to be Hawaiian. 

Nan: Ok. So when someone asks you, what are you? 

Kelsey: I’m from Hawaii, born and raised. 

Nan: But you never say I’m Hawaiian. 

Kelsey: No, that’s a big no no. 

Voiceover: While being Hawaiian is defined as those being of Hawaiian descent, being from Hawaii was less definitive but yet equally identifiable. You see, by the early 20th century, thousands of laborers from China, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Korea and Puerto Rico had moved to the islands, mixing together cultures to create many things considered to be uniquely Hawaiian, like the food. 

Kelsey: Food is something that’s universal. So even when people come together they would bring their lunches, in the plantation. They would each bring their lunches from their own, from their own families. And then they’ll be able to share it with each other. 

Nan: I’m excited.

Voiceover: As we waited for our order, Kelsey educated me on the culture, the food and even taught me a little bit about Hawaiian Pidgin. I began to get a better understanding of how this sleepy town in the center of Oahu could become home to so many different people.

Kelsey: Thank you. 

Nan: Thank you so much. This is, this is food. 

Kelsey: Welcome to Wahiawa. Alright so meat jun is thinly sliced beef. And they cover it with batter and they fry— they deep fry it. We have the special sauce also. 

Nan: Oh, this is a special sauce. 

Kelsey: Special sauce. 

Nan: Ok. Just there—is it like secret ingredients?

Kelsey: Secret, yeah. If they told us they have to kill us. 

Nan: I don’t want that to happen. So I will not ask you what it is. 

Kelsey: So you just dip the meat jun inside

Nan: And just give it a try. 

Voiceover: After saying a quick prayer, Kelsey and I dug in. 

Nan: Time for meat jun.

Kelsey: Meat jun. You don’t even have to say anything. I feel it off of your, your expression. 

Nan: This is ridiculously good. 

Kelsey: Want to try? 

Nan: Sure, want to try some of this? Try this.  

Kelsey: Thank you. And you know, I feel like this is how it happened in the plantation. See each other’s food and—

Nan: And I feel like yeah, they would try it out. And they were like, oh you know, I like that. Let me add that to whatever I’m making. And then saimin happened, right?

Kelsey: And musubis.

Voiceover: One of the largest groups of laborers were skilled laborers. They left their families in the Philippines with the hopes of providing for them. Years later, they brought their families to Hawaii. In 1969, Edgar and his family moved to Waialua to be reunited with his dad. 

Nan: So how was it growing up in the sugar plantation? 

Edgar Alegado: It was happy, real comfortable, you know, at least my dad was working at a sugar company and my mom had work in kukui nuts. 

Nan: Do you have any fond memories living on the plantation anything that sticks out in particular?

Edgar: Riding our bikes with the neighbors, racing on the streets with our bikes.

Nan: Good ol’ times.

Edgar: Went to the store almost every hour.

Nan: Sounds like the life. So then at the time, there was worship services here on the island?

Edgar: Only in Honolulu.

Voiceover: When the Church Of Christ held its first worship service in Hawaii in 1968, most, if not all, in attendance were immigrants to the country, including a number who came to work on Hawaii’s, then, thriving sugar and plantation industry. And while they were scattered throughout the island, twice a week, the members of the Church would make the trip to gather in living rooms in Kalihi, an immigrant neighborhood in Honolulu, where a number of members lived. Soon however, they outgrew the living rooms they were using, and in 1969, the worship services were moved to the Kalihi YMCA. And by 1971, a house of worship was purchased on Valley View Drive in Kalihi Valley, where the congregation has stayed until today. Solomon Guillermo, affectionately known as Grandpa Solomon to those who grew up in Honolulu, was there when renovations began to turn it into the first Iglesia Ni Cristo house of worship on the island. 

Nan: How large is this property? Do you know how many acres or— 

Solomon Guillermo: No, not even an acre. Not even an acre, about two thirds of an acre I believe.

Voiceover: He took me around the building, showing me some of the work they did including the patio where you can see one of the best views of the area. 

Solomon: They’re called ‘batares,’ I don’t know how you [say] that in English. 

Nan: For the viewers that might not know ‘batares’ is, can you explain?

Solomon: Well, ‘batares’ means that every member, as much as possible give help [with] whatever the project are. And even the sisters, although they’re not carpenters also provided snacks [and] food. 

Voiceover: Considering the amount of detail he shared, it was hard to imagine him being 89 years old, or that the work he described happened almost 50 years ago. 

Nan: And this is the main sanctuary. So this sanctuary, is it similar to how it looked originally? Or was there major changes?

Solomon: No, no, no, no. There [were] lots of changes. The original building was only up to here.

Nan: Oh, it stopped right here. 

Solomon: It stopped [right] here. And this wall [starts] from there and that’s why we have these side pews.

Nan: So the wall used to be over here.

Solomon: This wall, used to be here like this. Same with the other side. 

Nan: That’s a lot. That’s a major change. 

Solomon: Yeah, [there were] a lot of changes.

Voiceover: While the building underwent a number of changes when it was first purchased, it has inherently stayed the same since then updated from time to time, extensions added like many of the homes in the surrounding areas, but it still pretty much stayed just as Edgar remembered it as a child in the 1970s.

Edgar: I just remembered attending the CWS there in that other house that’s in the parking lot, which is—

Nan: Right, that separate building.

Edgar: Yes.

Voiceover: As a young child, he remembers traveling to Honolulu to attend the worship service twice a week until an extension was established in Waialua. 

Nan: What did that mean to your family and to the other members that were living in this area? Were they happy that finally a new extension—

Edgar: Yes, actually, they were happy. We just needed help in the worship service itself from Honolulu so they had to travel on weekdays. 

Voiceover: The handful of members first gathered in a garage of one of Edgar’s relatives, then move to the Waialua sugar plantation union hall, and eventually the YMCA in a nearby town of Wahiawa, another town impacted by the growing plantation economy. In 1981, the congregation dedicated its first house of worship.

Edgar: The brethren in Wahiawa were so happy to have something, a house of worship, to worship in so everyone was happy with that.

Voiceover: In 2007, historic rainfall brought about by Kona storms, a type of seasonal Cyclone hit the island of Oahu wreaking havoc, especially on old buildings, like the first house of worship in Wahiawa.

Edgar: So at one point, in the nursery, the roof fell in. So the roof fell in. And so we had to temporarily use Waipahu chapel while we try to renovate Wahiawa. But even Wahiawa, our old chapel was not able to accommodate the brethren. So that’s why we were looking for a better, nicer, more suitable—

Voiceover: We had a bit of time that morning in Wahiawa and some of the crew from Hawaii mentioned that the old worship building was just a few minutes away. So we decided to go and see if we could check it out. 

Wilgren Ringor family bought the property after the congregation moved to its new location. And as he walked us around, he shared the work he did to restore and transform it. You can feel the sense of pride he had in being able to keep a bit of the history the building represented to the congregation. The same building that brought Jun Reyes to Wahiawa. 

Jun Reyes: We came to Wahiawa in 1998, November.

Voiceover: A member of the construction battalion for the US Navy, Jun spent his career working on construction projects that involve building barracks, roads and piers for the Navy, a background that would come in handy during his last naval assignment. 

Jun: We went to Honolulu, Waipahu, nice, big local [congregation].  And then we attended Wahiawa and we look at the chapel in Glen Avenue.

Nan: Right, that was the first house of worship.

Jun: That was the first house of worship and was it was really miserable in this place. I said I’m staying here. 

Nan: That’s when you decided this is going to be where you’re going to stay. Wahiawa was going to be home.

Jun: Or at least build it to look like a chapel.

Voiceover: From 1998 to 2013, the former worship building would be repaired and renovated repeatedly during which the congregation would look for a new house of worship.

Nan: So then, once this was purchased, and there were there already plans to have it renovated. Were you involved?

Jun: Yes. Even from the beginning, the place is really nice. The land is big, we have enough parking, with that we also address the issues, the problems we have with the original location.

Nan: Would it be okay if you gave us a tour just to show us some of the renovation and—

Jun: Ok, alright, ok.

Nan: This is beautiful brother, this is definitely not an old house of worship, it’s a full renovation.

Jun: Even the wall, they used to be all CMU if you’re familiar with a masonry block, you can see the joints for all the walls around.

Nan: So it was really bare bones. With the roof I do see it does come together. Was it flat before?

Jun: Yes, yes, it used to be flat. They call it the fink truss in engineering.

Voiceover: Similar to some of the past houses of worship we visited. This worship building has an arched ceiling that was added during the renovation. In order to achieve this, the original flat ceiling was carefully removed. Next, trusses were placed every two feet along the entire length of the ceiling within the sanctuary, allowing for a solid structure for the significantly higher ceiling. As an engineer, Jun was able to contribute to the project through his understanding of the stability, strength and rigidity of built structures.

Jun: Even though the drawing calls for removing this, we can’t move it all at one time because the roof will collapse.

Nan: As I’m looking around, I know everything is new. But one part that does remind me kind of like the of the older houses of worship or even older residences, is the windows. Are the windows original or do you know if these were preserved?

Jun: The windows are original.

Voiceover: The style complimented the island location of the building. But were subtle enough to still blend in with the overall design of the building 

Nan: It allows the—just the air to flow within. If it’s raining, the rain can still just go down and away from the building. Is there anything else that was a major change during the renovation, aside from from the ceiling?

Jun: The major or costly in any buildings are the utility. HVAC had to be installed.

Voiceover: The entire electrical supply was upgraded to accommodate the needs of the worship building, including all the lights and the connectivity of the building.

Jun: It runs all the way from the audio room, up to the attic and down to one of the walls.

Voiceover: Jun walked me through the various details of the house of worship. And though the building was smaller than many of the houses of worship, it was not short on detail. Details you could especially see in the facade, which was his favorite part of the worship building renovation. 

Nan: What was your involvement for this because was this originally here on the building like this whole facade?

Jun: No brother. It used to be we call it the hip roof. So imagine from about 20 feet, it dropped down, slope down. There was nothing to hold the facade so it was built from scratch. 

Voiceover: Because of its location on the island and past experiences with heavy rain and wind at the former worship building, extra care was taken in building the facade, including a two foot deep concrete foundation to hold it up. Cecilio Banda, the general contractor spoke more about the amount of work put into the most recognizable part of the building. 

Nan: How was it working on the front facade because from my understanding that wasn’t there before. Right? 

Cecilio Banda: Yeah, it was— it had an overhang. And so we had to cut the overhang and then constructed the huge footing there in front to carry that load. 

Nan: Right. 

Cecilio: Because he was part steel. So it had to be craned up, you know, to put it in place. 

Nan: Oh, so it was tilted up? 

Cecilio: Yes, tilted up and it had to be aligned with the doors that we cut in front. And so at first it wasn’t aligned. So we had to kind of like move it a little.

Nan: Little bit— mini adjustments.

Cecilio: But eventually we got it in there.

Voiceover: The facade presented another challenge in construction. If you look at the houses of worship of the Iglesia Ni Cristo, the steeples can normally be found in the front of the building. For Wahiawa the steeple was located in the middle of the roof. 

Nan: Is there a reason behind like, why it was placed where it was?

Cecilio: It was designed to be aligned with the seal here.

Nan: Oh, so you could see it—

Cecilio: That was in the contract.

Voiceover: Standing in front of the seal, the fiberglass steeple directly aligns with it, creating almost a second facade, when coupled with the second entry way to the building coming from the parking lot. 

Nan: Being here in Hawaii, where you’re an island far from the mainland. What are the challenges of getting materials, bringing it here?

Cecilio: The steeples that came from—

Nan: From Texas. 

Cecilio: From Texas that has to be driven to Matson in Long Beach, and then shipped to Hawaii.

Nan: Those factors, you have to plan ahead of time. 

Cecilio: And given the time constraint at the time, all I did was rely on God. I lost 12 pounds in the process but that was good.

Voiceover: In July of 2013, the Wahiawa house of worship was completed and dedicated in a worship service led by the Executive Minister. 

Nan: Can you recall that day of the dedication?

Jun: It was a great, really blessed. I cannot express how—to be with Brother Eduardo V. Manalo on that day, and be in the podium with him and have the dedication of the chapel is really fulfilling.

Nan: When you think back to the day that you saw the original house of worship and you were thinking of how the condition of it. Did you ever imagine that this is what the end result would be?

Jun: No, I can never imagine that. I was just really happy when we were approved to renovate the old chapel. We never realized that we’ll be blessed when even a bigger, better house. 

Nan: And it’s a great blessing. And it’s beautiful.

Voiceover: It’s been over 70 years since the last ship of plantation laborers arrived on the shores of Hawaii. And yet today, we still see the influence on everything we’ve come to know, as uniquely Hawaii, even in the small town of Wahiawa. Evidence can be found just driving down the main road where dozens of worship buildings line the street together reflecting the diversity of the island. A diversity that helped Kelsey, a great grandson of a Japanese immigrant find the opportunity he had been looking for, truth

Kelsey: I live where I’ve lived my entire life. And the church was just a quick, one and a half, two minutes away from where I live. And I didn’t, I didn’t really notice. It’s not somewhere I would pass by all the time. 

Voiceover: In 2012, Kelsey accepted an invitation to listen to the teachings inside the Church Of Christ.

Kelsey: I met a bunch of the brethren when I was in college. And it was through music that I met them, we’d all have this we’d have this group of people who would hang out in the college that would just play music.

Voiceover: And while he was an active member in another church, something about the Church Of Christ drew him in to listen more. 

Kelsey: There came a point where in the Bible studies, where it talks about the one true Church and how the other churches are not the truth. 

Voiceover: During this time, the congregation was in the middle of moving into the new building, giving Kelsey a unique opportunity to help out with the final details of the renovations, including assembling the pews that we see today.

Kelsey: When they’re bringing the pews in, they brought them in pieces. So we helped to assemble them.

Nan: Some real hands on help not not anything—that’s a pretty significant thing. Because I mean, these pews are beautiful. So you actually literally had a hand in putting them together. So what motivated you to help in that way? 

Kelsey: When I was brought into the Church, I was able to hang out with all of the other officers, there were choir members and Kadiwa officers so I feel like that really affected me in my faith, kind of like a jump start in my faith already.

Voiceover: Still a Bible student at the time, he witnessed the Executive Minister officiate the dedication of the Wahiawa worship building simultaneously with members around the world, through the live video stream. 

Nan: Was that kind of a realization for you as far as just how, how far reaching the Church is globally?

Kelsey: I just, it took my breath away, it was something else.

Voiceover: Whenever we get to visit a worship building for the show, I always make a point to look at the previous places of worship of the congregation, the halls they might have worshiped in, the images of the building before it was renovated to really get an appreciation of the work that was put in. 

Nan: How was it there at the older house of worship, it was a little bit smaller? 

Kelsey: It was more cramped, but you know what? The teachings of God are the teachings of God.

Voiceover: And while history can quickly tell us the when, and the how, sometimes the why is something that doesn’t become clear until much later on. 

Nan: And when you look back and you see, from even growing up here in Wahiawa everything that you’ve gone through, do you see what God’s plan was? Can you pinpoint these are the moments?

Kelsey: From when I got baptized, I feel like things happened in my life leading up to that, that set me up to be where I am now. And I truly believe that that was God’s plan.

Nan: It’s really been great coming to this part of the island, learning its history and its impact on food, language and even the people that came here. But most of all, I love seeing how even in the smallest corner of the world, you can find buildings like this one, in Wahiawa. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Blueprint, where in the end, everything is part of God’s plan.

Available downloads

Plantation Roots: How Wahiawa Became Home