A lifetime of service: Minister of education at Kinoole Baptist retiring after 42 years

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Gail Inamine is retiring after 42 years as minister of education and administration at Kinoole Baptist Church in Hilo.

Gail Inamine has long been a familiar face at Kinoole Baptist Church.

But Inamine, who has served as minister of education and administration for 42 years, will soon retire. Her last day in the office will be at the end of the month.

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Inamine’s history with the church began long before her ministry work.

“Actually, I had uncles and aunties who were part of this church back in the ’50s,” she said early last week.

Her family was living on Oahu, but when they moved back in the early 1960s, Inamine said “my mom started coming here because her brothers and sisters kind of encouraged her to. So she dragged us to church and so I spent my teenage years growing up here.”

When she graduated from Colorado State in 1973, she was thinking about pursuing a career in biology, but her father had cancer and her family wanted Inamine to return home.

“So in ’73, I came home. He died about four months after and I really felt like ‘OK, now what?’”

Inamine said the church’s pastor at the time, James Sanbei, “really helped me to sift out things,” and they sensed she was being called into the ministry.

After two years at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Inamine said she was ready to go “anywhere in the world,” but family circumstances brought her back to Hawaii.

Kinoole Baptist asked her to start work establishing a church in Puna, now Puna Baptist Church, which is how she came onto the staff in 1977.

She returned to Hilo two years later and the church called on her to be minister of education. As such, she assesses the educational needs of the church.

When she was in seminary, Inamine said she needed a project for her degree and Sanbei encouraged her to start a child care program for students in kindergarten through eighth-grade, which she did during the summer.

“After I graduated, he said ‘OK, let’s try this as an after-school program.”

That has since morphed into the enrichment program the church offers today, she said.

The administration title came later as Sanbei was leaving the church.

“I guess he was anticipating that somebody needed to hold the reins or something until the church could find their way, and so that’s what he did.”

Inamine said being in a place for 42 years, “you get to see how people grow and change, the whole nine yards,” and one of the greatest privileges is being able to work with people when they’re young, “especially the teenage years, when they’re trying to make some decisions about life.”

A “real reward” has been seeing those who decide to go into ministry “knowing how tough it may be.”

Inamine said she was the first woman ordained in the state in the Hawaii Baptist Convention and as such has met with her share of challenges.

As a female in the ministry still, Inamine said “I know that at times you get overlooked. That’s the main thing, you get overlooked.”

“I have a lot of admiration for James Sombei because he took a risk,” she said. “He was the one that brought my name forward, that encouraged me to say yes, and that was just before things in the country, especially the denomination, started getting really polarized about different issues.”

While every church is autonomous, Inamine said credits Kinoole Baptist because “they have demonstrated confidence and trust, and if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have lasted.”

Pastor Daniel Tomita has worked with Inamine for nearly 24 years, but has known her for almost 40. Her retirement is “well-deserved.”

Inamine has always been “very reliable, very dependable” and (I) don’t know what the ministry will look like when she’s no longer there.”

That’s something Tomita said he was asked when he first came in 1995.

“I know that in Baptist circles, women ministers aren’t always given their due,” but Tomita said he “told the search committee: I don’t know what the church would look like if Gail wasn’t here because of her ability and her reliability. … I think that our church is going to miss all of the energy that she poured into our church.”

Karl Sunagawa, associate pastor of students and communication, started attending the church when he was 15 and said Inamine was and continues to be one of his mentors.

He said she has been instrumental not only in fulfilling a career as a ministry leader, but life, as well.

“Knowing Gail has made my life so much better.”

When asked about the decision to retire, Inamine said it’s just time.

There’s no “sign in the sky, like ‘go now, Gail,’ or anything,” she said. “But you get to be 67 years old and you realize there are things about you that you just cannot do. Not because you don’t want to, it’s just age.”

It’s also realizing how much has changed.

Technology and social media has “really changed what the church ought to be,” said Inamine. “And you need younger people.”

What’s next for Inamine?

“Clean the screens at home,” she said with a laugh.

If she had a “bucket list,” Inamine said she’d like to visit historical sites in places like Washington, D.C. and Boston.

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“When people ask me that, I have no idea, but at the very least, my experience has been — I’m going to get all mystical about this — that God speaks to you when you shut up. In the silence. So you have to be quiet, see how things settle and I think direction comes that way.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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