December 30, 2008

Obama-Warren Invocation Madness: Why the Big Fuss?

It's the story that just won't go away. When I first heard about the controversy surrounding president-elect Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, I didn't think it was a big deal. After all, isn't that what mega-church pastors do best: pray in front of big crowds? Sure, I can understand why gay rights activists who had supported Obama's campaign felt somewhat betrayed since Warren was a big backer of California's Proposition 8 victory, but beyond that, I figured this was a flash-in-the-pan political tidbit that would simmer down over time. Surely there are more urgent priorities for the country than re-stoking the culture war's flames on the eve of 2009. Or so I thought.

Now that we're two weeks into invocation-gate, a slew of opinion pieces have been printed on the pages of publications like Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times as well as popular websites like where just yesterday, Christopher Hitchens offered a predictably angry secularist rant, calling Rick Warren names like "religious nutbag" and "the huckster of Saddleback." But it's not just familiar atheists who are slinging mud at this pastor. According to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a whole bunch of pro-lifers are mad at Warren as well. Meanwhile, equally vocal left-leaning interest groups and gay rights activists are just as angry with Obama. It appears that I underestimated how much people still want to keep jabbering about the Obama-Warren connection, as if this event somehow means these two men think exactly alike on hot-buttons like abortion and gay marriage.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but those on the extreme ends of both left and right thrive on anything that will add fuel to the polarization between "us" and "them." After all, the world of politics is so much easier to explain in hard and fast categories of black and white, good and evil. Pro-life pastors aren't supposed to publicly pray for pro-choice politicians, who in turn are not supposed to be on speaking terms with anyone who is "intolerant" of gays. Liberals must have assumed Obama was only talking to conservatives when he gave all of those lofty campaign speeches about moving beyond our partisan differences. For conservatives, it was a lot easier to paint Obama as the enemy when his Reverend of choice was named Wright and not Warren.

Theologically speaking, I consider myself an evangelical Christian, but I'm not a huge fan of Rick Warren per se. I have qualms with his "purpose-driven" sloganization of the Christian faith and market-based approach that sees church growth in terms of customer satisfaction and and pastors as CEOs. And while I'm not sure if agree with his controversial comments on the subject of homosexuality (it's hard to say anything NOT controversial on the topic these days), it really doesn't bother me that he was Obama's choice for the task. As Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today aptly pointed out, where was all this ruckus when Joel Hunter, a pro-life, anti-gay marriage mega-church pastor prayed with Obama on Election Day as well as at the Democratic National Convention four months ago? How come no one was calling Obama a "traitor" back then? And while he has strongly supported GLBT rights as much as any other Democrat who ran for president in 2008, isn't Obama's official position on gay marriage that he opposes it?

Just as our new president might turn out to be more moderate than some evangelicals fear, perhaps Rev. Warren is not as right-wing as Arianna Huffington's band of liberal bloggers would like to think. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes held by those on the outside looking in, we evangelicals are a politically diverse bunch that include not just household names like Billy Graham and Sarah Palin, but also respected scholars like Mark Noll and Richard Mouw, as well as a new generation of writers like Donald Miller and Shane Claiborne. We don't all vote the same way or think exactly alike. For a group that has often been associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and Ted Haggard, you could do a lot worse in choosing a spokesperson than Rick Warren, who again, contrary to popular perception, is actually one of the least politically partisan of those who fit the category of "evangelical celebrity." Despite his strong support of Prop 8, Warren is not a card-carrying member of the religious right. During the campaign season, he hosted both Obama and John McCain at his church, but he never endorsed either one or gave any indication of who he voted for. That fact that people from both parties have suspected Warren of voting for the "other" side is evidence of his non-partisanship.

Much to the frustration of culture warriors on both ends of the spectrum, neither Obama nor Warren seems interested in continuing the practice of using abortion or gay marriage as litmus test issues. If either of them did, there's no way we'd ever see them sharing a stage, much less the U.S. Capitol's steps on January 20th. Beyond the hot buttons, there is a broader set of issues including global poverty, climate change, AIDS and genocide on which they agree. While I would not likely choose Warren as my pastor or favorite author by any means, he's a more than adequate choice to pray at the inauguration. How many mega-church pastors do you know who reverse tithe, giving away 90% while keeping 10%?

So let's all take a collective breath and chillax because Warren's invocation is not an endorsement of the incoming president's entire package of policy positions and Obama's selection of Warren is not an endorsement of everything the pastor believes. If we could just agree on that much, it would be a good place to start.

December 17, 2008

My Wife the Preacher

Two Sundays ago (December 7), my beloved wife preached a sermon, her first ever. The text was Luke 1:26-38, the story of the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary. It was a beautiful, challenging, simple and profound message all at the same time, complete with vivid illustrations, careful exposition, reflective stories and solid theology. While it goes without saying that I am a biased listener who had the benefit of hearing her practice it several times before Sunday morning, my glowing appraisal was confirmed by the feedback she received from others who were in attendance.

Sadly, but not totally unexpectedly, a small number of people walked out of the service when she began to speak, presumably because of her gender. There were also a few complaints from others who are opposed to the concept of a woman preaching, regardless of her gifting or ability, even though the elders and pastors of our church are supportive of the idea. Since I can't pinpoint the exact reasoning and motivation behind the objections, I'm not sure if the disagreement was theological, cultural, or both. Perhaps they had never heard a woman preach before and wanted to keep it that way. Perhaps they were graciously removing themselves from an awkward situation, thereby preventing a heated confrontation so that others could listen without distraction. Either way, they missed out on an excellent sermon.

Out of respect for my complementarian friends who object to women preachers on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which, in their view, prohibits all women from teaching or having "spiritual authority" over men, I recognize that there are mature and authentic Christians on both sides this debate. Even in 2008, the majority of evangelical churches in this country do not ordain female pastors and the debate over gender roles within evangelicalism is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. I will not take the time here to explain why I believe the Scriptures provide strong support for women preachers and teachers, but if you're interested, here's a link to a pretty good summary of the egalitarian point of view.

I don't pull any punches about the fact that I am an egalitarian, but I owe much of my spiritual growth to the godly influence of complementarian writers and preachers, most of them men. Of the half-dozen or so churches I've been a part of in my lifetime, only one has had a female pastor on staff. Of the 1000+ sermons I've heard over the course of my life, I'd be surprised if more than 5% were preached by women. I am not proud of these realities, but they have shaped who I am.

My egalitarian theological position is what it is, but what good would it do if I were to blacklist or throw shoes at anyone who is against women preaching? What would my bookshelf look like without the Reformed theological rigor of complementarians like J.I. Packer, John Piper and Sam Storms? Should I categorically write off everything they've written about the truth of Scripture because I disagree with them on this particular issue? Besides, there is an abundance of books on my shelves authored by egalitarians including Dallas Willard, Richard Mouw, Stan Grenz and Eugene Peterson to balance them out!

For better or worse, my wife and I belong to a church community that is part of a denomination that restricts the positions of pastor and elder to men only. We do not agree with this policy, but we willingly submit to it nonetheless. The rules may or may not change someday, but for now, my contention is that women should still be encouraged to develop their giftings even if the rules never change. We shouldn't need to wait for the ordination of women to come along before we can allow women to start sharpening their teaching and preaching skills. Rather than focusing on what is prohibited, we should be empowering women to use their gifts for the Kingdom wherever God has currently placed them, blooming where they've been planted.

Apart from serving as an elder or pastor, there are many opportunities and positions already open to women in our local body. Unlike more conservative churches, I'm proud of the fact that we encourage women to serve as ministry team leaders, worship leaders, small group leaders, Bible class teachers and other positions where both men and women are being taught. There is nothing in the doctrinal statements or policies of either our denomination or local church that prohibits women from leading a ministry team that may include men or teaching the Bible to a group that may include men. In the case of our particular church and denomination, the only rules against women preaching are unwritten, unspoken ones like "men should lead, women should follow" or "a woman's place is in the home."

With respect to these gender role assumptions, is it reasonable to assume that women teachers are needed for children and other women, but not for men? As a man, should I expect to gain a balanced and well-rounded perspective of the Scriptures without ever having to be taught by a woman? Are men the only ones who can ever be intellectually and spiritually gifted by God to exegete biblical texts and preach His Word? If God calls and gifts a woman to teach Sunday School lessons for children, we welcome her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead a prayer group or start a new ministry, we affirm her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead a Bible study, we support her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead the congregation in worship, we recognize her gifts and cultivate a place for those gifts to be developed.

And yet, if God calls and gifts a woman to preach the Word on occasion, we dismiss this calling as "out of bounds" without even listening to the sermon first? I've heard my share of theologically irresponsible and poorly delivered sermons in my day, but I sincerely hope that I evaluated each message on the basis of its content and delivery, not the speaker's gender.

If I were to walk out of a sermon because I found out that the preacher was an African-American or a Native Hawaiian, I would hope that one of my brothers or sisters in Christ would kindly point me to the words of Galatians 3:28 where Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." If I were to rationalize my point by saying, "I'm just not comfortable with black preachers because I was raised listening to Caucasian preachers," I would hope that someone would be bold enough to lovingly speak the truth to correct my prejudices. I'm not a radical feminist who derives any joy from humiliating or taking revenge on the entire male species for the oppression of women that has taken place throughout history. I'm not trying to blur every distinction between male and female. I believe that God, in His infinite wisdom and artistry, created plenty of healthy differences between men and women, but the ability to preach a good sermon is not one of them. My wife's homily last week was proof of that.

So the question is this: How do we resolve the thorny issues of day-to-day disagreements within the local church? What happens when people of sincere faith disagree about the role of women in ministry? Should we call each other names like "feminist" and "sexist" and see who wins the verbal slug-fest? Should we wait until 100% of the congregation is "ready" before we allow women to use their gifts? Should we squelch the controversy and hope it will disappear if we sweep it under the rug? As Shane Claiborne likes to say, my hope is that we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable. We must learn to speak the truth in love. We must learn to tolerate, respect and even value differences of opinion when they are expressed with civility and Christ-like kindness. For the sake of our witness to the world, we must to learn to disagree well. The cost of disagreeing poorly is too great.

Theological or cultural differences within the body should not be grounds for severing a friendship or cutting off the lines of communication and dialogue. After all, if I never shared a pew with anyone who didn't have the exact same doctrinal convictions as me, I'd be missing out on a lot of great sermons.

December 4, 2008

I'm Tired...

It's been a long semester, but there's just one week to go. One final 15-page paper to write. One last assignment to hand in. One more week of fighting the traffic. One more week of coming home late. One week from today, my last class will conclude and 4 short weeks of school break can begin just in time for the Christmas season to overwhelm me.

I'm tired.

I'm tired of getting home after my son is asleep and leaving in the morning before he wakes up. I'm tired of looking up journal articles, fretting over in-text citations, APA formatting and layouts for PowerPoint slideshows. My brain is tired of academics. I'm tired of concepts, theories, timelines and and policy specifics.

I'm tired of reading about society's complex social problems, whether in textbooks, blogs or on the front page of the paper. I'm tired of gloomy headlines and cynical forecasts about the economic crisis, bailout proposals, cabinet picks and the Bush/Obama transition. I'm even starting to get tired of politics- wow, did I really just say that?

Don't worry, I still want to change the world, just not today. I still want to help people break free from poverty, just after I finish writing my paper about it. I still want to pursue truth, justice and peace, just let my brain catch its breath. Right now, all I want to do watch NBA highlights and chase my toddler around the living room. That sounds very nice.

With school winding down and the holidays fast approaching, I'm ready for a change of pace. I'm looking forward to drinking egg nog, watching It's A Wonderful Life and going out to see the Honolulu city lights display as we do every year. I'm ready to spend time catching up with family and friends.

On a deeper level, my mind and heart are ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. I'm hoping for a simple, but reflective Christmas this year. Shopping does not interest me, but I'm more than ready to sing carols about peace on earth. I don't need any spiffily packaged presents this year, just tell me the old Christmas story. I want to hear about the shepherds, the angels and wise men from the East. Tell me about Gabriel, Herod and the journey to Bethlehem. Tell me about Mary, Joseph and their newborn King. Tell me about the Incarnation. Tell me about the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. I will never be tired of that story.

November 25, 2008

My Thanksgiving Prayer

Show us your mercy, O Lord;
And grant us your salvation.

Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
Let your people sing with joy.

Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
For only in you can we live in safety.

Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.

Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all.

Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Create in us clean hearts, O God;
And sustain us by your Holy Spirit.

- Book of Common Prayer, 1979

November 20, 2008

Homeless in Paradise: Who's the Bad Guy?

"Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" - Psalm 82:3-4

This week is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which is fitting because I recently finished a class project researching our local homelessness situation here in Hawaii. As you might imagine, the facts are grim: Hawaii has the 4th highest homeless rate in the nation, shelter use is up 19% this year and one-third of those in our shelters are minors. Stereotypes of the "lazy drunk male" simply do not reflect reality since most of these individuals are women and children who look just like anyone else you might see in the supermarket or on the school playground.

Even though over 6,700 people statewide visited a shelter in 2007, researchers estimate that the majority of those experiencing homelessness are "unsheltered", meaning they live outdoors or in places not intended for human habitation such as parks and beaches. According to Connie Mitchell, the director of the Institute for Human Services (IHS), Oahu's largest shelter, the two primary reasons people become homeless in Hawaii are unaffordable housing and domestic conflicts. Rising unemployment rates and the economic downturn are only making things worse.

Everyone agrees that we have a serious problem on our hands, but who's the bad guy in all of this?

Some people blame the police for sweeping the homeless from park to park. But then again, the police are only enforcing "illegal camping" laws that have been enacted by the government. So I guess we could blame the government, but then again, our elected leaders are understandably concerned about the economy which is largely dependent on tourists, who are less likely to spend their money in Hawaii if there are homeless people all over Waikiki and and Ala Moana Beach Park. Maybe we should blame the greedy landlords who keep raising rents only to evict people for being unable to come up with the money. Of course, these landlords are only trying to keep up with property taxes based on the high cost of land, which I suppose you could blame on real estate developers that swoop in from the mainland trying to maximize their profits. Speaking of profits, we can't leave out the health care industry, whose pricey medical bills can quickly bankrupt someone who has no medical insurance. And what about the drug dealers who get people hooked on crystal meth or the prison system that releases people onto the streets with no job skills or a place to live? Speaking of responsibility, it's always a safe bet to point the finger at all of those deadbeat dads that don't pay their child support.

Maybe the easiest thing to do would be to blame homeless people themselves for making bad decisions with their money and relationships. Or we could blame their extended families for not taking them in. Or their parents for not raising them well. Or their teachers for not expecting enough from them. Or the local church for not welcoming them with open arms. Have I left anyone out? Does anyone still think this is an easy problem to solve?

To her credit, Gov. Lingle's administration has developed a fairly detailed 10-year plan to tackle this complex issue, but homelessness in Hawaii will never end until we learn to see the big picture which includes the small part we all can play. Some of us will be advocates while others will be volunteers. Some will give of their resources while others will offer their prayers. Some might even get creative with alternative approaches like the folks at the Waikiki Health Center who came up with the Care-A-Van Homeless Outreach Program in order to meet people wherever they are.

Everyone has a stake in this issue because we all benefit from a solution. It's time to stop looking for the evil villain behind the curtain and take responsibility for our brothers, sisters and children who have no place to call their own.

November 14, 2008

Making Predictions: Why Is It So Much Fun?

"Making predictions has the unintended but unavoidable effect of putting one's reputation on the line. Which, given all of the inevitable uncertainties, is basically a foolish thing to do." -Charley Rosen, writer and NBA analyst

Unlike Mr. Rosen, I will shamelessly admit that I love making predictions. By predictions, I am not referring to fortune cookies, psychic infomercials, creepy astrology or apocalyptic forecasts of gloom and doom found in the pages of supermarket tabloids or forwarded emails. Does anyone remember the Y2K panic of 1999?

I'm also not referring to monetary wagers since I've never been one to put money on poker games, football scores or boxing matches. What I am talking about is the more innocuous speculation of the news and commentary variety: current events, politics, sports, cultural trends, that sort of thing. While it can be very difficult to forecast the future with any consistency, the thrill of crafting and discussing a semi-educated guess provides more than enough fun to outweigh the potential shame of guessing incorrectly. Besides, by the time the results have come in to show how wrong you were, hardly anyone will remember what you said a few months ago unless you're some sort of well-respected talking head with an "expert" opinion (a job I'd love to have but sadly do not).

Without any accountability, making predictions becomes even more exciting. The amount of time between your prediction and the actual event often leaves plenty of room to weasel your way out of your words in order to either 1) "revise" your prediction to accommodate a new set of circumstances, or 2) conveniently predict something new on an entirely different topic, preferably an event that is safely off in the distant future. With such low risks and high rewards, how could anyone resist the urge to pontificate on the juiciest topics ranging from sports to politics to the events leading up the end of the world? As long as no one actually remembers what you said the last time you made a prediction that didn't turn out so well, you can't really go wrong.

Back in October of 2007, barely a year ago, I remember eating dinner with a friend at Bravo's restaurant where we discussed who we thought might win the 2008 election. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani was the clear front-runner at the time and even picked up the endorsement of Pat Robertson a month later. Mitt Romney was having problems explaining his Mormon faith, Mike Huckabee was largely unknown and John McCain had been completely written off by all the analysts because of his terrible polling numbers (single-digits as I recall) and the fact that his campaign was flat broke.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton was so far out in front that it didn't seem anyone could catch her. Barack Obama was drawing huge crowds in the big cities, but was hard to imagine him winning in any red states or rural areas where his race would be a major liability. That night, my friend and I agreed that America was probably not ready for a black president, especially an inexperienced young Senator who was up against the well-oiled prowess of the Clinton political machine. As far as we could tell, it was going to be Rudy vs. Hillary in the general election and as crazy as it now sounds, we predicted Mr. Giuliani to win the presidency since we reckoned that half the country was hopelessly predisposed to hating Mrs. Clinton, or so we thought.

Needless to say, 20/20 hindsight now shows just how wrong we were. McCain made an incredible turnaround, Giuliani flamed out quickly by the end of January after forgetting to campaign outside Florida, Obama squeaked past Clinton in the longest primary season ever and he even managed to flip several of the traditionally conservative states like North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia from red to blue despite all of those working-class white men who were not supposed to vote for a black candidate. These days, anyone can point to Obama's big electoral victory margin and ask, "How could he not have won?" It all seems so obvious now.

So why do I enjoy reminiscing about my off-base predictions like the Rudy vs. Hillary scenario? Why do I have this tendency to gravitate toward controversial issues and unpredictable outcomes? As one of the many who erroneously predicted the Lakers to beat the Celtics in last season's NBA Finals or the Patriots to beat the Giants in Superbowl XLII, why should I even continue with my shoddy guesswork when there's such a high probability that I'll be entirely wrong? Wouldn't it be much safer to avoid making any reckless predictions until the outcome of the event in question has been largely decided? Of course it would, but this would also be dreadfully dull and boring. Heck, I could predict that the 49ers will miss the playoffs for the sixth year in a row or that the Best Actress winner at the next year's Oscars will cry on stage while giving a long-winded acceptance speech, but those things are already a foregone conclusion. I might as well forecast light trade winds and Windward/Mauka showers while I'm at it.

It's much more fun to speculate on things that are really up for grabs. Maybe that's why I enjoy playing fantasy sports, a frivolous virtual guessing game where I can join the ranks of like-minded squares who appreciate the value of meaningless statistics like home runs, touchdowns and rebounds. It's the perfect cocktail of skill and luck. If you guess correctly, by selecting a lineup of overpaid professional athletes that perform well according to a collection of arbitrary statistical categories, you have earned the respect of your peers for supposedly outsmarting the competition. Even if you end up guessing wrong, that's still forgivable because everyone understands how difficult it is to be right 6 months ahead of time.

Now that the 2008 election season has finally ended, pundits, bloggers and news junkies have lost their main source of prediction fodder. What was once a gushing fountain of intrigue and speculation has dried up for the moment, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions for the curious observer. Who will be selected for Obama's key cabinet positions and how long will the honeymoon last? What, if any, will Hillary Clinton's role be in the new administration? Who will be the Republican nominee for president in 2012? When will Bobby Jindal become a household name? At the local level, who will run for the Hawaii governor's seat in 2010 against Duke Aiona? Will Charles Djou become the first Republican to represent Hawaii in Congress in 20 years? Will Cliff Slater and his band of anti-rail protesters try to make another splash in 2009 or will they fade quietly into the sunset? Only time will tell, but that won't stop me from guessing.

October 30, 2008

The Most Important Election In Our Lifetime... Or Is It?

Over the past several months, I can't count how many times I've read or heard people say that the 2008 election is "the most important election of our lifetime." The candidates from both campaigns keep saying it. The political pundits from both the right and the left keep saying it. Rock stars, religious leaders, bloggers and celebrities keep saying it. Journalists like Michael Tomasky of The Guardian were already saying it 10 months ago, before the Iowa caucus kicked off the primary season marathon. Even Joe Biden's 91-year-old mother has said that this is the biggest election of her lifetime. Who's going to argue with a 91-year-old woman? I guess it must be true. Or is it?

Whenever I hear someone utter these insistent words, I wonder whose "lifetime" they are actually talking about. Since the average life expectancy of an American male is 75 years, I am expecting to kick the bucket sometime around the 2056 campaign season, which means there are still about 12 more presidential elections remaining in my lifetime. Does this mean the race between Obama and McCain will overshadow all 12 of these future elections over the next 48 years? Is 2008 the last time we'll ever heard this phrase used? Although I would be tickled pink if this happened, I'm not expecting any of the candidates in 2012 to say, "This is the second most important election of our lifetime, so go out and vote, but keep your enthusiasm just a notch below what you had in 2008."

According to a clever article from The American Scholar, which offers some much needed historical perspective, the concept of "the most important election in our lifetime" has been used in just about every election in American history. It's an old trick that we all keep falling for, even older than negative TV ads with scary announcer voices predicting doom and gloom if you vote for the wrong guy. In a recent campaign speech on behalf of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani implored the crowd by saying, "Every four years, we are told that this presidential election is the most important election of our lifetime. This year -- 2008 -- is the most important." Pardon me Rudy, but did you just say that we should believe you this time on the basis that you were wrong last time? It sounds like you're basically saying, "I know that politicians like me have a tendency to cry 'wolf' every 4 years, but this year, it's REALLY the one and only year of the wolf! You've gotta believe me this time- truly, madly, deeply with sugar on top!"

In fairness, I would agree with those who say that the 2008 campaign season has been historic and unique in many ways, particularly the groundbreaking candidacies of Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Obama's lengthy primary battle with Hillary Clinton that went down to the wire on the Democratic side. But "historic" is not the same as "more important than all the rest," as if we'll never have to decide anything significant after this year. The 2004 election was not very "historic" per se, but it was certainly very important, as the last four years have shown. I can't think of much at stake in the Obama vs. McCain showdown that was not at stake with Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, Bush/Gore in 2000 or even the Clinton/Dole landslide in 1996 for that matter. Some elections are more compelling or more controversial than others, but every presidential election is important. In that sense, this year is no different.

Apart from being dishonest, the problem with telling people that we only want them to vote this one special time, in this one special year, is that it sets up a false expectation for quick fixes to complex problems. When things don't instantly change on the morning after, people become cynics and armchair quarterbacks who complain and moan without ever taking another stand, that is, until the next campaign rolls around with an urgent call to protect the fate of the universe from imminent destruction. Perhaps this helps to explain America's low election turnout rates and the tendency to take our voting rights for granted. I wonder how many people watching the election around the world would love the privilege of American citizenship so they could vote in 2008.

For the sake of a healthy democracy, I would love it if more people voted across the board, even if they vote differently than I do. We're all better off when more people have a say in how things are being run by those who represent us, but we have to learn how to encourage people to vote without making it into a "once in a lifetime" thing. There are plenty of good reason to vote this year, but "you'll never have to do it again" shouldn't be one of them.

October 21, 2008

The Top 99 Reasons to Support Rail Transit for Honolulu

With less than 2 weeks to go before Election Day 2008, the presidential race has shifted much of Hawaii's attention away from the heated debate over Honolulu's proposed rail transit system. But hey, who can really blame anyone for being more interested in watching clips of Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin on SNL than having a discussion about trains, traffic and elevated roadways? Even so, the mayoral race between pro-rail incumbent Mufi Hannemann and anti-rail underdog Ann Kobayashi has been grabbing some recent headlines as the issue of rail transit has become the central issue at stake in this election. As an alternative to Hannemann's $3.7 billion, 20-mile rail system, Kobayashi unveiled her own plan last week, a $2.5 billion, 15-mile double-decker freeway for buses that she's calling the "Ez-Way." As a longtime rail supporter who is tired of endless bickering and feet-dragging that has delayed the project for decades, I am hoping (perhaps naively) this election will provide a decisive vote to settle this controversial issue once and for all. It's time to let the people decide.

If you haven't been following the recent developments in the battle over rail, you need to know that there will be a question on the ballot asking voters to select "yes" or "no" on the establishment of a steel-on-steel rail transit system (Charter Amendment #4). Unlike other confusing ballot measures, a vote of "yes" will actually mean yes to rail, whereas a vote of "no" will in fact mean no. Isn't democracy so much more fun when the whole yes/no thing is cleared up? If you are already determined to vote against Honolulu's rail project, I'm not expecting any of my "propaganda" to change your mind. However, if you are still undecided about whether to vote for or against rail, let me attempt to persuade you with a few of my reasons, well, 99 of them to be exact.

Why does Honolulu even need a rail system in the first place?
1. As it stands right now, Honolulu's traffic jams have been ranked among the worst in the country. It often takes 2 hours to travel 20 miles on the H-1 freeway.
2. The bottlenecks on the H-1 are projected to become 30% worse by 2030 if nothing is done.
3. The status quo of minor freeway adjustments is not working. Even rail opponents like Panos Prevedouros and Ann Kobayashi agree that something major must be done to address traffic congestion. Doing nothing is not an option.
4. The H-1 freeway has already exceeded its full capacity and will not be adequate for the projected population growth in West Oahu.

5. Currently, there is no viable alternative to cars and buses, which are both at the mercy of unpredictable traffic congestion, road work, accidents, weather conditions, fallen phone poles, rubbernecking, road rage and every other factor that slows down our roads.
6. Honolulu is city that is about 25 miles long and 3 miles wide. The geographic landscape (limited space along a narrow urban corridor) coupled with our high population density make Honolulu well-suited for a rail system.
7. Unlike Kobayashi's Ez-Way, which will create new traffic bottlenecks without taking any cars off the roads, rail will reduce traffic 11% by the year 2030.
8. Unlike the last-minute EZ-way proposal, the rail project has already been scrutinized, debated and approved by the Honolulu City Council and a panel of engineering experts.
9. According to a recent study, Hawaii has the highest cost of vehicle ownership in the nation, around $12,000 per year. People are looking more and more to public transportation as a cheaper way to get around.

How will Honolulu's rail system address our transportation problems?
10. Rail can carry passengers more efficiently than highways. Each train can carry more than 300 passengers - the equivalent of more than 200 cars or 6 lanes of highway.
11. A fully-elevated rail transit system will be able to move thousands of people per hour without taking away our limited highway and road space.
12. Once the full system is up and running, rail will provide about 88,000 passenger trips per day.
13. Rail will completely remove over 25,000 vehicles from the roadways each day.

14. Unlike cars and buses on the Ez-Way, rail cars on the transit line will travel completely unaffected by road congestion on the streets below. Even carpools and buses will have to exit off the elevated Ez-Way back onto surface streets at some point.
15. Unlike the Ez-Way, the 20-mile rail guideway will have 19 stops between Kapolei and Ala Moana Center. By contrast, the Ez-Way only covers the distance between Pearl City and Chinatown with just 4 or 5 entry and exit points.
16. Unlike the Ez-Way, fixed rail can accommodate shorter trips between any of the 19 transit stop and removes these people out of congestion.
17. Unlike the Ez-Way, rail will move people in both directions simultaneously.
18. Even those who don't ride rail will benefit because of reduced congestion on the roads. This includes our emergency responders as well as loved ones who might live on a different side of the island (presently or in the future).

What kind of reliability and mobility will rail provide?
19. Even during rush hour, rail will transport people from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center in 39 minutes, sidewalk to sidewalk, or from Pearlridge Mall to downtown in 19 minutes. Cars on the Ez-Way won't be able to do this because it can take that long just to find a parking space!
20. Unlike buses, rail will be on time, every time. There is a major difference between a crowded rail car and a crowded freeway: reliable travel times. A full rail car in rush hour will still travel at about the same speed (unaffected by road conditions) as an empty one. The same cannot be said about cars and buses stuck in a gridlocked freeway bottleneck, construction detour, accident scene or Ez-Way off-ramp merging with local streets.
21. Since there will be only 3 minutes between rail vehicles during peak hours, riders won’t have to check the schedule to catch the next one.

22. Rail transit is a safer form of transportation than motor vehicles or buses due to a lower rate of injuries and fatalities.
23. Steel-on-steel is by far the safest, most dependable, widely-used and cost-effective type of rail technology on the market today.
24. Unlike the Ez-Way, the rail line has the future option of being extended to UH Manoa and Waikiki.

How will rail improve the quality of life on Oahu?
25. Less time spent in traffic will allow people to spend more time w
ith their families.
26. Rail will help to encourage the next generation of children and grandchildren to consider living and working in Hawaii.
27. Riding the rail will be an affordable form of transportation for those who don't own a car including low-income families, the elderly, college students and persons with disabilities.

28. Rail riders will have reduced stress from not having to fight traffic or find parking.
29. Rail riders will get an extra fitness benefit from walking to from transit stops each day.
30. Rail will have accessibility and assistance devices for elderly and disabled passengers.
31. As the number of elderly persons over age 65 in Hawaii doubles in the next 23 years, rail will help them to remain independent without having to own a car.
32. The level platforms at rail stations will make it convenient for the elderly and disabled to get on and off the train without difficulty.

33. The monthly transit pass will work system-wide for both bus and rail with free transfers between systems.
34. Each family in Honolulu that can live with one less household car will save an average of $935 per month or $11,215 annually according to the APTA. For those who drive less, rail will help them save on the cost of owning a vehicle such as gas, maintenance, insurance and parking (see #9).
35. Rail will make it easier for locals and tourists to visit cultural attractions, museums, concerts, shopping/dining areas, sporting events, graduations and leisure activities without having to worry about traffic or parking.
36. Employees and college students at HCC, LCC, HPU and UH-West Oahu will have easy access to their respective campuses via rail.
37. Rail will benefit future generations of Oahu residents islandwide, not just MY neighborhood, MY lifestyle and MY commute.

How will Honolulu's rail system be paid for?
38. Unlike the Ez-Way, the transit tax to pay for rail is already in effect. This tax, which has a 15-year lifespan from 2007 to 2022, is prevented by law from being used on anything besides rail.
39. Unlike the Ez-Way, there is a $1 billion contingency buffer already built in to the rail project’s budget. Essentially, the Ez-Way costs the same as rail, but with no way to pay for it.

40. Unlike the Ez-Way, Honolulu's rail project qualifies for federal funding from the FTA (Federal Transit Administration).
41. Unlike the Ez-Way, the rail project's detailed budget has met strict FTA regulations.

42. Unlike the Ez-Way, the rail project has already completed a comprehensive 120-page Alternatives Analysis which determined that rail was the most cost-effective option.
43. Unlike the Ez-Way,
rail has been guaranteed federal funding by the U.S. House Transportation Committee chairman Jim Oberstar, who has pledged $900 million for Honolulu's rail system saying "I'm going to make it happen because it's got to happen" adding that "it is essential to undertake this project."
44. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, the rail project will not raise anyone’s property tax or income tax.
45. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, it is short-sighted to make a judgment on the 15-year lifespan of the 0.5% GET increase based on the last few months of economic upheaval. Like all taxes, the amount obtained from the GET will fluctuate with the economy.
46. Even if the slumping economy does in fact lower total tax revenues over the 15-year period from 2007 to 2022, it could also lower construction costs since labor tends to cost less when business is slow. If needed, the contingency buffer (see #39) could also address this.

So who else even wants rail besides Mayor Hannemann?
47. Recent polling shows that a clear 2-to-1 majority of all Oahu residents want rail, not just those living in West Oahu. For all of its vocal lobbying and media publicity, the "Stop Rail Now" petition could barely muster up 35,000 valid signatures (putting them well short of their goal of 44,525), even after hoodwinking some rail supporters to sign it on the basis of "letting the people decide."
48. A majority of the City Council supports rail.
49. A majority of the State legislature supports rail.
50. All 4 Hawaii members of U.S. Congress (Inouye, Akaka, Abercrombie & Hirono) support rail.

51. The federal government, even after the recent financial bailout, has continued to allocate money for new rail systems.
52. Steel-on-steel rail technology was selected by an independent panel of engineering experts assigned to evaluate Honolulu's proposed transit system.
53. Rail transit is supported by four former Hawaii State transportation directors, all of them civil engineers.
54. The editorial boards of both major Honolulu newspapers (Advertiser & Star Bulletin) has endorsed rail.
55. The
Oahu chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed rail for Honolulu because of its environmental benefits.
56. The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) has endorsed rail because of its benefits for the elderly.

57. Hawaii's labor unions strongly support rail because of the new construction jobs it creates.
58. This week, the rail project was endorsed by The Hawaii Business Roundtable, an organization comprising fifty chief executives from the state's largest businesses who collectively employ over 67,000 people.

But who cares if there are a lot of people who want this silly train. Shouldn't we still be very very afraid of risky-scary-evil-catastrophic-apocalyptic rail?
59. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, the rail cars will not eat your children or cause the sky to fall. Ask anyone whose ever ridden a rail system and lived to tell about it.
60. Regarding the issue of "risk", Ann Kobayashi's Ez-Way proposal has far more unanswered questions regarding cost, ridership, noise, mobility, funding sources, environmental impact, long-term sustainability and public support.

How will rail help Hawaii’s struggling economy?
61. The rail system's construction will create over 11,000 new jobs in Hawaii over 8 years.
62. The FTA’s New Starts program is expected to bring in $900 million of outside money into our local economy. (see #43)
63. According to the APTA (American Public Transportation Association),
every dollar taxpayers invest in public transportation generates 6 dollars or more in economic returns.
64. Transit-oriented development or TOD (the creation of shops, services, and housing in the vicinity of transit stations) will attract new investment and create even more jobs.
65. The jobs and businesses created by TOD will help fund state and city services.
66. The reduction of employee commute times and easing of parking pressures will benefit local businesses and their customers.

How does rail benefit the environment?
67. According to the U.S. Department of Energy,
rail consumes 37% less energy per passenger mile than single-occupant cars and trucks.
68. Rail will give people an incentive to drive less and ride public transportation more often, which generates 95% less carbon monoxide than personal vehicles per passenger mile traveled.
69. Rail will help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil since it can be powered by renewable energy such as H-power, wind, solar and biofuels.
70. Rail will cause less air, water and noise pollution than buses or the Ez-Way.

71. Rail will reduce automobile dependency will in turn reduce the need to build more environmentally unfriendly highways.
72. Contrary to anti-rail speculation, rail will not require HECO to build another power plant.
73. Rail will help make Honolulu a more pedestrian and bike-friendly city.

How do we know if people will ride the rail?
74. According to the FTA,
Honolulu already has the fourth-highest public transportation ridership-per-capita in the entire nation and it's still rising. Once people try rail for themselves, transit ridership will increase even further.
75. Even though the bus has an on-time rate of only 60%, there are still approximately 230,000 daily trips taken on Oahu's bus system. The bus system is filled to capacity during peak hours.

76. Both locally and nationwide, people are driving less and using public transportation more.
77. There is a financial incentive to ride rail in order to save on gas, parking and car maintenance expenses (see #9).
78. People will ride rail to avoid the stress and frustration of sitting in gridlock because unlike sitting in traffic, you can read, sleep, use your laptop or relax while riding the rail.

For those who don't ride the bus right now, why would they choose to ride rail?
79. Unlike buses, rail cars will always be on time since they don't have to fight through any traffic bottlenecks.

80. Rail offers a smoother ride than buses.
81. Rail offers a quieter ride than buses.
82. Commuting times with rail will be faster than with buses only, which will attract new riders to public transportation (see #18).
83. Some will ride rail for environmental reasons (see #'s 67-73).

Why isn't the bus system enough to handle Honolulu's public transportation needs?
84. The president of Honolulu’s bus system strongly supports rail as a complement to the bus system.
85. Honolulu’s crowded streets do not have the capacity to accommodate a new influx of buses.
86. Adding more buses onto our congested roads will only make gridlock worse and cause even more bus delays. Without rail, traffic will worsen faster which will result in slower, more unpredictable commute times that will deter potential riders.
87. Elevated bus roadways, such as the EZ-way, cost more to build per mile than rail.
88. Elevated bus roadways take up 25% more room than rail guideways.

How much will it cost to operate and maintain this rail system?
89. Operating and maintenance costs, after subtracting fares, are estimated to be about $40 million per year, which is about 2 to 3% of the City's budget.
90. Unlike the EZ-way, which would not generate any revenue, the rail system will recoup some costs through transit fares.
91. Rail transit will cost 40% less to operate and maintain per passenger-mile than buses
92. Rail cars last longer than buses and steel wheels hold up much longer than rubber tires.
93. Rail requires fewer drivers per passenger and rail transit's modern electric-motor technology is more energy efficient than the diesel engines used in buses.

How will rail lead to more sustainable urban growth?
94. Transit-oriented development, because it uses space much more efficiently that car-oriented development, usually results in more face-to-face interaction with others as well as neighborhoods that allow small business, culture and the arts to thrive.
95. Rail will encourage people to live and do business near the transit stops. By contrast, no one wants to live adjacent to a freeway.
96. Rail will help to “keep the country, country” by focusing development away from agricultural and conservation lands including the North Shore and Windward Oahu. TOD will actually to preserve the beauty, history and culture of "Old Hawaii."
97. Rail will contribute to an improved infrastructure to support West O‘ahu’s growth.
98. Transit experts almost universally agree that car-oriented development leads to urban sprawl much faster than TOD, which helps to foster communities that promote more walking, biking and other transportation habits that are more sustainable in the long term.
99. Rail will not magically fix all of our problems, but i
t will be the centerpiece of an integrated multi-modal transportation plan, which includes TheBus, TheBoat, bike lanes, walking paths and, of course, roadways for those who will continue to use their private vehicles.

After over 40 years of public discussion on this issue, the possibility of rail has never been closer. Public support for rail transit in Hawaii has never been stronger. Studies have been done, debates have been held, polls have been taken, legislation has been passed, a transit tax is being collected and vigorous protests have been mounted again and again. Mud has been slung and names have been smeared. Politicians and citizen pundits alike have debated the issue ad nauseum on TV, radio, newspaper editorial pages, press releases, internet message boards and blogs like this one. Everyone with an opinion on rail has had a chance to express it. The public has had plenty of time to become informed and engaged on both sides of this issue.

Just about the only thing that has NOT been done yet is to put the issue to a decisive island-wide vote at the ballot box, which is exactly what will happen on November 4th, as it should be. All of the intense scrutiny, discussion, lobbying and debate are signs of a healthy democracy, but it's time to make a final decision that actually means something. The time for rail has come!