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Can Church and State Solve a Problem in Chinatown?

Noe Tanigawa
River of Life Mission at the corner of Pauahi and Maunakea in Chinatown, started as a Christian-based emergency meal service in 1987.

In his first state of the city speech, Mayor Rick Blangiardi highlighted Chinatown as a hidden gem that his administration is determined to improve. Right now, negotiations are underway to relocate a food distribution operation that is often cited as a source of undesirable foot traffic. The Caldwell administration announced last year that River of Life Mission would be moving, but the deal is not quite done.

Credit Noe Tanigawa
At 10:30 Friday morning, a line of mostly seniors queues outside River of Life Mission on Pauahi Street. There is also clothing distribution in addition to the food service which provides nearly a thousand meals a day.

"The complaint from people around the neighborhood at River of Life is people are getting stabbed in the lines, they have no control over people who are there."

Lee Stack is a long time business and property owner in Chinatown.

"The costs are being sort of extrapolated out into the community--the trash, the screaming, the fighting, the crime, all the things that go with it. They open their doors, they feed, they close their doors."

Similar concerns are voiced by other residents and business owners.

Here, in line at River of Life, it's a Friday before lunch and mostly kupuna are wheeling their baskets up for packages of cereal, canned soup and vegetables, and bread. 


Credit River of Life
Pastor Paul Gates was born and raised to age 11 on Papua New Guinea, he had a pastoral ministry in San Clemente California for 30 years before moving here this year to be Executive Director at River of Life Mission. His wife and seven children will be here soon.

"We do almost a thousand meals a day."

Pastor Paul Gates, is the new Executive Director at River of Life Mission, a faith based service organization for homeless and near homeless. They own their building at the corner of Maunakea and Pauahi Streets on the River Street end of Chinatown.

"And what's interesting is, in the pandemic, our need for meals increased by thirty percent and we actually met that with our existing team."

The number of people fed, where they line up, where they eat and what becomes of their trash, are neighborhood issues that prompted the previous City administration to push for moving River of Life's food service to a City building in 'Iwilei.

River of Life would offer meals inside the new City "Resource Center" in 'Iwilei, part of a complex of homeless services in the area, including the IHS Men's Shelter on Sumner Street.

"You know, separation of church and state when it comes to policy is important, because I call it, we're dealing with two different crowds."

Gates is addressing a possible sticking point with the City.

"At River of Life, we are a faith based, Christ centered, Jesus loving organization so our policy and things we do are going to look very different from government."

"So I get that there needs to be separation of church and state. But the one thing that I love is that in Hawai'i, church and state like to work together. And that is a huge blessing."

Gates says the Blangiardi administration has been cordial. River of Life has submitted its proposal for moving into the 'Iwilei site, but Gates shies away from details.

"We're proposing to allow God to still lead us. We're proposing that God will allow us to care for more people in need. And we're proposing that if god opens the door at the City building, we will go."

The Blangiardi administration  says it is studying River of Life's proposal. The Mayor has completed his promised Chinatown walk through with department heads, when he discussed conditions with some community members. 

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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