Drawing Pele, Retreating to Hawai’i by Angela Yarber

angelaI knew I’d paint her from the moment we discovered that we would spend three months of our Year of Volunteer Travel Discernment in Hawai’i. Little did I know how Pele would turn our world inside out, destroying what needed obliteration and recreating new life that we never could have imagined. Pele is the Hawai’ian Volcano Goddess who governs fire, lightening, volcanoes, and the flow of lava. According to legend, she lives in the Halema’uma’u crater of Kilauea on the Big Island.

For over a year, I’d corresponded with a retreat center on the Big Island for my wife and I to be Scholars in Residence, while I also taught yoga and my wife worked on the organic farm. We were beyond excited and arrived in Hilo this January with open hearts and minds, eager to begin our work. Pele had other plans for us. The retreat center where we were planning to work turned out to be a complete disaster: dengue fever, mosquitoes biting my child within five minutes inside our living quarters, proprietors clearly on drugs. We’ve roughed it with no running water in the middle of the woods for months at time, but this was squalor. My wife and I took one look at each other and knew that there was no way we were keeping our child in this environment.

We knew a total of four people in the entire state of Hawai’i and had no back up plans. It was clear that everything our original workplace told us was a lie. I felt like an utter failure. Briefly devastated, we quickly reached out to the four people we knew. First to respond was a dear Buddhist woman for whom I’ve endorsed books. She offered us the grace of housing for a night in the most star-bedazzled expanse of land I’ve ever encountered. Upon arrival, a peacock ran across my path, my Buddhist friend gripped my hand and said with confidence, “Sometimes Pele has to destroy in order to bring us the beauty we need. She and Kali are like that.”

She was absolutely right. Everything worked out as we exchanged yard work for 3 months of housing for a couple of Unitarian astrophysicists and I later preached and led workshops at a Unitarian church on Oahu. Along the way, my little family fell head over heels in love with the Big Island, thus making a radical decision to create our intersectionally ecofeminist retreat center in Hawai’i rather than on the mainland.

As we have traveled for the past 8 months, our future plans continue to develop and deepen in ways that are meaningful, exciting, and challenging. When we left for our Year of Volunteer Travel Discernment, we knew that our end-goal was to find land to open a small retreat/education center. We knew the undergirding philosophy: intersectional ecofeminism. We knew that we wanted to create the retreat in a way that left us debt-free. And we knew that we wanted to spend part of the year close to family in the southeast. Because of all these things, we assumed we’d likely find land somewhere in the North Carolina mountains, lead retreats for about half the year, and travel for about half the year from henceforth. Amidst all the things we “knew,” we also remained open to the changes travel would bring: new inspirations, new wonders, new ideas, new connections.

The things we knew when we left are still realities for us: 1) undergirding ecofeminist philosophy, 2) debt-free, 3) near family for half the year. Our assumptions, however, have changed a bit. After a lot of searching in North Carolina, we’ve accepted that we’re likely priced out of creating our retreat center there if we want to remain debt-free. A major assumption also changed when we arrived on the stunning Big Island of Hawai’i. The possibility of living in Hawai’i had never even entered our search simply because we assumed it would astronomically expensive. Pele destroyed these assumptions. It turns out that the price of land and building on the east side of Big Island is actually incredibly affordable and naturally lends itself to an off-grid sustainable lifestyle.

We have been enlivened by this island: its beauty, the diversity of people, multiculturalism, access to living off-grid, access to growing your own food, its rich culture and history, access to a vegan lifestyle, and the ability to live the majority of our life outside. The Big Island is also much more progressive in ways that would better suit our retreat center and our little family. So, we’ve purchased an acre of land in the Puna District. It is four blocks—a brief 5 minute stroll—from stunning cliffs where Pele unleashed lava that crashed into bluest waves I’ve ever seen. Standing on the cliffs, one can see whales breech and green sprouts peeking through the molten rubble.



Our plan moving forward is to create our retreat center on the Big Island, leading retreats for most of winter and spring. In most of summer and fall, we will live in our tiny camper in North Carolina where I will continue to teach Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wake Forest University.

Right now we are working on the permitting to build our family’s tiny home. When we’re leading retreats, this home will function as the main hub of the center. Everything will be entirely off-grid and sustainable with solar energy, water catchment, and propane gas. Once we build our small home, we plan to build multiple teeny tiny homes—called ‘ohana homes in Hawai’i as ‘ohana means “family”—for retreatants to stay in on the land. So, we’re certainly open to hosting visitors and groups with some construction skills who want to help us build some of these ‘ohana homes! If you lead service projects, check your calendars…if you want a free place to stay in Hawai’i in exchange for meaningful work, we’re your people! I’m being serious; I’m fairly certain Pele is, too.

Embodied Ecofeminist Spirituality, Queer Family Camp, Women’s Spirituality, Queer Spirituality, clergy and activist retreats, writing retreats, and maybe even body-positive feminist fitness retreats…all these things will become our realities within the next few years once we finish creating our retreat center! Pele creates new life.

We made an important choice when we left our jobs and sold our home: to live simply, remain open to wonder, and explore this big, beautiful planet we call home. So, that’s what we’re doing. It’s no wonder Pele guides our journey as she joins my Holy Woman Icon with a folk feminist twist. Since I’m still separated from my paints until August, I’ve drawn her like the other women in my forthcoming Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. With arm reaching up to fire and lightening, her volcanic body pours over the earth, and yet the smallest of sprouts push through to create new life. Most importantly, her big heart cries out to us

Breath and passion ignite,
Sparking a burning ground of
All our hearts,
Destroying with fire
So that new life may spring forth
Once again…


So, get out your colored pencils and cover Pele with as many shades of red as you can muster as she empowers and emboldens you to boldly step into the unknown to create new life. And join us along the way as we partner with Pele to build our retreat center—Sustenance Hawai’i—where our motto is “Create. Sustain. Empower.” Perhaps this was Pele’s plan all along.


Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B, and Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com.

19 thoughts on “Drawing Pele, Retreating to Hawai’i by Angela Yarber”

  1. “Embodied ecofeminist spirituality,” it would be interesting to read how you “embody” it? Thanks, Angela.


    1. I mean it the sense of lived ecofeminism. Because embodiment — the way we live and move and eat — is so undervalued as a term, I choose to use it rather than lived. I think there’s a disconnect often when one claims to be an ecofeminist in theory, but does not allow this theory to alter eating, living, body, and sustainability practices. This disconnect, I believe, is a spiritual issue.


      1. Right on Angela. So encouraged by your work and happy for your family. And yes, embodying ecofeminism must take on what we eat and how it gets to us, for us to be fully embodied people. I am planning on continuing my doctoral program this fall and my dissertation topic will include why ecofeminism theory and spirituality includes what we eat and how it got to us, calling for ecofeminists to embrace a ecovegan lifestyle.


  2. Wow, Angela, what a journey! And so exciting. I’m happy to hear about these new developments for you and your family. Can’t wait to come visit!


  3. So glad you’re settling in Hawa’ii. The islands really breathe a tangible spirit, don’t they? Besides, NC (with its new, oppressive laws) doesn’t deseve you and your family, except as agitators.

    Give Madame Pele — another great agitator — a red scarf for me, and blessings on your labor. Aloha nui! 🌺


  4. Mahalo Angela! I fell in love with Puna when I first visited the Big Island in 2014, and have continued to return whenever I can. I also teach gender studies and connect with your vision of queer spirituality workshops/retreats. I’m sorry to hear of your bad experience – but Pele clearly had a different plan for you! I would love to connect if/when we are both on the island again next. I’m hoping to book a stay at Kalani soon.


    1. Well, hopefully you can book a stay with us once we’re finished building, “Will Teach for Travel”! By the way, I just checked out your site and decided that we should be friends. Teaching for travel combined with gender and queer wondering/wandering seems like what we both do! Perhaps we can make our paths cross for some co-teaching somewhere on this big, beautiful planet.


      1. PS would like to join you all on retreat sometime in the near future as I have never been to Hawaii and I need a working break after I am done this doctorate;)


  5. Have you considered the costs of travel that will make your retreat center inaccessible for so many people?


    1. Of course! As we build the retreat center, we also plan to become a 501C3 so that we can apply for grants to cover the costs of travel for many in order to make retreats accessible for those who cannot otherwise afford them.


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