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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, May 26, 2001

Congregation is all of Kalihi

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Rev. Joris Watland sees serving Kalihi as his calling.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Twenty-nine years ago the Rev. Joris Watland persuaded the military to sell him a couple of surplus trailers cheap. Then he talked friends in the medical care profession to give free time every week to make a Kalihi Valley medical clinic a reality.

That was the beginning of what today are two full-fledged medical facilities, one on Gulick Avenue and the other on North School Street, that offer a full range of medical and dental services to families who may otherwise fall through the cracks. The Kokua Kalihi Valley clinics serve 8,000 people a year, but hundreds more are touched by school programs, housing programs and other community services Watland has launched.

With his disarming smile and relentless sales pitch, Watland, 60, has spent three decades advocating for those who aren't able to advocate for themselves.

He has been recognized numerous times for his community service, and now he has been recognized again, this time for a lifetime of service to the poor.

The Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., has honored him with this year's Race, Church & Change Award, praising his perseverance and characterizing him as "tenacious" and "dedicated." The award was presented toWatland last month in St. Paul.

"Pastor Watland's ministry is very people-oriented," said Pastor Simon Lee, a longtime colleague and friend, and pastor of Chinese Lutheran Church in Honolulu. "Jory is a very caring person who has deep compassion for the poor and needy."

Watland first came to Hawai'i from Jackson, Minn., for a year in 1961 as a student at the University of Hawai'i. He returned in 1968 as a pastor after graduating from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Long ago Watland realized that his calling would be to minister to the community, not only a congregation. So he led his Christ the King Lutheran Church congregation into selling the church property in Kalihi (it is now the Iglesia ni Christo church) so they could do something more valuable with the proceeds: help those really in need.

The congregation moved into the parsonage for its church services, and used the proceeds in 1972 to start a clinic, open a spouse abuse shelter, and provide a Head Start program and a preschool in the area.

"We tried to turn our church into a public facility," said Watland from the Kokua Kalihi Valley clinic that opened in March on North School Street. "It was the first church that had a Head Start class meeting in the sanctuary. Monday through Friday the whole building was a Head Start classroom. Then we had a parents cooperative preschool that we started mainly with mothers from Kalihi Valley Homes, meeting in the Sunday School building."

Kokua Kalihi Valley then branched out to offer other social services, recreation, literacy classes, a food pantry, senior feeding program, sports and scout programs, and even a hula halau.

"Jory's ministry relies on going to the people and bringing them in rather than waiting for them to come to him," said the Rev. Paul Hanson, a retired pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Watland doesn't stop to wonder whether something is possible; he just forges ahead. In 1985, he convinced prison officials to allow prisoners to participate in a work program to build the first clinic. It not only saved Kokua Kalihi Valley from having to raise thousands of dollars but also gave the inmates meaningful work and exercise.

"We fed them lunch and bought the tools," he said. "The state paid them 25 cents an hour, and after a while, 50 cents. Our total cost for that building was $182,000. It was a phenomenal thing. Why are the inmates not a part of rebuilding the schools throughout the state? They're a marvelous resource and they love to do it. Why not a partnership with the unions? Or a union apprenticeship program with the prison?"

As Watland dreams up schemes to help the people of Kalihi, he turns to the community to ask what its needs are. For the last five years Kokua Kalihi Valley has been going into Kalihi elementary schools, offering free dental exams and sealant applications. An impact study has shown 91 percent had no recurring caries. "We've virtually done away with tooth decay," he exulted.

Most recently Kokua Kalihi Valley has applied for charter status for three Kalihi public elementary schools, which have some of the lowest reading scores in the state. It's a no-cost proposition, said Watland.

"We'd form a community corporation and that would be the school board, retain all the same staff and school buildings, and bring a different model of administration. I've never felt like the bureaucratic model of administration works. Everybody who works here at KKV is hired as an adult with skills and responsibilities. There's never been a secretary or a supervisor."

Ten percent of the 85 staff at Kokua Kalihi Valley are former welfare recipients; 17 languages are spoken, and many are immigrants who started as volunteers, or who received support from the organization while they got advanced training.

"I've always felt if you're going to do this work, you need to enjoy it," said Watland. "Otherwise you should be doing something else."