Our beloved ward family in Maui

Upcountry view from the church grounds

I regularly fall in love with destinations but Maui was different–it felt like we belonged. Two months later, I’m still moderately obsessed with buying a second home on the Valley Isle (P.S. Our dream home is still on the market. Why have you not bought it so we can come visit?)

I was reminded just how small the world really is and how connected we all are.  We’d only been in Maui a few days when we attended the Pukalani Ward in the upcountry. Shortly after I won the trip to Maui, I started researching activities. I also took to Instagram for real photos from locals and somehow happened upon an LDS mom Malia. I was inspired by her self-sustained country lifestyle, gorgeous photography and the way she captures the simple beauties in life.

We corresponded a few times and she casually mentioned that her ward was the best on Maui. As the trip drew closer, I Googled it and was pleased to see it was in what is known as Maui’s “upcountry” and its location made a lot of sense. We would drive an hour to get there from Napili, go to church 9 a.m.-noon, lunch at Kula Lodge and take a Sunday drive to Haleakala Crater. I also loved it was off-the-beaten path because I wanted my kids to have a more authentic Hawaiian church experiences vs. being in a ward near the beach that was constantly overrun by tourists.

Since Malia and I had only corresponded a few times, I didn’t want to appear like a stalker who just shows up at someone’s ward so I was undecided whether I should approach her. During the whole meeting, her beautiful 8-year-old daughter kept smiling at me, later saying, “I just felt like I knew you.”

That’s how this entire ward felt for me. Here’s the great thing about being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Literally anywhere you go in the world, you have a ward family. Of course, every congregation has varying degrees of closeness but I’ve never experienced anything like the Pukalani Ward. Call it the “Aloha” spirit but I call it the most loving, welcoming group of people I’ve ever met.

Sacrament meeting was lovely and there were plenty of Hawaiian touches such as the ward choir and leadership who wore Kukui Nut Leis. As soon as the first meeting was over, I looked up and there was Malia. “Are you?…” And I assured her I was. (She recognized my hair–shocker). We hugged and I was grateful she didn’t make me feel like it was weird that I was there. We dropped the kids off in Primary, went back to hear Malia’s great lesson where we talked about the state of the world and she called upon me to share some insights. Her husband, not knowing us from Adam, came over a few minutes into the lesson and whispered to us, “Are you Bode’s parents? He’s a really cool kid.” Again, such unsolicited kindness.

It was their ward conference so the final meeting was taught by the stake leadership. We waited…and waited before the person teaching mentioned they were waiting for the pianist to show up. “Do we have anyone else who can play?”  Jamie glanced at me. I shrugged. I wasn’t about to volunteer in a ward that wasn’t my own but Doug, a hilarious podiatrist we had met, called out, “Sister Johnson can play,” and then a few people chimed in supporting him and before I knew it, I was getting volunteered to perform a song I’d never played in my life in a ward that was not my own.

Let’s just say it was memorable.

After the meeting, we dashed out to collect the kids and Malia came after us. “A few families are getting together at a potluck later today and we’d love to invite you,” she generously offered. How could we turn down that kind of opportunity? Doug later told us he was going to invite us as well but we had slipped out before he could catch us.

Jamie, the kids and I lunched at the gorgeous Kula Lodge and spent a memorable afternoon driving to the top of 10,023-foot Haleakala.

We were to meet Malia and company at the beautiful Pulehu LDS Chapel.  Although the chapel is not an official church historical site (and is no longer used for anything except for informal gatherings and firesides), it is the oldest LDS church building still standing in Hawaii and one of the first permanent structures completed by the church in Hawaii.

Pulehu LDS Chapel


We spent the evening on the chapel’s verdant grounds and it was magic. Malia and her gracious family. Julia with her adorable little boy who is trying to get her novel published. Doug the podiatrist who had us in stitches the whole night. Not literal ones. Though he said plantar-fasciitis people like me keep him in business.

Free backrubs with Hadley’s new besties

Tag at twilight

The kids raced and played on the lawn with their new friends into the golden hour while the adults gathered in the chapel. The get together was intended to introduce everyone to the fiance of one of their dear friends who will be moving to the Mainland. While she played the violin, Kevin played the guitar and we sang hymns in that little chapel–beautiful, reverberating songs of praise, solidarity, love and beauty in a carnival of sound.

Photo: Malia. Just look at that sky out the window

Photo: Malia

As darkness intruded upon our night, we sang “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” before filing out of that blessed chapel. Malia pulled me aside. “Kevin wants to serenade your family with a Hawaiian farewell song.”

Because really, doesn’t everyone get serenaded all the time? The shaky video I shot.

I have saved his song on my iPhone and whenever I’m feeling sad, I listen to it and remember that enchanted evening. As we reluctantly walked back to our car, Bode pointed up. “Mom, look at the stars.” Black velvet draped the heavens as a million stars’ ribbons of light pin-pricked the sky.

Serenaded by moonlight. Photo: Malia

Malia and I kept in touch for the duration of our vacation and on the final night, we were invited back to Doug and his wife Kristen’s for a farewell dinner with many of the same wonderful people. Their upcountry home has gorgeous views on the 16th fairway (and they actually rent out the other side for just just $129/night).

Fairway tag in Maui’s upcountry

Hadley and Kalena

The kids had a blast playing with their friends all night long as we watched the sun set into the ocean.

I regularly fall in love with destinations  but this trip was different: we truly fell in love with the people.

How grateful I am for experiencing a little slice of Maui heaven.

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