'A place of refuge' now home to residents of Laie
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LAIE, Hawaii Of the more than 30 million visitors to the Polynesian Cultural Center in some four decades, it's doubtful many know that the town of Laie was once "a place of refuge, a sanctuary for desperate men and women seeking escape from man's law" or perhaps tribal law.
Many even Church members don't know that Laie was once a 6,000-acre plantation purchased by the Church in 1865 as a "gathering place for Hawaiian Latter-day Saints" after the loss of property on Lanai in the wake of other Church property being usurped by a former member.
They only know that, today, this community on the northern shore of Oahu hosts Hawaii's top paid tourist attraction and that it's home to BYU-Hawaii. And sitting majestically above on the mountain slope is the venerable Laie Hawaii Temple dedicated nearly a century ago.
But to the some 5,500 residents of Laie, this is not just a place for students or tourists. It's home.
"I was born and raised here. Not a lot of people can do that, to be born and stay here," said Pane Meatonga, president of the Laie Community Association and a fourth-generation Church member. "And I live on the same piece of property that I was raised on."
Bishop Meatonga, who is bishop of the BYU-Hawaii 12th Ward, spoke with the Church News recently while walking in the cemetery in Laie, where are buried many of his ancestors. Carrying a tape recorder in his hand, he moved quietly between headstones, pausing occasionally.
"These people that lay here are my treasures; the testimonies that they have left behind strengthen mine. It helps me carry forth the work that they started. When I look up on the hill, and I see the temple, I know that that is the link that will bring us together.
"Here is my mother," he said, stopping. "She has been the (strength) of my family, the matriarch. And this is my grandfather. . . . My grandfather helped build the Church College of Hawaii, as well as the temple."
Bishop Meatonga wanted to come here today, he said, because "it's important to know how the pieces sort of fall together."
"The growth of Laie," he added, "is due to the Church and its presence in the community. Without that, Laie would be another town on another shore."
That is most certainly what Laie is not.
In fact, when President David O. McKay broke ground in 1955 for what was then called the Church College of Hawaii, he not only blessed the college, he also blessed the "town of Laie to become a missionary factor, influencing not thousands, not tens of thousands, but millions of people who will come seeking to know what this town and its significance are."
Granted, the Polynesian Cultural Center, founded in 1963, is what attracts visitors from throughout the world, along with the adjacent BYU-Hawaii, but is it all part of Laie, where live many who work at and support these Church institutions. People such as the Pukahi family whose name goes back to the days in Laie when the village was behind the temple, not spread out to the highway along the coast.
Martha Pukahi, 93, who was interviewed a few months before she died this summer, recalled seeing Samuel E. Woolley, who presided over the Hawaiian Mission from 1895-1919, wearing a "Panama" hat and riding around on a white horse. Born in 1911 in Laie, she was baptized in a natural pool behind the mission home and was married at age 16 in the Hawaiian Temple with then-temple President William M. Waddoups performing the ceremony. Sister Pukahi's son and daughter-in-law, Warner and Sandra Pukahi, still live in Laie.
Others not of Polynesian descent also planted their family's roots here, including BYU-Hawaii President Eric B. Shumway and his wife, Carolyn M. Shumway, who arrived in 1966, just three years after the founding of the Polynesian Cultural Center. Sister Shumway, who was honored as the 1996 National Mother of the Year by American Mothers Inc., remembers the days when just the David O. McKay complex and some dormitories stood on campus.
"For four years, we and two other BYU families were the only Caucasians in our ward. That's where we learned to love the local people with all of our hearts. The main ethnic group that was in our ward was Samoan, and they just adopted us like long-lost relatives," Sister Shumway told the Church News. "When you're in the trenches with the people, you love them as your own family. When we see those people (today), we all run to each other and hug. We're just like relatives."
That is an apt description for how Laie as a community has evolved over the years. Laie Hawaii Stake President R. Eric Beaver, who is also president of Hawaii Reserves Inc., which oversees the Church property here, said the LDS population in Laie is somewhere around 80 percent, with mainly non-LDS communities in the surrounding area, including such towns as Kaaawa, Kahana, Punaluu, Hauua and Kahuku.
"But many LDS people have been moving into those communities as the Church continues to grow," President Beaver added.
With that, the influence of the Church here just grows, he explained. For instance, at least half of the student body at Kahuku High School is LDS, and that school has back-to-back state football championships, along with well-known debate and history teams. LDS and non-LDS, alike, now take part in adopt-a-highway programs and anti-drug programs. And BYU-Hawaii facilities are often the site of non-Church related community events.
"Good LDS people who are living the gospel will naturally be involved in their community, reaching out, getting involved in issues, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other members of the community it doesn't matter who, LDS, non-LDS, who have some community cause to make their place a better place to live," President Beaver emphasized.
They realize, like Martha Pukahi, that they are "lucky to live in Laie because this is a special place."
Sources: "Educational Foundations of Laie," an address given by President Eric B. Shumway on Oct. 24, 2003, on occasion of 40th anniversary of the Polynesian Cultural Center; Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Andrew Jensen; Deseret Morning News 2004 Church Almanac; October 2003 interview with Martha Pukahi.
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