KONA, HAWAII — In 1866, Mark Twain visited the town of Kona on the big island here — home, they say, of Hawaiian Christianity — and he wrote a letter home. In classic fashion, he lit into the ministers.

"Every preacher that gets lazy comes to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to 'recruit his health,"' he wrote. "And then he goes back home and writes a book. And he puts in a lot of history, and some legends, and some manners and customs and dead loads of praise of the missionaries."

In Twain's book, the ministers in Kona were deadbeats — refugees from reality. But they must have had some initiative because it seems every other building in this town is a church.

There's the bright new LDS Kona temple and the nearby wardhouse. There's the St. Michael's Catholic Church, the Life Church, the Congregational Church, the Episcopal Church and at least a dozen others. True, most people come to Kona these days to worship the sun, but for anyone with a cultural compass, those little churches seem to anchor the island, to keep it tacked down to higher matters like staples in a legal brief.

And the most distinct and beloved church of them all has to be St. Benedict's — the little chapel filled with a rustic color wheel of paintings that make the interior relentlessly Hawaiian and relentlessly human.

I dropped by The Painted Church on a recent rainy day and was rewarded with a spring shower of color. Built in the spring of 1820 (about the time Joseph Smith headed off for the grove), the church's paintings served as visual aids for Catholic missionaries trying to teach a group of people who had no written language. They were, in a sense, an early "flannel board." There's a painting of Jesus being tempted while a ghastly looking Satan lurks nearby. There's a painting of Cain killing Abel, of Jesus appearing to St. Francis and even a painting of the deep reaches of hell, with all its agony on display like a technicolor nightmare.

I don't know why the priests chose these particular stories. Someone suggested they might correspond to stories in the native Hawaiian religion and would make easy "passageways" between the local religions and Catholicism. I suspect they played on the basics — sin, repentance, salvation through Christ Jesus.

I came away from the little church charmed, a little unnerved, very grateful and convinced I should probably put a little more effort into my daily life.

Would that our modern churches produced that same effect more than they do.

In the end, I've learned over the years to enjoy Mark Twain without taking him too personally. With Twain, his relationship with Christianity was more complicated than many realize. Before becoming a writer, he was studying to be a Protestant preacher.

Whatever else that means, I suppose it means he had all the credentials he needed to call books by American ministers he found here to be "shoemarkered up by them pious bushwhackers from America ... the flattest reading — sicker than the smart things children say in the newspapers."


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com