Following the Call to Serve
Deacon and wife minister in the respect life trenches in Hawaii
Being a deacon and Respect Life Office coordinators in the Diocese of Honolulu has its perks, and its challenges, too.
Our Ohana (“family”) — gets together socially to brainstorm and share what we are doing in our ministries at the parish and diocesan level. We also gather in times of need. For example, last night, the Ohana went on Zoom to say healing prayers and pray the Rosary for one of our members undergoing major health treatments.
But Hawaii is a progressive-minded state. It was the first state to enact abortion laws before Roe vs Wade in 1973, and the attitude for self-assisted suicide is similar in nature.
Diaconate and Pro-Life Ministry
Gary Streff was ordained a permanent deacon on Jan. 8, 2018, with 10 others for the Diocese of Honolulu by Bishop Clarence (Larry) Silva.
After ordination, we were assigned to Resurrection of the Lord Church in Waipio, Oahu. Under the tutelage of Father William Kunisch, he prepared us well for our next venture. In the second year, we were assigned to St. Elizabeth Parish in Aiea under Father Arnold Ortiz and became active in every aspect of parish life, especially the pro-life movement.
On Sept. 8, 2020, our third year, we became co-directors of the respect life ministry for the diocese. The previous director, Mrs. Paulette Vernay, retired from the position after serving selflessly for over a decade. We set forth to re-energize existing programs while at the same time bring new ideas into the mix. The four pillars of the ministry are: We Pray; We Teach; We Help; We Vote.
Two major goals are to reach a wider audience — the Catholic community, as well as those outside the Catholic realm — and to have more laity involved. Oftentimes, parishioners want to help, but they do not know how. We want to get them to become more involved by utilizing the gifts and talents they already possess.
One of our first tasks as co-directors was visiting pregnancy centers across the islands to see what their needs were and what services they offered. Each center provides pregnancy tests, an ultrasound machine, counseling, newborn clothing and diapers, etc.
We discovered, however, pregnancy centers’ greatest need is public awareness. We addressed this opportunity using a three-prong approach.
First, we began sending pro-life updates through the diocesan email distribution groups. Using this system and Zoom meetings, we keep priests, deacons and parish coordinators attuned to the needs of the culture of life community.
Second, we communicate with the editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald and the president of the Pearson Pregnancy Center and support other pregnancy centers as we bring awareness of the ministry.
And third, we believe a creative way to build awareness is to establish a pregnancy center mobile van. The van would enable the center to reach out to the rural areas and set up near universities, colleges and Planned Parenthood clinics. The pregnancy center and its services are much needed, and the van would help women in crisis see their options.
Abortion is widely accepted in the progressive-minded Hawaiian Islands. Few come for counseling. When it does occur, the stigma is only women need the counseling. It will take some time for the culture in Hawaii to include men, grandparents and relatives in the post-abortion healing process.
Rachel’s Vineyard retreats led by Lisa Shorba two times a year and has had great success. But the challenge is how to reach more people. We are proposing mini-retreats, not necessarily for a weekend, but perhaps one night a week for several months. This may meet the needs of the community and adjust according to their time schedules.
Knights of Columbus
We have also discovered how the Respect Life Ministry and the Knights of Columbus are aligned in their mission to spread the Gospel of Life. We discovered the remarkable role of the Knights of Columbus. They are men who give their time, talents and treasure to the communities. Some of their activities include having fundraisers to purchase ultrasound machines for pregnancy centers, giving scholarships to those in need, building unborn memorials at parishes and, most importantly, being present, out there on the streets in front of Planned Parenthood affirming their faith and love for the unborn.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges. The Lord was telling us not to see it as a “stumbling block,” but to use our creativity and see with new eyes how to spread the Gospel of Life.
The March for Life 2021 went big and virtual. March for Life 2021 began way before the Saturday main event with huge thee-by-nine-foot banners displayed in front of every Catholic Church with the theme, “You are God’s Masterpiece.” We remember St. Paul saying, “God himself took great delight in making you.” Pinwheels, representing the 63 million babies aborted in the United States since Roe v. Wade in 1973, decorated the churches’ surroundings — on fences and in the ground. A Christian television station, KALO-TV, taped and aired an hour-long program with messages from our bishop, pastors and personal witnesses from women who suffered post-abortion trauma. It closed with the Knights of Columbus doing a silent march around the capital.
Other activities included a special wreath ceremony at the foot of the Unborn Memorial established at most parishes. This brought tears to many as we remembered those who did not make it into this world. Bishop Silva celebrated Mass and adoration at the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus while many parishes followed suit with their own Mass and adoration. We truly became one body in Christ.
Another task of this ministry is getting to know our legislators. It is important to pray and build a relationship with them. Some have differing views, but we are all children of God. Eva Andrade, executive director of the Hawaii Catholic Conference, taught us and will continue to teach us how to have our voices heard — through letter writing, phone calls and being present at hearings.
Public awareness is important, to keep abreast with issues that will have an impact on society. It is our civic duty to be faithful citizens as well as speaking the truth.
The attitude in Hawaii for self-assisted suicide is similar to that of abortion. The Catholic Church took a very vocal role against the 2018 Our Care; Our Choice Act (death with dignity act) with little or no effect. The self-assisted suicide movement was very active several years before its debate and final passage. Off-island influence and support were overwhelming and impacted the passage of the bill.
After passage, the diocese hosted several in-person advanced directive options classes to explain Catholic theology on self-assisted suicide and the health options available in Hawaii. The classes were packed. The Respect Life Office attempted to host another series of classes starting in July of 2021, but due to Hawaii’s COVID-19 restrictions, these classes were postponed.
The Respect Life Ministry hosted training for all parish respect life coordinators and those dedicated to pro-life. This conference helped us establish ourselves as advocates for the Church and bringing these concerns to our legislators, whether it is through emails, phone calls, letters and, most importantly, building a relationship with the individuals. Now that we have undergone the training, we would like to establish a system in coordinating our efforts in bringing the light of Christ into our legislative sessions.
Our spiritual journey as co-directors for the pro-life ministry is transformative. The Gospel comes alive through the experiences we have had.
Little by little, Jesus is transforming our hearts into the kind of love he has for us. He wants us to love despite challenges, love despite the negativity, love despite hopelessness, love to the point of giving, even when you think there is no more to give.
We would never have grown this much if it wasn’t for the experiences of being a deacon and a deacon’s wife. For that, we give all the glory and praise to God. He is not finished with us yet; we are far from being like Jesus, but we are eager to say “yes” when Mother Mary tells us to “do whatever he tells you.”
DEACON GARY and VAL STREFF are the respect life coordinators for the Diocese of Honolulu.
Mission of the Respect Life Office
Through its ministry to parishes, schools, youth groups, colleges and universities, religious and secular media, legislators and all people of goodwill, the Respect Life Office seeks to transform society into a culture of life where every human being is valued and protected from the moment of fertilization until natural death. Human life must be respected because it is sacred. From its beginning, human life involves the creative action of God, and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. It is not lawful for anyone directly to destroy an innocent human being. This is gravely contrary to the dignity of the person and the holiness of the Creator. “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous” (Ex 23:7, RSVCE). Read more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2258-2262 and 2318-2320.