HONOLULU ‑ It started out as a regular Saturday morning for most people in Hawaii, including Dallas and Monica Carter and their five children.
Monica was getting breakfast ready for the kids before a busy day when the warning blared across smartphone screens throughout the island:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
It was the same kind of warnings Hawaii residents are used to receiving for tsunamis and hurricanes - the kind of warning they’re used to heeding.
“That was quite terrifying, of course,” Dallas Carter, a theology lecturer for the Diocese of Honolulu, told CNA. Immediately, Dallas and Monica sprang into action, albeit in different ways.
Looking back, “it was a great dynamic to see how we reacted together but in different ways to the same crisis,” he said.
Dallas said he had four thoughts once he had processed the alert. The first was: “Oh [no] I haven’t gone to confession yet!” It was Saturday, and the family often goes on Sundays before Mass.
“Number two was, ok, how do I do this perfect contrition thing? Number three was we have to get the kids praying rosary, and number four was, ‘Where’s my whiskey,’” he recalled.
Soon after the initial warning, Dallas ran to the neighbors to see if they had gotten the same alert. He also checked on some elderly neighbors while formulating a possible plan to get his family to the shelter of his concrete classroom.
When he ran back inside the house, he found that his wife had placed the family’s Our Lady of Guadalupe statue in the middle of the breakfast table, and all of the kids were praying the rosary. She had not long ago read a story about Jesuits in Hiroshima who were spared during the atomic bomb, and was inspired to start praying the rosary in part because of their story.
“My wife did probably the more important thing and she prayed,” he said.
“She said we can try to get to the classroom, but if the bomb hits, we’re goners, but what we can do is pray,” Dallas recalled. “The best possibility (of surviving) isn’t my concrete classroom, the best possibility is that the Blessed Mother provide us a miracle.”
Mariah, 11, the eldest of the Carter siblings, was awakened by her 9-year-old brother who ran into her room telling her there about the bomb threat.
“I remember thinking what’s going on? I literally just wanted to pray, I wanted to pray,” Mariah told CNA.
“I concentrated so hard on the rosary, I was like ‘come on Mary I know you can do this,’” she said.
Dallas said his 9-year-old son kept asking if they were going to die, and he wasn’t sure how to answer, objectively.
“That’s the first time in our lives that my kid asked me that, and I didn’t know what to say,” he said. Dallas and Monica tried to comfort their son by telling him it was an adventure that the whole family was on together.
After a few minutes, the family caught a glimmer of hope amidst the initial terror when Dallas called to check in on his parents, who were skeptical of the alert in the first place. Because they don’t have smartphones, they weren’t used to receiving alerts in that way, and thought it somehow must have been a fluke.
Furthermore, the missile sirens, which were tested on a monthly basis on the island, had not gone off at all, another sign that perhaps not all was as dire as it seemed.
Desperate for news, Dallas ran to his truck to turn on the radio. Instead of hearing static, or more warnings, he heard a football game and talk radio - nothing out of the ordinary.
The family started to breath a little easier, but they would wait - along with the rest of the island - for another 30 minutes before they got the official all-clear. They would later learn that the false message was an error on the part of an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
After that, most of the rest of their plans for the day fell through.
The next day was Sunday, and his family’s parish was packed, a phenomenon he has personally dubbed the #MissileConversions. The pews were filled, and the line for confession was out the door. Friends from throughout the island said their parishes were the same, Carter said.
Even though the crisis was a false alarm, Dallas said he and his family joined the confession line anyway, as a way of giving thanks for being able to go to confession again.
In his homily, the priest tried to bring a little levity to the grave situation that had caused so many to fill the pews out of a strange mix of subsequent fear and gratitude, Dallas said.
“He said you know that Bible verse where it says Jesus will come again like a thief in the night? Well it looks like he almost came like a thief in the morning,” Dallas recalled.
After Mass, the whole parish community had a barbecue at the beach.
“Yesterday’s beach session with friends and family was just the right amount of post-missile scare therapy,” he said.
The harrowing experience also taught Dallas a few things in terms of material, and more importantly, spiritual, preparation.
Materially, he said, he found his hand-held radio and placed it in a prominent place on his desk, so that he wouldn’t have to run out to his truck in an emergency situation.
Spiritually, he said he learned: “Don’t play around with grace. Be in the state of grace, be prepared,” he said.
“And it doesn’t mean to get on your knees and don’t take shelter, but have the spiritual part ready. Don’t forget to recourse to the greatest resource we have in situations like that, which is prayer, especially to the Blessed Mother who isn’t going to let her children suffer and go through something that isn’t the will of God,” he said.
On a lighter note, he said he also learned: “I’d have the rosary in one hand and my favorite whiskey in the other.”
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