Coming Together for Healing and Hope through the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii
Contributed by Don Han, Director of Community Partnerships, Groundswell, and Gene Roehlkepartain, Senior Scholar, Search Institute
On the surface, we are two very different people with two very different backgrounds. Yet we find ourselves to be more alike than it might seem.
Don began his life in a Laotian, Theravāda Buddhist family. When the government changed in 1975 after a decade of war, his family sacrificed everything and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. They were accepted to come to the United States, where they were placed in a housing project in a disinvested community. Every night they heard more gunshots than when they lived in the war zone. Not everyone wanted them in the community, and they were told to go back to where they came from all the time by their new neighbors. A few years after moving to America, Don’s mother passed away. Three years later, his dad did, too. He was 16 years old, left with only his 13-year-old sister.
The first 16 years of Gene’s life were quite different from Don’s. He grew up in Tanzania, East Africa, the child of Southern Baptist missionaries from Texas. He had the benefits of a middle-class life, a stable community of friends and family, and a solid, global education. All this was topped off with the luxury of vacations and outings to some of the natural wonders of the world within a few hours of his home: The Serengeti Plains, Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, and many more.
But then when he, like Don, was 16, his parents were in a serious car accident near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His dad escaped with relatively minor injuries. But his mother sustained a major traumatic brain injury that left her largely disabled for the next 45 years. The family emergency required that they be evacuated from East Africa to Texas, never to return to their home in Tanzania. Gene traveled with his dad and (here’s another striking parallel to Don’s story) his 13-year-old brother.
We met for the first time at the 2023 Shinnyo Lantern Floating Ceremony in Hawaii as guests of Shinnyo-en Foundation. Each of us has dedicated our adult lives to youth development, focusing on nurturing the strengths and gifts of young people and working to create communities and a world where they can thrive. Yes, we’ve done this work in different ways, but we know we’re kindred spirits with different roles on the same path.
Each of us shared our stories of challenge and resilience with each other and with the international Shinnyo-en youth who had gathered in Hawaii. We each recalled the many people—from Laotian elders to Texan Sunday school teachers—who guided and nurtured us along the way. They were the source of so much of our resilience. As we talked with young Shinnyo practitioners during the Roundtable Discussion on resilience, we were inspired and filled with hope as they shared their insights, their commitments, and even their struggles, knowing that the growth often comes in the midst of those struggles. Some described the challenges of service (gohoshi), joyous giving (okangi), and spiritual care (otasuke) during the isolation of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Each found strength in being together for connection and healing during this moving event.
Though powerful, those conversations were only preludes to the lantern floating itself. We didn’t speak to each other or to the thousands who gathered on Ala Moana Beach at sunset. We listened and watched as drums, chants, words from Her Holiness, and the chime of a bell invited us to float our lanterns in memory of loved ones who we had lost along with our prayers for the future.
Both of us asked for a better, peaceful, and hopeful world for the young people of today and tomorrow.
As we released our individual lanterns to float and unite with thousands of other lanterns, we were each overcome by the many meanings the experience evoked. We each came with our own stories of grief. Gene celebrated the life of his mother who had died in November of 2022, almost 45 years after suffering her traumatic brain injury. He also celebrated the life of his wife, Jolene, who died the same month as his mother. She lived only 9 months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Don dedicated his lantern to his mom and dad, who sacrificed their lives when he was younger so that he and his siblings could have a better life. He also asked for prayers for all refugees immigrants to find a safe and welcoming community.
It was clear that each of the thousands of people around us who floated their lanterns was very different from each of us in many ways. Yet, what was most striking was, in that moment, we also experienced the transformative power of collective grief and remembering. The particularities of our own stories, even shared in different languages, blended into the harmony of one shared story, one shared longing.
Amid the thousands of individuals, there was a shared story and one shared commitment to hope and commitment to peace for those who have gone before and those who will live in the future.
May it be so!