Our Preacher Man

I have spent the last hour and a half cleaning my office. Old issues go into the recycle bin and promotional CD’s get stacked on my bookshelf. Notes–I have a lot of notes, scribbled on napkins, press releases and on the backs of show posters–get stacked by my feet in a plastic bin. I’ve removed five coffee mugs that have varying degrees of life growing in them and cleaned every flat surface down with a Clorox wipe. I tell myself that at least, while I’m putting off sitting down and writing about the life and death of the controversial Lahaina street preacher, “Bradda Phillip” who was found lifeless this past Wednesday, June 11 behind the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church of Lahaina, I’m being productive.

The truth is that I’m hesitant to even attempt to tell the tale of Phillip Prais. There is so much about him that I will never know and it’s presumptuous to think that a single reporter with a looming deadline could paint a completely accurate picture of a man that she hasn’t spent a considerable amount of time with.

At the same time, over the past few days, I have learned things about Prais that I believe will help to identify him as a man dedicated to a calling, a man that was part of a large local ohana, and a strong Hawaiian that so many us have been guilty of labeling as simply “the eccentric, homeless street-preacher of Lahaina.”

My greatest regret while writing this article is knowing in my gut that Prais’ story is one that should have been written long ago, way before his untimely death at the age of 66.

Lahaina is different now. This past Friday, after learning that “the street preacher of Lahaina” had passed away on Wednesday, I took a trip out to the West side. At first everything seemed normal under the Banyan Tree and in the surrounding area. The parrot guy was in town-crossing the road with one of his loud and colorful birds perched on his shoulder-and tourists, many of them sunburned, milled the streets with shopping bags draping their forearms.

But something was significantly different. The Preacher, with his stark white beard, sunglasses, wild mane, guitar and Bible, was gone from his corner across the Pioneer Inn and the Wharf Cinema Center. My initial reaction to his absence was a feeling of deflation, almost like Lahaina was a big red balloon that had lost its air.

Simply, the town was too quiet and the Preacher has been replaced by a cardboard memorial that read: God Bless Brother Phillip. People have stopped by to drape leis over the memorial and write messages like, “You’re truly a devotee. We know you’re still singing and glorifying him. You’re an amazing personality. You’ll be here forever in our minds. Thanks for what you did for everybody” and “This is not goodbye Brother Phillip. I will see you again in heaven at God’s table. May God Bless and keep you in his safe arms.”

Reading through the messages, I saw several that make reference to the town of Lahaina and, more specifically, the Lahaina News. “May God forgive Lahaina and its news. You broke his heart,” says one. “Believe in God only. Never trust in Lahaina News,” says another.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but shortly before his death, in the paper’s June 5, Upfront Lahaina column, it said “… and all the businesses around the Wharf Cinema Center, the Banyan Tree and south Front Street are in Heaven: the preacher is GONE, and they say, ‘Hallelujah – Peace at Last!’…”

The column is written anonymously. According to a friend of Prais’ who wishes to remain unnamed, Prais’ reaction to the harsh words in the publication was that “he felt like they were mocking God.”

Granted, the columnist had no idea that Prais, in an unfortunate and heart wrenching turn of events, would pass away one short week from the column’s publication date. The words “the preacher is gone” refer not to his death, but to the fact that on May 16, Prais was served a criminal trespass notice banning him from the Banyan Tree for a period of one year after being arrested for harassment and disorderly conduct.

Under the Banyan Tree, a friend of his told me that he was told by Prais that when signing the document, next to his signature he wrote the word “duress,” indicating that he either felt forced into signing the document or didn’t understand what he was signing.

I was unable to confirm this. I have not seen the trespass notice and could not receive a copy in time for print. It is also unclear what Prais did to be arrested for harassment and disorderly conduct and who initiated the action against him.

According to Capt. Charles Hirata, commander of the Lahaina Patrol District, “You can be served a criminal trespass notice after breaking the law in the area. If you misbehave in a public place, you can be banned.”

I was able to spend a considerable amount of time on the phone with Hirata, asking him about the scene under the Banyan Tree and his knowledge of Prais.

“It was the 80’s [when I first met Prais],” said Hirata, “I’ve known him for about 20 years. We were very patient with him. We warned him several times not to be camping in the area. In a county park, camping out is not allowed. He left signs up on trees, cardboard all over the place. We had to clean it up several times.”

I asked Hirata about a promotion of a detrimental drug 3 conviction that I found on Prais’ eCrim record dating back to February of 2005. A drug 3 conviction means that a person was found guilty of possessing a drug like marijuana.

He asked me if I had found reference to Prais’ previous drug arrests for promotion of a detrimental drug 2, which is the actual distribution of a drug like marijuana. When I told him that it was not listed on the eCrim Report, he said that he personally worked the case and knows that it was a charge that Prais had been up against but was unclear whether or not there had been a conviction.

I wondered what Prais’ stance was on marijuana and thought it unconventional that someone devoted to preaching the gospel would be convicted of possession and arrested for distribution. When I asked a family member about it, I was told that Prais didn’t see anything wrong, Biblically, with marijuana. “I don’t think it was any secret,” said the family member. “He didn’t flaunt it, but he didn’t hide it either. He felt that it was justified and not anything that was wrong.”

In describing the scene under the Banyan Tree, Hirata said that it’s a place where many drug deals go down and many drug deals go bad. There are fights, he said, and police put a lot of effort into keeping it peaceful. “As an investigative reporter, maybe you should spend a few nights out there,” he said, “That’s how you can get a feel for the area.”

He also told me that coffee was recently thrown in the face of someone presumed to be a reporter of the Lahaina News by someone under the Banyan Tree and that on the flip side, various merchants near the area have reported that since Prais’ death, “it’s nice and quiet now.”

I was surprised and touched, when near the end of our conversation, Hirata gave me his personal opinion of Prais, “You know, we always got along. We had an understanding,” he said, “I realize that he’s out there doing his job and that’s his calling and he knew that I’m out here doing my job and following my calling. There was a respect for each other. From my personal side, not the police view, I think that it’s not going to be the same without him. That part of town. There will be something missing.”

Prais was a man that was recognized by so many, but understood by few. When I was a child, I attended Doris Todd Memorial Christian School in Paia. One year, my class took a field trip to Lahaina.

It was the first time that I saw Prais. He was reading his Bible under the Banyan Tree. He looked like many of my dad’s friends at the time–a local man with dark, weathered skin, sunglasses and long hair. He wore a tank top and slippers. To this day, I still don’t know why I was compelled to, but I walked up and asked Prais if I could sit down with him.

We talked about the Bible and Prais showed me “one of his favorite” scriptures. It troubles me that I can’t remember what it was now. I was intrigued by him, but even as a kid, was judgmental. I didn’t think of him as a “bad guy” or criminal, but assumed that he was homeless and that just because he held a Bible in his hands, didn’t mean that he wasn’t in need of the direction and the saving grace of God.

Several months ago, I was working on a story out in Lahaina and saw Prais on the street corner across from the Wharf Cinema Center. He had his Bible in his hands and was preaching loudly to the people walking by.

“Eh, American!” he called to me.

I felt offended and concerned that maybe he had gone crazy since I had last seen him when I was kid, so I put my head down and pretended not to hear him. Today, after taking the time to learn about him, I’m embarrassed by my reaction to him.

Is this the way Prais made tourists feel? I was surprised to find extensive mention about the “Lahaina Street Preacher” on internet forums, most of them tourist forums. People from around the world have photographed, blogged and written about Prais. He fascinated people and–according to posts on the internet–many people looked forward to seeing him on future trips to Maui. Many former visitors to Maui posted their condolences to his family when they learned about his death.

In response to Prais’ charismatic approach to ministry, Larry Dille, a friend of Prais said to me, “It may have seemed like he was just yelling things, but you talk to the people working around here and they’ll all tell you that if you listened, he made sense and had a message.”

Prais found his calling in God long before we met under the Banyan Tree 20 years ago. According to his brother Francis and other family members, Prais came from a large ohana of seven brothers and one sister. His mother was a full-blooded Hawaiian from Hana and his father moved to Hawaii from the Philippines to work on the plantation.

They grew up in Sprecklesville and Puunene, living a “regular local childhood.” As a young adult, Prais moved to Oahu and became involved in the Hawaiian syndicate. The earliest conviction on Prais’ eCrim Record took place in October 1962 on Oahu. The charge was larceny-theft, which is a misdemeanor.

But as sometimes happens, a negative event causes a positive, life changing experience.

“He went to jail and found Jesus,” said brother, Francis.

“He felt like the Lord was calling him and he pretty much withdrew to Makaha, forsaking everything else,” said a family member, “People were afraid that he would be killed trying to leave the syndicate. He was told that no one leaves, but he did anyway.”

“There was a big change. He gave his life to Jesus,” said Francis, “He lived in the wilderness, Keaau, for maybe a year. Then the village was torn down. After, he went out to Waikiki and started ministry a on the street there.”

In Waikiki, his street ministry grew. “He was on television for a while, they gave him some time. He would go and preach,” said Francis.

It was in Waikiki, at the age of 19, that Tau “Sista Tala” Ponali met Prais. Today, she’s over 50 years old and has been following him for over 30 years. “My brother started hanging out with him,” she said while we sat next to a memorial set up for Prais near the Lahaina Courthouse. “We grew up in the Samoan syndicate. If it wasn’t for Brother Phillip… Now my brother is fat, sassy, married with four children worshiping at the Assembly of God.”

As we spoke, she and Francis shared memories of the early days of Prais’ ministry, his numerous arrests and phenomenal knowledge of the Word of God. “He had faith. He was called,” said Ponali, “There were so many tickets and arrests, but he never wanted us to back off. He wanted us to be accountable for what we believed in.”

Although during Prais’ street ministry there were many run-ins with the police, Ponali said, “[On Oahu] When they had trouble with somebody, young kids, the police would bring them to Bradda Phillip.”

“Even one time there was an officer in trouble,” said Francis, “and he came and stayed with us. We took him in.”

“Sometime the world doesn’t have answers,” said Ponali, “But the main thing for Bradda was his people. He was a preacher. A sovereign of Jesus Christ. He went through trials and tribulations to gain the knowledge to help us. How can you forgive an alcoholic if you could never feel it?”

Speaking with her, I am reminded that according to the New Testament, Jesus Christ himself hung out with people in trouble with the law, temperamental fishermen, tax-collectors who were probably shady and known prostitutes. He was ridiculed for being associated with them, but according to scripture, those were the people that needed his ministry the most. Christ didn’t keep his ministry enclosed in a temple of law abiding citizens, and neither did Prais.

Prais was not homeless. He chose to live on the streets, but according to those that knew and loved him, it was a conscious decision based on Matthew 8:20 [And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”] rather than circumstance that put him there.

From Oahu, he moved back home to Maui to live on family property in Hamoa. He was married for 11 years and had two children. According to a family member, he was a dedicated father and his children meant everything to him.

“He was devoted to them,” said the family member, “He took them fishing. There was a lot of beach time, exploring, hiking, going back to the family roots. Intertwined in all this, of course was church and the Bible. Bible study played a big part in their lives.”

According to the family member, Prais used to go back and forth from Lahaina to Hana, but when his marriage dissolved, “I guess he didn’t want to stay in Hana. Lahaina was kind of like Waikiki. He felt to maximize his reach, he needed to be in a place of heavy traffic. He ended up staying there.”

Almost everyone I spoke to that knew Prais stressed the fact that he felt called to give up everything to follow Christ.

“He sacrificed a lot,” said a family member.

On June 15, a letter from Wailuku attorney David Cain ran in the Maui News that said, “I had the pleasure of representing Mr. Prais in Lahaina District Court for some interesting freedom of speech issues, including trespass and other issues relating to Mr. Prais’ ‘preaching’ in Banyan Tree Park in Lahaina. Mr. Prais had the kindest and gentlest spirit of most any person which I have ever met. He truly believed in his message of peace and good will.”

I talked to Cain this past Wednesday afternoon over the phone. “I began representing Phillip because the appointed public defender wasn’t comfortable with Phillip’s stance that he was a Sovereign of God and therefore had a right to free speech,” said Cain. “I’ve represented him in a number of cases and those cases [pertaining to being a sovereign of God] were all resolved.”

Cain described Prais as a kind and gentle spirit repetitively. “Yes, he was eccentric, to put it mildly,” he said. “But in other places, Phillip would have been up on a mountain top being revered by the people for his message. But, here… Whoever actually spoke to the man knew that he was exuding the Spirit of God, if there is such a thing.”

He went on to tell me that two to three years ago, when he first became appointed to Prais, he asked county prosecutor Scott Hanano, “to come in and meet” his client.

“He [Hanano] thought I was a nut,” said Cain, “but he came to my office and met with Phillip and you know, after that, Scott changed. He went above and beyond as a prosecutor for Phillip. It was amazing. If Phillip wasn’t a true messenger of God, I don’t know who is. Representing him was an honor.”

While driving down to work on Wednesday morning, Igot a call from Scott Hanano.

“Phillip was a kind man,”said Hanano. “His intent was never to hurt anyone or to break the law. He didn’t have any animosity towards me as a prosecutor. He knew I was doing my job. He was such a unique person and Lahaina won’t be the same without him.”

While talking with Prais’ family and friends under the Banyan Tree this past Friday, Francis’ cell phone rang.

“It was his heart,” said Francis when he got off the phone, “They just told me heart failure.”

The question that I’ve heard over the past few days is “Did Phillip die of a broken heart related to the bad press and an order to leave an area that he had spent over 20 years frequenting?” I don’t know. But my opinion would be that such a strong man’s spirit and will to live could not be broken so easily.

I do know that according to those that knew him best–his brother, followers, friends, family, attorney, prosecutor and the MPD–Prais was a strong and dedicated individual fully prepared to stand up for what he believed in. Prais put his faith in God, and on that he did not waiver.

I don’t believe that if Prais were alive today, he would waste his time judging other’s actions. He would simply be on the street corner, preaching to us all from a Bible that he knew inside and out.

“To live what he lived,” said Dille, “That’s beautiful.”

When I asked Sista Tala what she and the rest of the people who followed Prais were going to do now that he was gone, she smiled at me and said, “He changed our lives. We’re better people, more loving people from having known him. Now we’re going to go on.” MTW

NOTE: The family of Brother Phillip Prais invites you to join us in a celebration of his life on Saturday, June 28, 2008, at 8:00 AM. We will gather at the Banyan Tree Park in Lahaina in the area on the Old Fort Wall side.