Religious leaders say it’s important to address mental health among parishioners, a trend that began during the pandemic.

The pastor at Hope Chapel shared the stage with two licensed therapists during Sunday services — one of many ways the church is trying to help the community cope with the aftermath of last week’s deadly wildfires.

While donations of batteries, school supplies and other necessities piled up, religious leaders in Maui have also turned their attention to mental health needs of those affected by the inferno that killed at least 114 people.

“We’ve never faced a disaster like this before,” said Ben Prangnell, head pastor at Hope Chapel in Kihei. “But what we do recognize as believers of Christ is it’s just not the physical, it’s the spiritual and the emotional and the psychological that need to be ministered to.” 

Large room inside a church as it starts to fill with people, taken from the back row
Hope Chapel churchgoers were met with “Hope For Maui” displays and greeted at the door with pamphlets that detail how to help fire victims. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

To help with these, Prangnell’s church is hosting counselors to speak with attendees after services. The two licensed therapists were brought onstage Sunday for an extended period of time to answer questions in panel format.

“It’s a long process, but that’s a part of our calling,” said Prangnell.

Religious establishments are among many other local, national and international organizations that are providing aid for survivors of the Aug. 8 blaze that razed the historic town of Lahaina and devastated parts of Upcountry.

But churches also can play a unique role in providing less tangible forms of aid that benefit people’s mental well-being.

On Saturday evening, a few dozen worshippers gathered at Apostolic Ministries of the Pacific in Kahului, greeting friends and wiping tears as bands from different churches played Christian music.

In between songs, one performer spoke solemnly about how disasters can be faith-shaking – how they can make somebody question their faith in God.

Donated items, shower and laundry have been set up at Kahului Baptist Church on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Kahului. They are located at 309 S. Puunene Avenue in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Donated items along with a shower and laundry have been set up at Kahului Baptist Church in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

It was a dynamic also present at Hope Chapel during weekend services. As churchgoers wrestle with emotional stress carried both as helpers and victims, Prangnell and the two onstage therapists emphasized the importance of taking care of mental health and spiritual health.

“Where do we go with these heavy weights we’re carrying?” Prangnell asked during a service Sunday morning. “We go to God.”

To an extent, church leaders already had begun investing more in mental health services, a feeling catalyzed in part by the coronavirus pandemic.

Prangnell estimates that between one service on Friday night and two on Sunday morning, about 1,000 people attend Hope Chapel each weekend. 

“We already were offering biblical counseling and pastoral counseling before this tragedy,” Prangnell said. And five months ago they hired Derek LaFontaine, a former firefighter who became the church’s dedicated care and counseling pastor.

“But now with the scale of all this, we’ve mobilized members of our church that are licensed therapists or other just – you know, pastors and folks that have a heart and a gift just to listen and to minister to people,” said Prangnell.

Six people in matching blue shirts stand in front of a pickup truck, with the mountains of West Maui looming in the background
Led by their disaster relief coordinator Ben Williams, left, the Matthew 25: Ministries team flew from Ohio to help distribute aid around Maui. (Ben Angarone/Civl Beat/2023)

Some of this advising can be done through a religious lens while some of it requires licensed therapists trained in dealing with trauma, said Jim Franks, executive pastor at Hope Chapel.

“There’s two realms,” he said.

According to Prangnell, some of their members who are licensed therapists have been sent to lend their services to Citizen Church in Napili, just north of Lahaina.

And material donations are not being neglected. 

To set up a temporary shelter, Family Life Center of Maui recently bought 60 quick-assembly homes that will be built on land owned by King’s Cathedral Maui. The Kahului church also was accepting donations and offering assistance with food, clothing and other items.

On Sunday morning, Hope Chapel’s on-campus coffee shop was filling with donations from their own churchgoers as well as from Cincinnati-based Matthew 25: Ministries, which focuses on international relief and flew in a team of six to help distribute aid around Maui. 

The group already had a preexisting partnership with Maui Food Bank, said Ben Williams, director of disaster relief for the group. They had shipped over supplies by boat and by air, he said, which were due to arrive Monday.

“As the situation developed more and we saw just the scope of damage, the loss of life, and the needs of the island, we decided we need to bring our team here,” Williams said. 

On Sunday morning, they were delivering goods in a pickup truck to Hope Chapel that had been requested: water, food, batteries, diapers. 

After a long flight from Ohio that brought them to Maui Friday evening, their group is expecting to stay through the end of the week, though Williams said that’s flexible depending on need.

“We’re here,” he said. “We can help.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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