Seeking Grace and Redemption in Hawaii as a ‘Missionary Kid’
A Film Maker on His Family's History and Why He Makes Movies in Hawaii
This is not a drill!
January 13, 2018 kicked off a dynamic year for my home state of Hawai’i. It was a lazy Saturday morning when all the cell phones in my home barked an emergency signal buzz followed by an alarming Emergency Response text message all in caps:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL
My two teenage daughters sprinted into our kitchen clutching their cellphones. “What’s happening?! What do we do?!” Tears welled up in my eldest daughter’s eyes as I pounded my laptop’s keyboard trying to find more information.
My wife Judy was already on the phone with her mother who lives down the road trying to calm her down. I decided to let my 11 year old boy sleep until I knew more. There had been a lot of talk about North Korea on the news and it was no secret that Hawai’i is the Pacific Defense Command center. What are you supposed to do when you receive a ballistic missile threat text?
You Don’t Want to Be Like Bruce Willis!
All I could think of was the Bruce Willis character John McClane in Die Hard. You know, where he took his shoes off to relax at the wrong time and then spent the rest of the movie barefoot dodging falling glass, bullets and other sharp objects. “Put on your shoes! You don’t want to be like Bruce Willis!”
Evidently my daughters did not find comfort in my advice. “What?!” They got on their phones and called other panicked teen-age girls who fueled the hysteria. Rumors and theories came in as fast as we could process them and there was NOTHING on the radio, television or internet giving us instructions or context. Finally, after 38 excruciating minutes we were alerted that the text was a mistake. False alarm. Stand down. Evidently, some poor soul hit the wrong button at the Hawai’i Missile Defense and unintentionally traumatized over a million confused residents and terrified tourists. 2018. And that was just the beginning of the year.
I’m a Missionary Kid
My name is David L. Cunningham. I have always used my middle initial “L” (named after my Dad “Loren”) because there are many David Cunninghams out there. My feisty Grandmother Cunningham used to say it’s an “L” of a difference. She was an incredible woman, and in fact, was the first woman ordained minister in her denomination. You see, I have this amazing legacy of seven generations of missionaries and ministers on one side of my family and four generations on the other.
My parents started the interdenominational Christian organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM) which now spans the globe.
My great grandfather started 13 churches out of a covered wagon in the Territory of Oklahoma — literally building mud bricks by hand. And my great uncle was a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. He sent his pregnant wife home on the last Red Cross ship and stayed with his congregation of new converts in China. He was imprisoned for most of the war.
Chasing Billy Graham’s Pennies
My parents started the interdenominational Christian organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM) which now spans the globe. So here I come as a young teenager with a passion for film-making. “You mean like Billy Graham movies?” my Dad asked when he heard me announce my life calling. Dad was on Billy’s board and I have fond memories of Graham throwing pennies in his swimming pool for me to dive for. “No, I think like Hollywood movies” I replied. If I’d had the vocabulary then I would have said I have a calling to popular culture. I want to tell stories that matter to a global audience. To engage. I am carrying on the family business. It just looks a bit different.
I grew up on Hawai’i Island, also known as the Big Island, where my parents started a missionary sending campus called University of the Nations. Folks often get confused and think the name “Big Island” is where Honolulu is — the capital city on the island of Oahu that has over 90% of the state’s population. Hawai’i Island is actually the largest geographically of all the islands, and in fact is twice the size of all the Hawaiian islands put together — not to mention its very active volcano. More on that later.
Traveling the World
Growing up in the 70s and 80s on the rural Big Island did not exactly include a lot of exposure to the movie industry. However, we did travel a lot as a family visiting missionaries around the world. I crossed the African Sahel desert by pickup with my Dad. We visited refugee camps. The streets of Calcutta. We spent three weeks on the Trans Siberian Railway across China and the Soviet Union. It was an unbelievable childhood. I still have a passion for the nations and have now traveled to over 150 countries. But Hawai’i has and always will have my heart.
Despite all my travel, one of the most significant worldview shaping seasons of my life happened during high school. I went to the local public High School — Konawaena. At the time, it was the only public high school on our side of the island and it was packed. A few thousand kids crammed into an aging cement block structure. And it was rough. We had security guards, drug dogs, lots of fights and teen pregnancy through the roof.
Whites (or as we say in Hawai’i “haole”) were the definite minority. There was one day a year called “kill haole day” where if you were white you stayed home or were fair game for the locals. You can imagine this skinny blonde kid with braces, dodging 250-pound muscular Polynesians, trying to get to class without making eye contact.
Now, I am not trying to paint my home of Hawai’i in a negative light. My high school experience was a gift. A little bit of Hawaii’s history will give context.
The Missionaries Gifts, and their Children’s Thefts
The first missionaries came to the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1820 from New England. Revival swept the islands and Hawai’i became the most Christian nation per capita in the world. However, the story radically changed when the Christian Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown in 1893. Who did it? The children and grandchildren of the missionaries.
These heirs of the missionaries saw an opportunity to seize control of the islands for financial gain and they took it. They lied to the United States government and said the Hawaiian people wanted to become a territory and made a deal putting themselves in charge — securing their vast empires of sugarcane and pineapple. The Hawaiian people have been marked ever since by that betrayal. Combine that with decades of outsiders buying up the land and causing the cost of living to rise so high that Hawaiians can’t afford to live in their own home state. … You begin to understand why there is potential for distrust and animosity.
Adopted by Locals
As a young teen, I was blessed with three Hawaiian friends who took me in. There is a beautiful Hawaiian custom called “hanai” where one is unofficially adopted into a family. Zulu, Donald Boy and Garrett were that family for me. Zulu was one of 12 brothers — so everywhere we went on the island he was literally related to everyone. Donald Boy was our muscle — a native Hawaiian Mike Tyson. If someone dropped in on me while we were surfing he would paddle over there and make it clear that I was with him. And Garrett was the jokester — always making us laugh.
When I was 15, I saved up and got my first vehicle: a 1981 yellow Toyota pickup. We went everywhere in that truck. We would commute to school together, wash it together, and even worked at the same grocery store together — not to mention the countless adventures exploring the most beautiful place on earth. Garrett, Zulu and Donald Boy would one day be my groomsmen and I would eventually make my very first movie, inspired by them and my high school experience, called Beyond Paradise.
Making Films While Living in Huts
So how did a missionary kid break into Hollywood? Well, after fighting my way in the back door of USC’s film school I started a documentary production company with my roommate. We worked out of our dorm room closet and would film during the summers and edit during the winter. Traveling came easy. With my missionary mindset, we would beat out the competition, keeping to our frugal budgets by staying in huts and sleeping in cars. After graduation, we built up our business in Los Angeles. We looked really good. Eight full time people, all under 25, with a studio on the beach. But after a few years, I quickly realized that I was not doing what I was called to do. I was called to make movies. I was called to popular culture.
I walked away from my first production company with my wife of just a few weeks. She went to work as a waitress at the local Mexican restaurant. We sublet out our apartment and stayed in the living room on my friend’s floor. Using a few American Express cards, I traveled the world and would pitch my movie concepts to anyone who would listen. It was tough. I figured no one would invest a lot of money into a first time movie maker but maybe a lot of people would invest some money. It took a year, but I was right.
Twenty seven investors later, from six states and five countries, I had raised $750,000 to make my first movie. Beyond Paradise is a coming of age movie about friendship and dealt with issues of drug abuse, teen pregnancy and overcoming — all set on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It turns out, making that movie really was my film school. I had to learn everything from film finance to marketing. That experience opened the door for my second film To End All Wars. It’s a World War II POW movie about forgiveness in the face of war starring Kiefer Sutherland. We also filmed that in Hawai’i.
Breaking into Hollywood
To End All Wars put me on the map with Hollywood studios. For the next decade, I directed movies around the world for Disney, Fox, ABC and others. I was a hired gun known for bringing projects in on budget and schedule (after all, I was a missionary kid).
It was a fantastic run, but all along my heart was to return home to Hawai’i and my independent film-making roots. So, after much prayer, my wife and I took the leap of faith and returned home. My colleagues said it was career suicide. How can you be a filmmaker living in Hawai’i?
I was determined to prove them wrong and I have lived everyday without regretting that decision. All three of my kids have been born and raised in the islands, we now have a public/private movie studio and our first movie Running for Grace has just been released. It features Ryan Potter, Jim Cavaziel (The Passion of the Christ), and Matt Dillon (The Outsiders).
So, I was a missionary kid (“mk”) growing up in those same islands where other missionary kids robbed the very people to whom their parents had dedicated their lives. What is my role in God’s story of this place? And how does an “mk” break into Hollywood and make a difference?
2018 was indeed a wild year in Hawai’i. Starting with the missile threat and into a once in a century volcanic eruption. It was awe-full and tragic to see Kilauea volcano spew lava hundreds of feet into the air and wipe out entire communities. I have friends who sadly not only lost their homes to the volcano eruption but their entire villages! It was a privilege to host one of those families in our home for three weeks and later host a special benefit Red Carpet event of our film for those impacted. As I write this a category 5 hurricane is bearing in on the Big Island.
But I am not worried. I am so glad I am home. Not just for the good times but for the tough times too. I know my friends, neighbors and family have got my back and I’ve got theirs. As a missionary kid, I hope my films can play some part in redeeming the heritage and future that other missionary kids stole so many years ago.
David L. Cunningham’s new Running for Grace is a family film set in the 1920’s segregated Hawai’i and stars Matt Dillon and Jim Caviezel. It deals with themes of adoption, race and never giving up on your dreams.
Visit www.runningforgracemovie.com for where to download and how you can give the film to an adoptive family.