When he died of typhus at 26, in the cold New England winter half a world away from his tropical island home, the shining dream of Henry Obookiah's extraordinary life seemed to vanish.
But his death 167 years ago, marked here last Sunday, helped to energize one of the most far-reaching developments in Protestantism since the Reformation: the Christian missionary movement.
In 1819, the year after Obookiah died, the first missionaries sailed from Boston harbor for the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was called then, to carry out his unfulfilled dream. The venture was chronicled with considerable historical authenticity by James Michener in his book "Hawaii."
Last Sunday, members of Hope United Church of Christ in Fairfax County celebrated Obookiah Sunday with special songs and prayers and a Hawaiian-style feast. Many of them wore bright-colored Hawaiian print muu-muus or aloha shirts and sported distinctive seed and shell leis of the Pacific islands.
The walls of the modest church on Old Telegraph Road southwest of Alexandria were hung with intricately worked Hawaiian quilts. There were floral arrangements of exotic heart-shaped antherium from a sister congregation in Honolulu and the congregation had taught its children in Sunday school how the long dead Obookiah linked them to those exotic islands.
Though largely overlooked in church history books -- Hope claims to be the only congregation outside Hawaii to devote a day to him -- Obookiah is as much a part of their spiritual ancestry as is John Winthrop or Cotton Mather.
Orphaned by tribal warfare in which he witnessed the massacre of his parents, Obookiah was befriended by a New England sea captain and brought to this country in 1809 at the age of 17. Living for a time in the home of Timothy Dwight, Congregational minister and president of Yale University, he became a Christian and resolved to return to Hawaii to share his newfound faith. He was preparing himself for that task when he was stricken with typhus.
The poignancy of his unfilfilled mission caught the religious imagination of the time and gave new impetus to the resolve of a group of young men from Williams College who sought backing to carry the Christian faith overseas.
Hope United Church of Christ has special ties to those first missionaries in the person of one of its members, Harold D. Mahina Bailey.
"My great-great-grandfather left Boston harbor in 1819," recalls Bailey, who came to the Washington area from Hawaii 22 years ago as a civilian employe of the Navy.
"Edward and Carolyn Bailey -- they were both teachers. On Maui," the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, he said. "They started the first women's boarding school, the Wailuku Women's Seminary."
One of their five sons, Harold Bailey's great-grandfather, married a Hawaiian princess or alii, a marriage that helped greatly to solidify the position of the missionaries. Until the large population influx after World War II, Congregationalism was the dominant church in the islands.
It was Bailey who took the initiative in introducing the Obookiah Sunday observance, traditional in Hawaiian churches, to Hope Church six years ago.
The observance has become a rallying point for homesick Hawaiians from as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It included a buffet lunch featuring such adopted Hawaiian delicacies as kim chee and sushi, cooked by Bailey and his wife Linda, "with the help of some of the church ladies," he said.
The United Church of Christ, of which Hope Church is a part, is the result of a merger nearly 30 years ago of Evangelical and Reformed and Congregational Christian churches. The latter group is the spiritual offspring of Pilgrim settlers in New England and the link to Hawaii.
Hope Church's own ties with Hawaii were strengthened three years ago when Bailey, who is chairman of the board of deacons, led a tour of some 60 members to visit mission sites in Hawaii.
Besides developing bonds with a sister church in Honolulu and visiting the shrines and tourist spots, the travelers, at Bailey's behest, each returned with a couple of lava rocks, the kind Hawaiians -- and the Virginians -- use for their traditional underground pig roast.
"Sixty people, 120 rocks; enough for a real luau," Bailey said.