KAANAPALI - Nine-year-old Laki Pomaikai already looked like a loser. Today, he may be the most flamboyant, colorful preacher in all of Maui.
His father drank and his family was impoverished. "I watched my father steal a can of Spam. My father literally tied ropes around our house to keep it from collapsing. I was an alcoholic at age nine," he told his flock of visitors and locals at Sunday services here.
The example of his father signaled Laki that stealing was OK. The future man of God became what he calls "an accomplished thief" in a pamphlet titled "From Green Fields Of Marijuana to Prison Greens."
Pastor Laki presides over a Christmas Day Service at Kaanapali Beach Hotel with help from a few friends.
The boy who drank and grew up near St. Theresa Church in Kihei would go on to serve in the jungles of Vietnam after high school. Returning home, he was arrested in the '80s for growing 800 marijuana plants. He got five years in prison.
Paroled, he later got caught selling cocaine. A judge at the time threw the book at him - a 50-year sentence, minimum ten years.
And then, a kind of miracle happened. Laki found religion. Behind closed walls 23 out of 24 hours, he had plenty of time to read the Bible, which he now quotes liberally and knowledgeably. His conversion came from within, he said.
Demonstrating his sincerity, he was let go after just 22 months and immediately began religious training at the Cleveland, Tennessee, headquarters of a Pentecostal Christian denomination, the Church of God. (The church has seven million members in 170 countries and one million followers in the U.S.)
The Pomaikai Family had fallen a long way. Laki claims he is the great-, great-grandson of Queen Ka'ahumanu, favorite wife of King Kamehameha the Great. He even adopted a new name: Laki Pomaikai Ka'ahumanu.
Pillars of the community say this heritage is true. Following religious training, the Vietnam veteran has not looked back.
In fact, one of his many missions is slipping "From Green Fields..." under jail cell doors at the county prison in Wailuku on regular visits. He shows inmates, through his own life, that they can change. Laki numbers many converts.
Another place he can be found is near the beaches of Kaanapali and Kapalua. Visitors and locals learn from his web site (hawaianroyalwedding.com) that they can tie the knot and be married overlooking the beach or anywhere, officiated by a descendent of Hawaiian Royalty.
The pastor performs numerous ceremonies a year. Purists may question the ceremony's authenticity, but Laki said it meets the need of people who do not want to be married in a church.
A conch shell is blown, a chant given, rings and lei are exchanged and a blessing bestowed.
With Maili, his wife of 29 years, Pastor Laki has sponsored 21 hanai (adopted) children over a period of decades, taking them in from broken homes, nurturing them and sending them on their way. Many have risen up from nothing, like him.
As pastor of Harvest Chapel on Prison Street and a church in Lanai City, Rev. Laki also provided refuge and shelter to battered women, homeless women with children and the underprivileged and disadvantaged.
Last decade, he also spent two years in Las Vegas ministering there.
Today, he preaches at his Church on the Go, holding chapel services each Sunday at 8 a.m. at Kaanapali Beach Hotel. There, he asks visitors to say where they are from and why they are thankful to God. He plays a religious song on ukulele and offers stories filled with biblical references.
The reaction to his flamboyant style is positive. Two visitors who heard about him at a luau the night before said, "The luau was wonderful, but this was the best part of our trip."
Chris Pietzsch, a neighbor of Laki from Kula, allowed that "he speaks from the heart. I have never seen anyone like him. He's genuine."
Joe Pluta, a close friend, calls Laki a "Mighty Man of God, whose number one priority is to serve God! He has accomplished many miracles in his life and is a living inspiration."
At one service, Laki talks about Hell, writes the word on a piece of paper and tears it into pieces after dropping it to the ground. Someone nearby picks it up to take home.
After the service, Laki gathers in a circle around a cancer patient and her family. Comfort is provided, tears are shed and hugs exchanged.
"My job is to edify you - build you up," he tells visitors.
And then he ends with an interpretation of aloha: A (always)-L (love)-O (over)-H (hate)-A (always).
To that, we can say only Amen.