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Lahaina Minister and Wildfire Victim Visits Sacramento Betsuin

Rev. Ai Hironaka Expresses Gratitude for Support

A Shin Buddhist minister who lost his temple, his home, and all of his family's belongings in last summer’s devastating fire in Lahaina shared stories of sorrow and gratitude during a recent visit to California.

Rev. Ai Hironaka, head minister of Lahaina Hongwanji Mission for the past 13 years, delivered a heartfelt Dharma talk at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento on March 17. He came to Sacramento to thank the people of Northern California for their generous support. It was his first time away from Maui since the wildfire in August that killed more than 100 people.

"Humble appreciation … I bow my head," Rev. Hironaka said. 

In an interview following his Dharma message, the minister opened up about the agonizing moments before his family fled the fire, the pain of losing artifacts from his beloved temple, and how Amida Buddha’s compassion lifted him during one of the lowest moments in his life.

Rev. Hironaka recounted how he and his wife Megumi loaded their four children and family dog into the car. They traveled about a mile when they suddenly saw houses on fire and flames racing toward the place they called home.

Despite the imminent threat to his temple and family residence, Rev. Hironaka felt compelled to turn back. 

“The wooden statue in the temple, the Buddha statue” was his responsibility, he explained. He asked his wife for forgiveness, left the car keys behind and set off on foot.

Hampered by heavy smoke and fast-moving flames, Rev. Hironaka finally abandoned the idea and made it back to the car, only to learn his 17-year-old son Hoken went searching for him.

A neighbor who saw the minister turn back would later recognize Hoken looking for his dad. The encounter “saved my son’s life and saved my family’s life,” he said. The Hironakas were lucky to escape the inferno.

The burden of being a spiritual leader as well as a fire victim was at times too much to bear. Rev. Hironaka said he felt guilt and shame over his inability to save treasured artifacts. And little things would bring him sadness — like seeing the key to a home that no longer exists.

“If I visit your house and you have pictures on the wall — high school graduation, school pictures from first grade to high school graduation — I see that and then (I realize), well, I lost that one. So there was a time that it was hard for me to go to other people’s houses,” he said.

Rev. Hironaka said the compassion of Amida Buddha ultimately brought him comfort.

“I try to stay calm, without any intent to cry,” he said, but “once, dropping off my kids at the high school, tears I had been holding back just started flowing. I couldn’t stop.” 

At that moment, he felt a comforting message.

“It was like Amida Buddha was telling me ‘It’s OK to cry. It’s not a bad thing. Let me be your tears.’” 

Sacramento Betsuin Rimban Rev. Yuki Sugahara, a longtime friend, arranged the visit by Rev. Hironaka and his family. He asked the Sacramento Betsuin Sangha to help create new memories for them.

“(We were) able to bring the Hironaka family to Sacramento and show how the followers of the Nembutsu path are connected throughout the world,” Rev. Sugahara said.

Rev. Hironaka said he and the people of Lahaina greatly appreciate the outpouring of support they’ve received from around the world. 

“The Lahaina rebuilding process takes so long, it seems like,” he said. “So I humbly ask the Sacramento Sangha and the people of Sacramento to continue watching over us.”


For the YouTube interview with Rev. Ai Hironaka, go to:


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1 Comment

Powers Billie
Powers Billie
3 days ago

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