Sages Over 70: Francis S. Oda
The former CEO of G70 and senior pastor emeritus connects architecture to local culture and the “sustainability of the land.”
Francis S. Oda’s Christian faith and his leadership at one of Hawai‘i’s biggest architectural and engineering fi rms are not separate parts of his life. He lives them as one.
“He doesn’t hide that he’s a pastor from the corporate world. He doesn’t hide to the spiritual world that he’s a huge CEO,” says Jocelyn McMahon, pastor of New Life Church, the Chinatown church where Oda was once senior pastor and now is senior pastor emeritus.
“There wasn’t a duality in him. He was one man,” McMahon says.
Oda, now 80, is chairman emeritus of G70 after serving as principal and chairman for 49 years. It was in 1973 that he took the reins at a new, small firm then called Group 70 Lab.
Three years later he was a recent convert to Christianity and had begun tithing to his church – donating 10% of his income as set out in the Bible. On a Monday morning, stuck in traffic on his way to work, Oda’s mind flickered with doubt about the truth of the Bible because the promise of blessings being poured out for tithings had not yet made itself visible to his family.
But he recalls his doubt was allayed by three new thoughts about a coming blessing. “One, it will happen through big projects. Two, we will be prepared to do it. And three, a specific number that is so much larger than any other project we have done comes to my mind.”
That Friday, G70 received a proposal to build a 720-room oceanfront hotel for Marriott, now the Marriott Maui Ocean Club. “I was so unprepared for it, my mind went blank for a moment, because it was exactly the number God gave me.”
Oda says that same night, God gave him a vision for the hotel.
“He gives me these images of artifacts, Hawaiian artifacts, cultural artifacts – at a time no one ever thought of attaching artifacts to the décor of a Hawaiian hotel.”
With every project since, Oda says, God has helped him to connect his designs to the local culture as a way to honor its people and its past.
Among the many projects he has worked over the decades have been the two major hotels on Lāna‘i, the Lodge at Koele and the Manele Bay Hotel; the Hanauma Bay Nature Center; and a planned community in Indonesia called Sentul Eco-City.
Becoming a Pastor
Around the same time as the Marriott project came in, Oda was a member of First Assembly of God, which is now New Life Church. When the senior pastor died, Oda says he felt called by God to take over the church, but that could mean giving up his work at G70.
“So I prayed and fasted for two weeks,” he says. “I was waiting for a kind of word from God saying, ‘Yes, you leave G70 and you take over the church.’ But that’s not the call I got. It was, ‘Follow Paul’s model.’ ”
In the Bible, Paul was called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ while staying a tentmaker to provide for his and others’ needs. “I said, ‘OK, well, if I’m to follow that model, that means I continue to work at G70 and I become pastor of a church.’ ”
Pioneering Marketplace Ministry
Oda persisted in these two roles despite some criticism and became a “pioneer” of marketplace ministry, says McMahon.
That means ministering to the community, not just the congregation. “Most of the people around you are not Christians, but everybody needs God,” Oda says.
In one example of marketplace ministry, New Life Church ministers to men and women in local prisons and jails, whether they are Christians or not. The church has been involved in the revitalization of Chinatown for several decades and helping the homeless find jobs and homes, Oda says.
The Value of Family
Oda says that when he merged his secular and religious lives, he noticed that the values he and his partners had created for G70 aligned with his Christian values. One value they all share at the firm is the importance of family.
“We might be very successful. We might be very profitable. We might do great buildings or whatever. But if your family is falling apart, what good is that?”
Oda cites his priorities: “First thing, serving God; second is family; third is community; and then fourth is client.”
He says connecting the company through the shared value of family “has allowed us to be very cohesive as a group” and to form a positive relationship with the community.
Fulfilling the Community’s Needs
Craig Takahata, principal of G70, says that with each project, Oda and the firm focus on four areas of need in the community: eliminating systemic poverty, eliminating systemic corruption, honoring the local culture and blessing the community.
Oda says one way to honor the local culture is to use architecture to “assist in the sustainability of the land … (and) the cultural quality of the land.”
“There is no land here in Hawai‘i that doesn’t have a cultural meaning. So, you’ve got to find out what that cultural meaning is,” he says, so the architecture will “keep and perpetuate and strengthen the culture.”