Episcopal mobile ministry distributes necessities to people displaced by Maui wildfires

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Aug 15, 2023

Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Lahaina, Hawaiʻi, burned down after wildfires swept through the island of Maui. Photo: Bruce DeGooyer

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Hawaiʻi’s mobile homeless assistance ministry is providing direct assistance on the island of Maui to residents who’ve lost their homes in the wildfires that have killed at least 106 people and destroyed more than 2,200 buildings, most of which were residential.

Volunteers from A Cup of Cold Water, the diocese’s Maui-based community outreach program, have been driving a van around the island to distribute toiletries, food and pet food, bottled water, clothing and other necessities to displaced people since a day after the wildfires started on Aug. 8. 

Last week’s wildfires prompted the evacuation of more than 32,000 residents and tourists. More than 1,000 people remain missing.

The worst of the damage was experienced by Maui’s western community of Lahaina, population 12,700, where the now confirmed destroyed Holy Innocents Episcopal Church building had stood in historic Lahaina town since 1927. 

Diocesan leaders are still trying to contact members of Holy Innocents to make sure everyone is safe and has access to shelter and other immediate needs. Once everyone is accounted for, the diocese will assess the best ways to approach the cleanup process.

“Those I’ve been in contact with are mostly displaced as their homes were demolished by the fire,” the Rev. Bruce DeGooyer, vicar of Holy Innocents, told Episcopal News Service by email. “It is overwhelming here.”

Deb Lynch, president of A Cup of Cold Water, told ENS that the nonprofit typically has 30 volunteers, but approximately 99 people have asked to volunteer since the wildfires started. The volunteers have been needing special permission from authorities blocking the roads to enter Lahaina to distribute goods to people still there, but they haven’t always been able to enter.

“There’s a great outpouring of love and compassion here,” she said. “We’re all really good at trying to help each other through this disaster. There is so much devastation, but so much love and compassion at the same time.”

A Cup of Cold Water is a volunteer collaboration between Maui’s four Episcopal churches: Church of the Good Shepherd in Wailuku, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kula, Trinity Episcopal Church By-the-Sea in Kihei and Holy Innocents Episcopal. 

Towels, water, food and blankets have been the most requested items since the wildfires started, Lynch said.

The Rev. Heather Mueller, who was ordained at Holy Innocents in 1981, told ENS that A Cup of Cold Water receives many donations from hotels throughout Maui, such as towels, soap and small bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Volunteers will also buy items at the Costco in Kahului. Some volunteers are staying in her home as they continue helping displaced residents.


Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Lahaina, Hawaiʻi, before it burned down after wildfires swept across the island of Maui. Photo: Bruce DeGooyer

“[Lahaina residents] have lost everything — their homes, their jobs, their livelihood,” Mueller said. “But so many people here are doing great things to help.”

Hawaiʻi Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick was scheduled to fly to Maui on Aug. 15 and participate in an ecumenical prayer service before leaving Honolulu, where the diocese is headquartered on the island of Oahu, Fitzpatrick told ENS that there is still no access to Lahaina, where only 25% of the burn areas have been searched so far. Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi.

Last week’s fires were impelled by strong winds brushing through dry vegetation as Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 cyclone, passed near Hawaiʻi without making landfall. The islands of Hawaiʻi and Oahu also experienced wildfires, albeit to much lesser extents than Maui. Hurricane Dora became a typhoon on Aug. 12. Researchers say human-induced climate change, desertification and non-native grass species contributed to the severity of the Maui wildfires.

The Lahaina wildfire is the deadliest in U.S. history since the 1918 Cloquet fire that killed 453 people in northern Minnesota and the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaiʻi since the 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 people. 

The Hawaiʻi diocese is coordinating immediate relief efforts through A Cup of Cold Water and the bishop’s pastoral fund. Donations made to the US Disaster Fund will fund Episcopal Relief & Development and its partners’ assistance efforts. Episcopal Relief & Development has also established a designated Hawaiʻi Emergency Respond Fund to directly provide support in collaboration with local partners.

Lynch said that financially supporting organizations like A Cup of Cold Water is one of the easiest ways for Episcopalians to help Maui residents who’ve been impacted by the wildfires.

“A Cup of Cold Water here in Maui is a good example of Episcopalians being able to do outreach in a community and be able to share compassion and love and involve their congregations in being able to help other humans,” Lynch said.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.