Do you know those kind of moments when you experience something you had hoped for, but were never sure would actually happen? I had one of those moments this past weekend. Thirty-seven years ago I lived in Honolulu, Hawaii from the age of 14 to 16 ½. Those were magical years, filled with paradise beauty and sprinkled with typical teenage dramatics. We attended a wonderful church there that extended its arms and enveloped military families into a make-shift family stationed on a distant island in the Pacific Ocean. It was a time when military families didn’t randomly catch planes at the slightest whim to visit extended family in various parts of the country. That sweet church became our family. I can still recall sitting in the sanctuary on wooden pews that were surprisingly comfortable, surrounded by hundreds of people dressed in various designs of flowery shirts and dresses listening intently to the pastor share from the Word of God as soft breezes filtered through the endless rows of jalousie windows that made up the walls on each side of the building. That church was built on the side of a hill, allowing spaces for classrooms under the main auditorium, just below those jalousie windows. I can remember walking up the sidewalk beside those classrooms just beneath the windows, palm trees swaying on the grounds, the smell of mangoes and pineapple in the air and the sound of voices singing beautiful hymns. Friendships and memories were made that are still fresh in my mind even after all these years.
For the last thirty three years or so, some of those friends have been organizing a Hawaii Friends Reunion each year. Most people who have attended were part of those magical years in the mid 70’s to the early 80’s. All of us seem to have two common bonds: Experiencing life on a faraway island and the love of God in our hearts. During all these years of reunions in various parts of the country, I have never been able to attend for a myriad of reasons. But this year was different. I have especially kept up with one of the dear friends I made during my time in Hawaii, along with her parents. Her mother was my Sunday School teacher. She was an amazing teacher. But her impact in my life came from her personal connection and investment in my life. She probably never realized how she touched my life with her unique sharing of God’s Word and her sincere interest in me and my life. I remember so many Sunday nights of carpooling to her house with other students and feasting on chips and salsa, or some other concoction that appealed to a youths hunger for junk food! We always ate, we always talked, we always opened the Word of God and we always prayed. It was familiar, it was comforting, it was life changing. Both my friend and her mother left a mark on my life. I cannot tell you what specific thing had the most impact, but it was a feeling. A warm feeling that starts in your stomach and bubbles up into your chest, creating an overwhelming urge to tear up and smile at the same time. They weren’t perfect, they just cared. Those people are the people I spent the weekend with.
My husband and I arrived very late on Friday night, missing the first festivities of the reunion weekend. We settled in our room to rest and recover from our long drive, anticipating the reconnection with old friends in the morning.
As we entered the dining area early the next morning, I searched some of the faces looking for someone familiar. I was both anxious and excited. I was hoping I would recognize someone. I searched for the sweet smile and caring eyes of my former Sunday School teacher. I looked at each face hoping to find my friend or her mother, but neither had arrived yet. My husband and I sat down to eat breakfast, making small talk. I was a little nervous at the fact that I had dragged my sweet husband along on a six hour trip to a strange place to spend a weekend with people he did not know or that I had not seen in thirty-seven years. These people would never recognize me. There’s a huge difference between the 16 year old they knew and the 53 year old I now was!
I heard someone new entering the dining room, chatting with some of the other people in the room who were obviously reunion attendees, I looked up and recognized my old Sunday School teacher instantly. I started walking in her direction, hoping. She squealed when she saw me and wrapped her arms around me. As she hugged me, the years slipped away. It was a hug like I used to get from my Mom. It has been nearly twelve years since my Mom died and I miss those hugs. The kind that make you feel like the daughter. The kind that leaves no doubt that you are loved. The slow reluctant to let go kind of hugs. I almost cried. Silly, I know. I pulled back and looked into her eyes, she had aged but that spark was still there. She was smiling so proudly….lovingly. Without thinking, I reached both my hands up to her face. This was real. This person who had impacted my life in a profound way as a young insecure and unconfident sixteen year old, was standing before me. She was just as I had remembered. I didn’t want to let go of her. I had so many things I wanted to tell her. I wanted her to know that I had kept the faith. I wanted her to know that she was right, that serving Jesus was the best thing I would ever do. I wanted her to know that I had been teaching teenage girls for twenty-eight years and loved every minute of it….well mostly. I wanted her to know that I had been trying to raise my daughters to love God with all their hearts and to own their own faith and to pursue a relationship with God above all others. I wanted her to be proud of me. The whole moment was overwhelming. I wanted her to myself. But there were others there and I contained myself, and just smiled and held back the tears. But, just as she blessed me thirty seven years earlier, she once again showed me she cared. I returned to my table, pretending to eat, glancing at my smiling husband. He knew. Suddenly she was there, beside me, with her sweet husband. “Can we sit with you?” A simple question that made my heart soar. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. My husband and I sat with these two saints, ages 77 and 79, and talked about many subjects for an hour. These two wonderful people weren’t letting age slow them down. In fact, they seemed far from their late seventies. They were still actively teaching and serving God. They joked and laughed about life. They had driven fourteen hours to be a part of the reunion. During that time, my friend from years ago, my Sunday School teacher’s daughter floated in. She came right to me. Again, we hugged like we were family. More people joined our group and we sat in the lobby of the hotel for five hours talking. It was amazing. There were thirty seven people total, all chatting like old friends who had only seen each other yesterday. We enjoyed dinner at a local barbeque joint, then back to the hotel for more talking. These people I had shared life with on an island in the Pacific had gone on to live their lives all over the country. Their children were grown and now grandchildren filled their lives. Many had made trips back to our beloved island and our church, only to be saddened at the change. Without this same group of people enjoying life together, it did not hold the same magical feeling. Life had gone on, the atmosphere had changed, only memories remained.
On Sunday morning we gathered for our own intimate worship service in the meeting room of the hotel. With the lack of musical instruments, we made due with the sound of our voices echoing old hymns. The voices weren’t perfect, but the music lifted up to the Lord was a sweet fragrance. The Word was shared and prayers were whispered. We shared a meal and slowly the group departed. As I was leaving, my Sunday school teacher grabbed my hand as I was leaving and pulled me into a hug I won’t forget. It was filled with love and hope and a shared bond that is uniquely special. I felt that neither of us wanted to let go. My dear friend joined in the hug and we all promised that we would attend next year’s reunion. Hopeful that all these sweet Hawaii friends would once again gather to reminisce, laugh and hug familiar friends.
As my husband and I began our trip home, we rode in silence for some time. He broke the silence first “I really enjoyed that this weekend.” Tears burned my eyes and I felt a lump in my throat. I stared out the window for a while. When I knew I could speak without crying, I looked at my thoughtful husband and told him how much I appreciated him taking me to the reunion this weekend. It was a dream come true to see my friend I looked up to so much and her mother who meant so much to me. I had feared that I would never get that chance this side of heaven. I was content and happy. God is so faithful.