Loren and Darlene Cunningham and the early days of YWAM in Hawaii

Loren and Darlene Cunningham – Kona, Hawaii ca. 1980

Where you live can say a lot about who you are. When students arrive at YWAM’s University of the Nation Kona Campus on the Big Island of Hawaii, they don’t know the story of how this beautiful campus came to be what it is today. After all, YWAM – Youth With A Mission is a volunteer organization… from students to staff and even founders Loren & Darlene Cunningham. How did a non-profit organization establish such a campus? Co Founder of YWAM Darlene Cunningham took time to share her story about the early years in this place and a few of the places she and her family have lived in over the years… beginning with the first place in Hawaii where they lived. 

Darlene Cunningham – Co Founder of Youth With a Mission – YWAM

[Darlene Cunningham] We had just arrived in Hawaii and were living in this little nine by nine cabin at the YMCA camp in Kaneohe, Hawaii. We’re expecting soon to leave there and be a part of a trip that was going to be on a ship. So it’s only a temporary thing… but then it turns out it’s not so temporary. It’s Thanksgiving time and we’re living in this little hut and there are other people living in huts like we are in. We were renting a school at this YMCA.

Recent Cunningham family trip to see the Kaneohe YMCA Camp “cabinette” where the they stayed in 1973

It’s nine feet by nine feet and you have two sets of bunk beds. So the children are on the top. Loren insists that our bags go underneath the beds and I have hangers hanging on a little rope. The little kids called them the “cabinettes”. 

But then Thanksgiving came and we hadn’t charged enough for the tuition. Hawaii is high (cost of living)! We ran out of finances for any kind of special meals. And I’m sitting outside that little tiny cabin thinking, what are we going to do for Thanksgiving? We have to do something special. 

Two ladies came around the corner from the Anglican church and they said, “We want to invite you for Thanksgiving.” I said, thank you so much. We would love to go. But, it’s not just our family. We’re here with 90 students. 

“Oh” they said, “We know that we want to invite all of you.”

[Interviewer] How did you get from Kaneohe to eventually being on the Kona campus?


The Pacific Empress Hotel ca. 1976

Loren Cunningham – Founder of Youth With A Mission – YWAM ca. 1976

[Darlene] when we came into the old Pacific Empress hotel, which had been abandoned for eight years, this is the time of the heavy hippy revolution and it is now occupied by hippies where the electricity hasn’t been on plumbing’s not working. The weeds were literally up overhead. There was no part that was in working order. It was dilapidated and broken down.

At one time [it] had been very nice but because it just had [no one to] care for it, it was anything but nice now. But in one of those buildings, on the very end, there were two and a half rooms… and those two and a half rooms [..] became our little apartment from the time I would (arrive) till our kids were 17 and 19. So we lived there for 10 years plus. 

If the kids went out to play, I had to pin, particularly with David, a little timer on the shirt so it would go off so he could come home cause I could never find him in the weeds.

The plumbing was only partially working. We had to come in with trucks to be able to drain the sewer. Showers were with hoses outside [and also for] our dishes. We washed in great big bathtubs and everybody kept their own dishes so that we wouldn’t spread each other’s germs.

Loren & Darlene Cunningham’s son, David (left) 1976

Volunteers caring for the land – Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, 1977

University of the Nations Kona Campus in 1977 and today


1980’s fundraiser for construction of the Global Outreach Center. Staff and students wrote names and prayers on the individual 2×4 pieces of lumber their giving helped purchase.

[Interviewer] From those early days til now, things have radically changed. Who did all of that work? Was this bankrolled by some financier? Was this some kind of a cloister where everybody makes a vow of poverty and gives all their money to something? How does this really work?

[Darlene] This works because you have people that have all the same values and the vision and a purpose to come together. And so the individual staff member is a volunteer, but they aren’t paid to work there. They pitch in their money for board and room. The buildings that we see were given by many, many individual donors. There are few large gifts that we’ve had through the years, but generally speaking by individual donors.

Volunteer builders have participated in almost all major building and remodel projects on the Kona campus of the University of the Nations

The other thing that happens is that whatever finances are given and materials are bought, that money can go twice as far. Because we then have volunteers that are carpenters and plumbers and skilled people that come in and have helped do the building for free. So as one donor said, “I love to give to YWAM because no matter what I give, it’s going to go twice as far.” Now, sometimes labor is paid for when we don’t have that skill. But many years ago the count was 3,900 individual mission builders that had helped build those buildings.

Above – volunteers constructing the Plaza of the Nations ca. 1980 at the heart of the UofN Kona Campus and recent photo (below)

[Interviewer] What happened that changed your housing situation from being on campus housing [..] to where you live now?

[Darlene] I really loved living on the campus. Our family did. We mixed with both students and staff and it was just a great place to be and we were quite satisfied.

I think it’s important to know that as for the finances in universities, YWAM and ourselves included and we don’t even have… a specific fund for our travel because we travel all of the time. We raise specific funds for travel. There’s no percentage that comes out of anything that comes into Youth With a Mission. 


YWAM’s 25th Anniversary Celebration in Kona, Hawaii 

We had a 25th anniversary for the mission and people were thanking Loren and I for starting the mission and clapped for us and gave us some flowers. After that, a young man went to his leader and he said, “That’s what we do? That’s how we thank them… with some flowers and a little applause? Do you know those people have nothing? They live in a little two and a half rooms. They have no car and… that’s not right. They need to have a house, they need to have a car.” 

So unbeknownst to us something was started called operation honor in the places where we as a mission had served.

[Interviewer] So during the year of 1985 some YWAM volunteers decided to raise funds for your family’s house… and you didn’t know about it?

The Cunningham family on the night of the surprise announcement of Operation Honor

[Darlene] To our absolute astonishment, [they] bought a piece of land just 10 minutes up the hill from the university and gave us the finances to start building a home. Loren has never been speechless. At that particular occasion we counted Loren… I think absolutely the only word he kept saying was, (I think he said it 11 times) “I am overwhelmed.” It was not anything we ever expected.

The first car the Cunningham’s owned in Kona – donated by appreciative fellow YWAM volunteers as a part of “Operation Honor” in 1985

While we’re trying to recover from this remarkable gift and they’re telling us about it and why they wanted to give it to us, they also included… “Now this gift has some stipulations to it. This is to go into a family trust and it’s not to be sold or given for missions or anything else.” Because they recognized that Loren had a home as a young man. We sold that house in order to help with the property at the campus in Lausanne. And through the years, anything we’ve ever had, we’ve always tried to give in order to bless the mission. And actually there’s been a few times with this house that we presently have when we’ve been in financial crisis here. We’ve mortgaged the house.

[Interviewer] So they gave you the land and a downpayment for the house? But you had a mortgage?

[Darlene] And we worked diligently to get that paid off. And we have this wonderful house built for hospitality. We have the students here all of the time and other guests.

When we moved into this house, I was really uncomfortable. I thought, this is not how missionaries are to live, and I can remember sitting out on this lovely Lanai (Hawaiian for balcony) looking out over the beautiful ocean and I just said, ‘God, I just don’t know if this is really right for us.’ 

The Lord spoke to me so strongly and He said, “Daughter, if I choose to bless you, the least you could do is be grateful.” I took a big breath and I said, I won’t say that ever again. I’m going to rejoice always in this remarkable gift that God has given us and I think I can say to you, in all honesty, there are very few days in all the 25 plus years now that we have lived here that I haven’t walked out with a coffee cup in my hand and said, ‘Thank you God for your remarkable provision.’

A call to missions is to be absolutely obedient to God. There are times when we have literally had nothing. We would be unsure of where we were going to be sleeping maybe the next day and we were totally in God’s will. 

We never expected this kind of provision, but it is what God has given us. This provision has allowed us to entertain people from all walks of life in comfort and that’s important too for them. One of the greatest values that we have [personally and even as] a mission value is that of hospitality.

[Interviewer] if you were to guess, why do you think people are giving? Why do you think people are volunteering? Why do people do YWAM? 

[Darlene] It has nothing to do with us. It has nothing to do with the Cunninghams. It has to do with the purpose and the call that we believe. When we believe in young people and we call them to a purpose… God put something in each person and they can see how they can make a difference. We give them a tool for it.

Darlene Cunningham addressing University of the Nations volunteers in Kona, Hawaii

[Interviewer] What do you consider to be wealth? What do you believe we should consider wealth? 

[Darlene] True wealth, without a question, comes from our relationship. Financial wealth can be a great blessing. I also know [that for] lots of people, that is a great bondage. You can have people that have very little, that are absolutely liberated with whatever they have. […] So I think true wealth–that comes in our relationships. And whatever financial material things God gives us, that’s to be held lightly.