On a Sunday afternoon in early October, more than 700 people gathered at New Hope Leeward’s new Kapolei site — a dimmed, air-conditioned conference hall with rows of green banquet chairs, glowing television screens and an elevated stage bathed in red and blue lights.
The event was replete with references to Jesus Christ and ended with a group prayer. But it wasn’t a church service.
Instead, it was an election forum featuring three of the four candidates for governor: Republican Duke Aiona, Hawaii Independent Party contender Mufi Hannemann and Libertarian Jeff Davis. For 90 minutes, the candidates discussed topics of importance to the faith community — moral values, the local economy, school choice and, of course, same-sex marriage.
It was New Hope Leeward’s first political forum and, according to the church, the only faith-based gubernatorial panel in Hawaii this election season. The event was put together by New Hope Leeward’s “Take Action” team, a committee that focuses on government relations and politics and closely follows the news to identify opportunities for the church to wield influence.
Much like New Hope’s services, the discussion was lighthearted and friendly. The candidates looked relaxed as they sat in immense leather chairs, all of them peppering their responses with allusions to scripture and regularly exchanging quips with moderator Mike Lwin, New Hope Leeward’s 44-year-old senior pastor and a well-known television host. A number of other candidates attended to watch the forum and introduce themselves, including Elwin Ahu, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and the senior pastor of New Hope Metro in Kalihi. (Ahu is also a former Circuit Court judge.)
“It’s a very fine line that we’re riding. But if you don’t stand for what’s right then you don’t stand for anything at all.” — Mike Lwin, senior pastor at New Hope Leeward
David Ige was notably absent, and Lwin emphasized in his opening remarks that the Democratic candidate had been invited. A spokeswoman for Ige’s campaign said later that he had commitments on Kauai.
By giving equal opportunity to each of the candidates — and crafting questions so as not to favor anyone — New Hope Leeward followed the rules for political activity by a tax-exempt organization. The church even had three attorneys at the forum to track the discussion and vet questions from the audience.
It was one of the most visible examples of the role that New Hope Leeward — and many of its counterparts comprising the larger church network known as the New Hope Christian Fellowship — is endeavoring to play in Hawaii politics.
The evangelical megachurch has been proactive this election season, largely because of how last year’s special legislative session to legalize same-sex marriage played out. It is one of several churches to ramp up political activism this year. The Mormon Church, for example, has also seen a number of its members run for Hawaii office this season.
The passage of gay marriage was a huge disappointment for opponents who spent days in the Capitol Rotunda chanting “Let the people vote!” Masses of people testified, reciting the same speech — a tactic that would become known as a “citizen’s filibuster“ and was largely engineered by churches such as New Hope Leeward and New Hope Oahu.
In recent months, several New Hope churches have conducted a massive effort to register people to vote, encourage members to run for office and raise awareness about political issues relevant to churchgoers.
That mission is evident in the “New Hope Oahu Statesmanship” banner that flashes at the top of New Hope Oahu’s website: “Your Kuleana — Your Ohana,” it reads, urging members to vote. “Your Responsibility — Your Family.”
It’s also evident in the flurry of candidates this year who have ties to New Hope and in the number of people that New Hope has registered to vote this election season, largely through booths set up outside churches and registration forms included in the pamphlets handed out at services.
New Hope Leeward alone has registered about 900 new voters, while New Hope Oahu has managed to register another 750 people, according to representatives for the churches.
Lwin calls it “a major initiative to bring God back into our nation” — an initiative that sets New Hope apart from many other Hawaii churches and could even herald a shifting landscape in public affairs in the state.
New Hope wants “to help bring a balance (to government), help people become aware,” Lwin said. “That’s a big part of our position, that as citizens of Hawaii, and also as citizens of God or heaven, we’re supposed to be active — not complacent, not grumblers.”
Nationally, life is becoming increasingly secular. Nearly three-fourths of Americans believe religion is losing its influence in American life, according to the Pew Research Center.
But the center’s research also suggests that religion could be experiencing a rebirth when it comes specifically to politics. The percentage of households that believes churches and other places of worship should express their views on social and political questions rose from 43 percent in 2010 to 49 percent this year.
In Hawaii, faith-based gatherings often have political undertones. Earlier this month, Ahu and Aiona, a Catholic, headlined a massive Christian worship service at the Blaisdell Center.
And then there are the “Pastors’ Luncheons,” organized by the Hawaii Christian Coalition, which in part aim to encourage pastors to be politically active even when they are speaking from the pulpit. Civil Beat columnist Denby Fawcett attended one in July that brought together 30 Republican candidates, including Aiona and congressional nominee Charles Djou.
Civil Beat’s Chad Blair attended another in March at the Capitol, which as a state building cannot legally be used for political campaigning by state officials or employees. Dozens of religious leaders, including those from New Hope churches, were in attendance, as were a number of legislators and candidates.
Churches and other religious organizations with tax-exempt status such as New Hope are subject to strict Internal Revenue Service rules governing political activity.
They are prohibited from participating in political campaigns — either directly or indirectly — and advocating for specific candidates. They are also banned from contributing to political campaigns and specific candidates and, with a few exceptions, lobbying or advocating for or against the passage of a bill. A church risks revocation of its tax-exempt status if it violates these rules.
What churches are free to do, however, is engage in voter education and host political forums as long as these activities aren’t biased toward or against a specific candidate. And leaders affiliated with the churches can advocate for or against a candidate as long as they make it clear that they don’t represent the views of the church itself.
“The arrogance of our senators and House representatives who thought it was their job to make a decision for me — that broke my heart.” I said, ‘enough is enough.’ The idea of doing nothing was unacceptable.” — Bryan Jeremiah, associate pastor at New Hope Leeward
“There is a fine line between educational activities and partisan political campaign activity, so it is important for tax-exempt organizations to avoid crossing the line,” wrote Hawaii Attorney General David Louie in a July opinion piece for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
For the most part, New Hope appears to have carefully — and strategically — avoided crossing that line.
Civil Beat attended a church service at New Hope Oahu’s Sand Island site the Sunday after the Fourth of July.
Hordes of people filtered into the expansive, modern facility, which sits amid a labyrinth of warehouses. Near the entrance stood a voter registration booth. People wearing red, white and blue handed out forms and encouraged people to sign up.
It was the first of many reminders attendees received that morning to get out the vote. Stuffed inside each church program, together with a prayer sheet and an envelope for offerings, was a voter registration form.
Lwin acknowledged that New Hope runs a risk by engaging in political activity but said the church has taken every precaution to avoid breaking the rules. It regularly consults its attorneys and monitors its communications to ensure it doesn’t endorse specific candidates or issues.
“It’s a very fine line that we’re riding,” Lwin said. “But if you don’t stand for what’s right then you don’t stand for anything at all.”
Bryan Jeremiah agreed. The associate pastor at New Hope Leeward is running as a Republican to represent the House district that includes Ewa Beach and Ewa Gentry. He said it’s the church’s role to inform its members about issues that matter to them.
“We’ll go right up to that line,” Jeremiah said. “We won’t cross it, we won’t put our foot into the water … but we are going to inform you on what’s out there and who’s supporting what we as Christians believe.”
Some people contend that the line does get crossed.
David Tarnas, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii County, pointed to a recent controversy in which Habitat for Humanity West Hawaii canceled a fundraising event after questions were raised about advertising featuring Aiona and Ahu’s campaign logo. The advertising identified the campaign as one of three partners in the event.
In a recent Civil Beat column, Ian Lind reported that Jen McGeehan, director of the Women’s Ministry at New Hope Waimea, planned and organized the event.
“The Aiona-Ahu ticket has openly allied with New Hope and other conservative churches, hoping they will provide a springboard to the state’s top jobs,” Lind wrote.
Tarnas, who was one of the people to complain to Habitat for Humanity about the advertising, said it’s inappropriate for tax-exempt organizations such as New Hope to endorse political candidates. He said New Hope and other churches have been prone to breaking the rules and even misleading people, pointing to the recent “Pastors’ Luncheon” at the Capitol.
“The best way for a small community to get along is to have respect for each other and follow the law,” he said. “If not, then (the church) becomes an emotionally charged, divisive influence in our community, and that’s a disservice to civic affairs.”
The propriety of the churches’ political activity can be difficult to assess.
A series of anonymous donations to Ahu’s campaign earlier this year is an example.
The donations are labeled in Ahu’s campaign finance reports as “calabash” contributions. Under Hawaii law, calabash contributions are exempt from the prohibition on anonymous gifts because they represent an aggregate of money donated by 10 or more people at the same political function. The donations can’t exceed $500 total.
The addresses listed for five of the six calabash contributions included in Ahu’s report, which represents fundraising that happened through the primary election, correspond with public schools — including a few where churches affiliated with New Hope have hosted services in the past.
And one of the calabash contributions (for $300) was collected at the site of New Hope Metro, where Ahu is the senior pastor. Churches are strictly prohibited from fundraising for candidates.
Lani Kaaa, who manages Ahu’s campaign, said that the five calabash contributions collected at schools were from campaign rallies that took place on the campuses and weren’t affiliated with any churches, church services or church-related activity. (Unlike incumbent politicians, Ahu can campaign on public school campuses because he doesn’t work for the state, and the state Ethics Code only applies to government officials and employees.)
Meanwhile, Kaaa said she collected the calabash corresponding with New Hope Metro outside of the church building.
“Elwin Ahu in his role as Pastor of New Hope Metro or any church representative did not make any announcements about the campaign during church,” Kaaa wrote in an email. “Through completely separate campaign efforts, some New Hope Metro congregants found out about an event to announce Ahu’s candidacy for Lt. Governor that would take place later that week and made contributions to the campaign.”
But according to the report filed by the campaign the calabash was collected on Sunday, May 11 — months after Ahu formally announced his candidacy. Kaaa didn’t respond to a request for clarification.
Tarnas, who’s Episcopalian and active in his church, said such fundraising raises a red flag.
“To say it’s co-located but had nothing to do with it — the appearance of impropriety is glaring,” Tarnas said. “Perception is everything in politics.”
Ahu declined to comment. His press secretary, Dawn O’Brien, said he wouldn’t be able for an interview until after the election.
At least two first-time candidates for state office this year have leadership roles at New Hope: Ahu and Jeremiah.
A handful of other candidates have ties to New Hope, including Republican Carole Kaapu, a former New Hope Christian Fellowship staffer who’s challenging Rep. John Mizuno to represent the district that includes Kalihi Valley, and Republican Eric Marshall, a former member of New Hope Hawaii Kai who’s challenging House Majority Leader Rep. Scott Saiki to represent the district that includes McCully.
Meanwhile, a number of candidates come from churches that are affiliated with New Hope through its umbrella organization: the Los Angeles-based Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. They include Republican Eldean Kukahiko, the senior pastor at Hope Chapel Kahaluu who’s running for the Windward-area House district formerly represented by Jessica Wooley.
Several key issues are on New Hope’s radar: the Pono Choices sexual education curriculum, possible legalization of marijuana and the new Common Core reading and math standards, to name a few.
But it was the special session in particular that seems to have spurred some of them to run for office, including Jeremiah, a former convict who now works in construction.
“The arrogance of our senators and House representatives who thought it was their job to make a decision for me — that broke my heart,” said Jeremiah, whose oldest son is gay and married to another man in California. “I said, ‘enough is enough.’ The idea of doing nothing was unacceptable.”
According to state records, Jeremiah had nine convictions from 1982 to 2002 ranging from robbery to assault. He was most recently convicted of abusing a family member — his son who, Jeremiah said, was 17 at the time and doing drugs and getting into trouble while living at home.
But Jeremiah said he’s reformed after finding God.
“The best way for a small community to get along is to have respect for each other and follow the law. If not, then (the church) becomes an emotionally charged, divisive influence in our community, and that’s a disservice to civic affairs.” — David Tarnas, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii County
Asked about his criminal past, Jeremiah said it was something he was willing to publicize if it meant he was getting “the message across of the importance of righteous leadership.”
“If these guys aren’t going to tell the truth, then hey, put me in,” he said.
New Hope Leeward played a key role in the filibuster at the Legislature, busing hundreds of people — church members and nonmembers alike — to testify against the same-sex marriage bill. The special session marked the first time New Hope Leeward had mobilized its members so intensely on a political issue, according to Lwin, who said the church’s principle concern was that politicians weren’t giving citizens a voice on the matter.
The initiative came under fire from critics who called the filibuster a dirty political trick. In particular, they denounced church leaders such as Ahu and Garret Hashimoto, chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, for advising testifiers to “waste time” and have proxies speak in their place if they couldn’t make it.
Lwin said the filibuster was worth the effort and marked the beginning of a new era for New Hope’s growing family.
“Citizens can have a voice — there is a process — but there’s a huge fear factor to go out to the Capitol and testify,” he said. “I think what we did, somewhat intentionally and somewhat unintentionally, is we expanded (church members’) awareness.”
The New Hope Christian Fellowship is affiliated with Foursquare Church. New Hope is said to be the fastest-growing church in Hawaii, with some services drawing thousands of people each weekend.
Overall, there are about five dozen Foursquare churches in Hawaii, many of which have also steadily grown in size. According to some estimates, Hawaii is home to some 40,000 Foursquare members, many of whom attend New Hope churches.
New Hope has more than 100 locations around the world, including 30 sites throughout the islands. Many are hosted on public school campuses — a practice that last year prompted a high-profile lawsuit contending several churches shortchanged the state in their use of the facilities.
The lawsuit alleged that five churches — including New Hope Oahu, New Hope Hawaii Kai and New Hope Kapolei — knowingly deprived public schools of more than $5.6 million in rent and other charges for their use of the facilities on weekends. A judge eventually dismissed that case, though Foursquare Church later agreed to pay the state $775,000 to settle a similar but separate lawsuit while admitting no wrongdoing.
The practice of renting out third-party facilities instead of developing its own brick-and-mortar sites to save money has been identified as one reason the New Hope Christian Fellowship has grown so rapidly.
Since it was founded by Cordeiro two decades ago, New Hope has focused on growing its following, expanding its reach and using state-of-the-art technology and relevant, engaging sermons to spread the gospel of Jesus.
Over the years, New Hope International Ministries — the arm of the church that recruits ministry leaders and spearheads efforts to enlarge its following — has established (or, in evangelistic speak, “planted”) churches around the world and recruited a slew of young, witty and charismatic pastors to lead them.
Prominent New Hope members include Tenari Maafala, the president of the State of Hawaii Police Officers Union who came under fire last fall for telling lawmakers he would never enforce same-sex marriage legislation if it became law.
Another is Don Horner, who chairs the state Board of Education and teaches a Bible class at a Foursquare church that was formerly known as New Hope Diamond Head. (It has since changed its name to C4 Christ Centered Community Church.)
Ahu and Lwin are two of the many pastors who planted churches and became ministry leaders under Cordeiro’s guidance.
“There was a great excitement in the church for making a difference in the world starting with individual people’s lives and then expanding in the community and internationally,” Lwin said, recalling his introduction to New Hope in 2000. Lwin, who was raised Catholic, was fresh out of graduate school at Hawaii Pacific University and running a bar when he met Cordeiro.
Lwin compared the structure of New Hope Christian Fellowship to the Starbucks business model. Each church, he said, is comparable to an independent franchise with its own organizational structure. Each has its own identification number with the IRS.
New Hope Leeward for its part has five “campuses” and boasts some 5,000 members, making it one of the largest New Hope churches in the state. (The largest is Cordeiro’s New Hope Oahu, which has roughly 6,000 members spread among three campuses, including a new facility on Sand Island and two satellite sites where attendees can watch sermons via live video broadcasts.)
“When we started New Hope Leeward, we really started with a passion to be a church that was real and relevant,” Lwin said. “If you look at the generation today, they value authenticity … We said, ‘Let’s start a church that allows people to be themselves, that addresses real-life issues in an understandable way.’ That’s really the recipe of the New Hope family.”
“When a church is always talking about real-life stuff and the stuff we think about in the news, it makes it very easy to motivate and inspire,” he said.
Some New Hope churches are more political than others; pastors have different opinions about a church’s role in public affairs. But all of the New Hope churches are part of a cohesive “family,” Lwin said.
“All of the New Hopes have similar DNA at heart.”
New Hope is active in the community. The churches run schools, offer premarital (or sexual) counseling and provide access to digital-media Bible studies. They record music, host events — baptisms at the beach are one highlight — and are avid on social media.
They often preface their messages with hashtags: “#Victorious,” for example.
It’s not surprising that New Hope churches are known for their knack for evangelizing and converting people to Christianity, often by making services experiences that are entertaining and flashy, uplifting and personal.
As Hoku Lwin, Lwin’s 24-year-old son, explained it, “If I really, really wanted to get an expository study on a certain part of the Bible, I’d go to a Calvary Chapel. If I wanted a very in-depth topical study I would go to a Hope Chapel. But if I wanted to invite a friend of mine (who) did not know Christ, Christianity … and make them feel comfortable sitting in a church service, I would invite them to a New Hope church.”