Hele Mai Ai (Go Eat)


I. Manini


It was from my mother that I first learned about hospitality, about being hospitable.

She was a wonderful cook, preparing huge amounts of Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese and American foods. My daughter Beth remembers sitting at Grandma Uda’s kitchen table in Hawaii and being so impressed. She doesn’t remember what Grandma was cooking, but it was a whole lot.

The real joy of the table was Hawaiian food: poi, kalua pig, lomilomi salmon, poki, laulau, seaweed, haupia. She was always inviting visitors to “Hele mai ai,” which means “Go eat” in Hawaiian. Especially on New Year’s Day, she invited everybody, it seemed–family, friends and neighbors, my father’s work crew, and church members. “Go eat. There’s plenty,” she’d say, and there was plenty. The church members were Mormons, because Mom and Dad were Mormons and I was raised Mormon.

Whenever the Mormon missionaries stopped by, my mother would feed them. She would set before them the kinds of foods we ate, a mixture of Japanese and Hawaiian foods: sushi, lomi salmon, poi. She would watch the missionaries carefully, especially as they tried poi, which some, upon putting the gray stuff in their mouths, liken to library paste. If the missionaries piggled their food, and ate little, she would say, “Ah, manini.”

Manini is the Hawaiian name for a striped fish that lives in the reefs. As a boy I spent hours trying to catch them, with a bamboo pole and thin line and a small hook. I’d bait the hook with shrimp, and watch in frustration as the manini, with its very small mouth, would very carefully nibble the bait off the hook. I could never catch a manini, but I kept trying. Finally, my mother said to me, “You’re wasting your time. It has a small mouth, so you have to dive in the water and spear it. That fish is a miser. It will never bite your hook.”

To be called a manini, one who eats cautiously, hesitantly, with a small mouth, my mother explained, was to be known as a miser. She believed that a miser was someone who could not give because he was unable to take, or receive, whether the offered was food, or love, or forgiveness. In order to truly give, or love, you had to be hospitable or receptive to what was different from you, to what was strange, to what might be the very help you need.  You had to risk yourself.

It was bad to be called a manini. It meant you were so tight with your soul that in order to accept your offer of a relationship, I had to change my ways to yours, offer to you not myself but a mirror image of you.

Henri Nouwen helped me to see mother’s lesson in hospitality more clearly. “The paradox of hospitality,” he says, “is that it wants to create an emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where the stranger can enter and discover themselves as created free, free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host,” Nouwen says, “but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”

In order to truly give, or love, my Mother believed, the missionaries who stopped at our home had to be able to take or eat the foods she prepared for them. She knew that the missionaries would be able to take or receive only if they had prepared a place in their hearts for those different from themselves. They had to create a place in their hearts for her, my mother, to have the freedom to serve her own foods, sing her own songs, dance her own dances, and pray her own prayers. She was the stranger in the hearts of these missionaries, looking for a safe and free place to be transformed into a follower of Christ.


II. Am I a Manini?


That’s the marvelous thing about Christian hospitality. In order to be a Christian, I don’t have to give up my own cultural heritage and become like the person converting me. If you are Japanese, and I am an American, and you convert me to Christianity, I don’t have to become Japanese in order to be reborn in Christ. If you are an American, and I am Hawaiian, and you convert me to Christianity, I don’t have to give up my Hawaiian ways to be reborn in Christ.

When I ponder Christian hospitality as exemplified by Jesus with his whole life, I remember my mother, who passed away on May 16, 2004, in Provo, Utah. I am grateful to her for one of my greatest learnings as a pastor. Serving in small urban and rural churches in Colorado where the culture was not what I was used to, I had to acknowledge that, as pastor, I was in the position of the Mormon missionaries my mother watched so carefully.

Am I a manini? I would ask myself. Am I recoiling from what is strange and different. Am I piggling my food again? Or am I eating what is set before me? 

These were questions I asked myself regularly. Am I creating that free space in my heart where the stranger may speak her own language, sing her own songs, dance her own dances, and thus grow in God’s love?