Before Mahealani Chandler goes into the mountains on her native Kauai, she asks permission from Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire.
Pele is not just a deity to Chandler. She’s a protector.
So when the Hawaiian native learned that the leader of a far-out religious group from southern Colorado had arrived in her hometown, calling herself the goddess of volcanoes and creator of the islands, Chandler and other islanders grew outraged.
“That was highly offensive to the whole Hawaii kingdom,” Chandler said. “That was almost like a threat to us.”
What began as a relaxing trip designed to ease the pain of “Mother God,” the ailing leader of the Love Has Won religious group, turned into a violent multi-day standoff last week with a collection of Hawaiian protesters who chafed at what they described as outsiders invading their island and desecrating their culture. Rocks and eggs smashed against the house. Threats yelled. A car damaged in the driveway.
The protests grew so hostile that the mayor of Kauai got involved as a peacemaker before police on Sunday escorted the group to the airport.
Members of the religious organization — which some law enforcement officials in Colorado and Hawaii have labeled a cult — say they never intended to engender any ill will during the trip and believe a group of internet trolls are hell-bent on destroying their way of life.
“I feel a lot of it was miscommunication,” said Lauryn Suarez, a Love Has Won member who recently returned from Hawaii. “There was obviously a deep energetic there… that they don’t like outsiders. They clearly don’t like anyone from the mainland.”
What is Love Has Won?
Love Has Won is based out of a mobile home in Crestone, a town of less than 150 people in the northern San Luis Valley. It was started by Amy Carlson, a 44-year-old from Kansas who calls herself “Mother God.”
According to Suarez, Carlson realized as a child she could speak with angels and other higher beings and has made it her mission to help others understand “the great awakening.”
The organization’s members offer what they call “spiritual intuitive ascension sessions” as well as various ointments, cloths and remedies they claim can heal injuries. They also stream videos twice a day and run a radio station with sermons.
Twenty or so members are split between Crestone and another Colorado location, Suarez said, which she would not divulge for fear of retribution from online commenters who have threatened the group.
Capt. Ken Wilson of the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office called the activity there “cult-like,” saying his office receives calls every once in a while from mothers concerned that their children have joined a cult. But deputies have made no arrests, he said.
“They’ve got a very far outside view of the world and life,” Wilson said.
Suarez, along with fellow member Ashley Peluso, insist that Love Has Won is a spiritual or religious charity.
“(Cult) is a shock-value word,” Suarez said. “That word makes people uncomfortable and more hesitant to research the work Mom has put out for 15 years.”
Courtesy of Elsa Flores Almaraz
Police officers speak with protesters demonstrating against the Love Has Won religious group in Kauai, Hawaii.
Courtesy of Elsa Flores Almaraz
A protester holds a sign against the Love Has Won religious group in Kauai, Hawaii.
Courtesy of Elsa Flores Almaraz
A protest sign was placed near a house occupied by the Love Has Won religious group in Kauai, Hawaii.
Drama in Hawaii
It was Carlson’s health that prompted the group to temporarily relocate to Hawaii, where members figured the warm island air would be therapeutic for “Mother God,” who Suarez said is suffering from cancer and paralyzed from the waist down.
They figured they’d stay a couple months, but didn’t have a real plan.
Carlson, along with Jason “Father God” Castillo and a group of others, rented a house on Kauai last month, with several Love Has Won members flying out later to stay at a nearby hotel.
Word of the group’s arrival quickly spread on social media throughout the island, prompting Chandler and other locals to start organizing.
“Everybody in the neighborhood was shaken up,” Chandler said after videos and blogs from the group’s website began to circulate. Some of these included videos of Carlson spewing profanities and appearing to spit on a cat; others consisted of the leader berating her followers.
The demonstrators also took issue with Love Has Won members allegedly breaking quarantine to go to the beach and soliciting free food from the local food bank.
Community members started protesting outside the rental home, holding signs and chanting traditional Hawaiian prayers.
But Friday night, the protests escalated. Video provided by Suarez shows people throwing eggs and rocks at the rental house. The footage shows broken windows, while an SUV in the driveway had its front, rear and side windows smashed. Audio taken inside the home elucidates the fear from members as the protests intensified.
Kauai police would not respond to The Denver Post’s request for information on the incident, but a Maui police news release said there were reports of vandalism and small fires that night.
Suarez, who was quarantining in the nearby hotel, stayed on the phone with other members throughout the night.
“Really, it was a riot,” she said. “It was very scary.”
Attempts by The Post to interview Carlson were unsuccessful.
Return to Colorado
Chandler insists her group remained nonviolent the entire time — a practice known in Hawaii as Kapu Aloha — and didn’t know who caused the destruction.
“I think karma has its ways of getting to people who need it,” Chandler said.
The situation grew so tense that Kauai’s mayor, Derek Kawakami, came to negotiate with the group to help them leave the island.
Police also showed up to the hotel, telling Suarez and the others that it might be a good idea to leave.
“If we decide to stay, it’s not going to get better,” Suarez said police told them.
In a statement, the mayor’s chief of staff said no members of the Love Has Won group were “cited, arrested or informed that they needed to leave Kauai. It was an offer to assist them if they wished to relocate.”
Local officials then provided a police escort, transportation and flight arrangements so the 14 members could return to Colorado, Sarah Blane, the chief of staff, told The Post.
Officers stayed at the airport to make sure the members got on the flight, the Garden Island newspaper reported.
“We really weren’t there to cause anything,” Suarez said, “but it was pretty traumatic.”
For Chandler and other locals, the whole ordeal came down to a perceived lack of respect — and a fierce protection of their homeland.
“How are you supposed to greet someone with aloha when they give a ‘(expletive) you’ to your culture?” she said.
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