Three weeks after an inferno raged through the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, authorities are still working to identify dead bodies. They’re still looking for more than 380 missing people. Search teams are still hunting for human remains in collapsed buildings and in the water. And while largely contained, the fire that burned more than 2,000 acres is still burning.
“There is so much that is unknown,” pastor Rocky Komatsu said. “We don’t even know all the challenges right now. Things move slower here, and we are isolated, so we do know there are going to be lots of needs for a long time. It feels very overwhelming.”
Komatsu, who planted a Southern Baptist church in a town 26 miles east of Lahaina, first learned of the fire when his aunt posted a video on Facebook.
“I was shocked,” he said. “It showed walls of flame that had engulfed the entire community behind Front Street.”
He’s no stranger to fires—he was born and raised in Hawaii and spent most of his life on Maui, where fires crop up often, especially on the leeward side of the mountain that gets less wind and rain. But this one was different—bigger, faster, and more intense.
“We couldn’t connect with friends on that side, because the power was out so there was no reaching them,” he said. “The only thing we could do was pray.”
In the last three weeks, Komatsu and other pastors have done a lot more than that. They’ve passed out supplies, housed families, and sat with stunned survivors. They’ve preached to new visitors, they’ve received donated copies of Mark Vroegop’s Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy from Crossway, and they’re drawing up plans for long-term assistance.
The Gospel Coalition talked with three of these pastors, who are partners of TGC’s Hawaii chapter. We asked how they first responded to the fire, what they preached that Sunday, and if they’re seeing any spiritual response to the tragedy.
When you heard about the fire, what did you do?
Jay Haynes (the pastor of Kahului Baptist Church, which planted Komatsu’s Waiehu Community Church): Wednesday morning I woke up and thought, OK, it’s really bad, but I’m sure everybody got out. I’m sure this is being handled well.
But as the day went on, we realized we didn’t know where several of our church members were—they worked at the resort over there. Their kids were worried because they didn’t come home, and we couldn’t get in touch with them. So I was trying to find them. (Days later, we did.) Then we heard the roads were being shut down and officials weren’t letting supplies in, and people didn’t have water or hygiene supplies. At that point, we realized we had to get over there.
We made a few posts on Instagram, and it snowballed. Our church became a central distribution hub in central Maui. We had truck after truck come by when they could get clearance from the police to get to Lahaina. When they shut that down, we loaded up boats. We did that for three days before organizations like the National Guard or Samaritan’s Purse got there.
Because people had lost their homes, I also asked on Instagram for air mattresses and cots, and people brought them. We put people in our church and provided overnight security. We did that for three nights.
Komatsu: I went into Lahaina on a plane Thursday morning with supplies, then later that afternoon Jay and I went in a convoy of trucks loaded with more supplies. It looked like what you see on the news when a country goes to war. It looked like a bomb had gone off and destroyed the entire town. It was heartbreaking.
There wasn’t a ton of smoke because the fire was slowly dying. It was very somber. It didn’t feel real. It felt like a nightmare.
We brought in things like food, water, diapers, baby wipes, adult wipes. Later we switched to propane and generators.
That’s a lot of work. How many people are in your churches?
Haynes: About 90. The staff is me and a part-time secretary.
Komatsu: There are about 30 people in the plant.
Haynes: Between our church and others, we had maybe 40–50 volunteers. I can’t tell you how many hours we worked in those four days.
By the weekend, the larger aid organizations had arrived and were meeting those physical needs. Did you preach that Sunday?
Jason Hill (an Anglican rector who recently planted Kingsfield Anglican Mission Church 25 minutes from Lahaina): My wife and I were in Idaho dropping off my son at college when this happened. We came back early. That first Sunday, we went to a park in our neighborhood and walked around. We invited people to come and share a meal with us and to spend time in prayer.
Some people came. They wanted to pray, and we sang “It Is Well with My Soul” and ate a meal together.
Haynes: I preached a 15-minute sermon from Ecclesiastes on lament and the sorrow that we’re going to experience in this life. Then we broke up into small groups and prayed for one another. This past week we spent another Sunday on lament—Psalm 42.
Komatsu: My friend preached an excellent sermon on suffering from Romans 5 the Sunday after the fire. The following Sunday I preached on lament from Psalm 13. We are just trying to equip our people to grieve in a biblical way—to be honest and transparent with others and the Lord about the pain and questions and confusion. Then, like David in Psalm 13, we want to move from pain and sorrow to trusting the steadfast love of the Lord.
We really do think lament will be a key help for us in this time—and not just for ourselves. We also want to help our community understand how to lament. We don’t want to minimize suffering or escape it or fall into despair. Instead, we go to God and we trust in the gospel.
Are you seeing any spiritual response to the fire?
Komatsu: A lady started coming to our church the week before the fire. Her husband is a firefighter, and he was on a crew that got trapped in the fires and almost lost their lives.
He lived, and he came to church on Sunday with his whole family. He said, “It’s been a very long time but it’s good to be back.” His wife said something like “I cannot believe that after I turned my back on God all these years, he would save my husband’s life.” That’s a little seed of gospel hope.
We were also able to help a family who lost their home. Their family is hosting three other families in their parents’ house. We were able to give them some supplies. The daughter ended up coming this past Sunday with her family. They were able to hear the gospel presented to them, to hear they can find hope in Christ.
Another family was holding 28 people in their home. We have been able to drop off supplies to them, and several of our church members able to pray with them.
I’ve been able to pray with a lot more people right now.
Hill: All of a sudden people will talk about spiritual things. We went to a shelter in the first week, and I asked people to share their stories. People are open to talking and are willing to consider things.
It’s a bit uncanny, because for the last year we have been gathering a core group and praying for God to bring a spiritual awakening and to put his people’s eyes on Maui.
Komatsu: What the community is going to lean on is “Maui Strong,” which is the collective efforts and love of our community together and their resolve to build back Lahaina. We support it 100 percent, but we also know it’s not enough. A community without the gospel is not going to be any better off.
We are hoping to pass out copies of Mark Vroegop’s Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy. I read his book three years ago and then led our church through a series on some of the psalms of lament. I think it has given us categories for processing what’s happened here and is helping our people to minister to our community.
We are really praying the Lord would use this to bring a revival of the gospel back to this community—that they would realize their hope cannot be ultimately in building back Lahaina but in coming to see Christ as the King who can bring true, lasting healing and peace.
Haynes: Practically, we’ve been telling people to send us their needs list if they were evacuated. We’ll start meeting those, and also be there for them spiritually.
We pastors could use prayers for wisdom, that we’d use our time and energy well. I think we all need lots of help with counseling people experiencing loss.
Hill: I’m Anglican, which means the center of our worship is the Lord’s table, where Christ gives his body and blood to us. When we leave worship, we are broken, torn apart, scattered, and given for the life of the world. We ourselves are now broken bread and poured-out wine—we pour ourselves out for others.
We do that because we want to see Christ’s lordship permeate and influence and become nonignorable on this island. I want people to be housed, cared for, and loved, and I also want Christianity to be the dominant influence here. If there is a harvest because of this fire, then God is doing something far bigger than we realize. God loves the islands of Hawaii. He is doing something more than just humanitarian work—he’s building his kingdom.
I don’t know what he is up to, but I know his mercy is going to be far more than any pain that is here—and it’s going to come.