A Brief History

Iao United Church of Christ

A Brief History

The Wailuku Japanese Christian Church was founded in 1895 by the Hawaii Evangelical Association as a missionary outreach to migrant Japanese plantation workers in Wailuku. The turn of the century was an era of immigrant workers from Japan, at a time when Wailuku was a small, but growing, community. The mission of the original church was to minister to the lonely, the homesick, and uprooted migrant Japanese.

The first pastor was the evangelist Genzo Egami, whose pastoral mission was to work with the Wailuku Sugar Company plantation camp workers. The worship gatherings were held in the workers’ plantation homes; and, in 1896, the members acquired a small bungalow from Wailuku Sugar Company and moved it to the corner of Market and Mill Streets. The total cost was $400; it was small, but it served as the first church building.

The sermons at first were all in Japanese. A detail from the church archives:

“At first, when the menfolk attended, they rolled their own cigarettes, smoked, and listened to the minister and bis sermon. Singing was not allowed. In the evenings there were no lights (or electricity) so we used oil lamps lined against the walls.”

The workers (all men) in those days earned about $19 a month, and the families pledged about $0.25 cents each month to the church. By the turn of the century, in 1900, life in the growing plantation church picked up, and hymn-singing was allowed, smoking discouraged, a Sunday School startedf, and English was taught in the evenings.

Soon the congregation—which started with about 12 persons— outgrew the structure on Market and Mill Streets, and a new church building was constructed in 1909 on the corner of Church and Vineyard Streets; a social hall, church parsonage, and apartments were built on that site a few years earlier, with the rental from the apartments helping to finance the new sanctuary building. It remained there on Church and Vineyard until 1936, when the building was physically moved and relocated to upper Vineyard Street, where it stands to the present day.

After the outbreak of World War II, due to the sensitivity of having the word ‘Japanese’ in its name, the Wailuku Japanese Christian Church’s name was changed to Iao Congregational Church, and all of the services were held in English. After the war, the church began to realize a tremendous growth, not just in membership and activities, but also in outreach. The Sunday School became a church school, summer camps attracted families, Bible study groups were organized, a Pilgrim Fellowship youth program was instituted and this turned out to be a long-lived and popular program of the church. Workshops, planning conferences, and visits by outstanding theologians helped to develop the church’s lay leadership.

In 1957 Iao Congregational Church joined the United Church of Christ (USA) denomination. There was a period of time during the early 1970s that a sister UCC church, Wailuku Union Church and Iao Congregational decided to “yoke” their ministries and call one pastor for both churches. This arrangement lasted through the late 1970s. In 2010 the church’s name was officially changed to Iao United Church of Christ.

Throughout its history, Iao UCC has welcomed the newcomer, stood with the powerless, and offered ministries of hope. The congregation now reflects the diversity of the population of Maui, and leadership is shared in true congregational fashion.