Hānai: What My Culture Taught Me About Family

There is a word that I fell in love with on a recent trip to Hawaii. I’ve heard it all my life, but this time I had to explain what it meant to my husband. And with most things that you teach, you end up learning it better.

The word is hānai. The meaning of the word has changed from ancient times to what it means today. It was a practice in Hawaiian culture for grandparents to adopt their grandchildren and teach them history and traditions. The adoption didn’t take place because parents were absent, it was just to add more parents into a child’s life. Nowadays, hānai is used to describe the relationship between people who are adopted into the family with or without legality and with or without a biological tie. People being treated as a family member, not based on any condition or pre-established relationship.

Hānai is a term used in the Hawaiian culture that refers to the informal adoption of one person by another.

My family has always lived out hānai with so many people, despite never living in Hawaii. When my friends in high school would come over, my parents would call them daughter #2. My friends called them Mama and Papa. My friends know that my parents would do anything for them just as they would for me, their biological daughter.

The beauty of living in this cross-cultural life is that family can happen anywhere. It doesn’t need formality or conditions. It’s not bound by location, or age, or gender. How freeing is it to know that you are loved like a brother/daughter/parent without needing to be one? It teaches us to love others in a way they don’t deserve. And to accept love from unexpected places.

This way of living with hānai plays out in most cross-cultural ministry, too. Mission workers normally leave all their extended family behind in their home culture to live life and do ministry in their host culture. Part of thriving in a new culture is building a new “family” to relate to and journey with. Many of those new family members will be people in the country from a similar culture as the mission worker. In some countries, those hānai family members are even called “aunt” and “uncle” by the missionary kids in the community.

Hānai always has been a beautiful picture of our adoption into God’s family as his children. Being a Child of God is a title that we can hold to, that we can live by, but not one that we ever earned. We now have a whole family that extends beyond any stretch of the imagination. The more practice we have at living hānai in the communities we have here on earth, the better we can understand the heavenly family we are a part of also.

Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Ephesians 1:4-6

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