by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There was absolutely nothing to distinguish this house from the others in this quiet neighborhood on a warm summer’s day.
That is, until you opened the front door.
At one corner of the foyer was a cluster of little shoes. And from the living room, one could hear the piping voices of little children chanting a song:
“Geeee, H, E, J, K, O — Mmmm, N, O, P, Q, R — Esssss, E, T, — Uuuu, V, W — S, L, Y Eh-zeh, An-see.”
Sui Ni Iang, a high school-aged girl, was leading a cluster of about 10 second- and first-grade children through the alphabet of a language from a place they had heard about but had never seen: Chin State in the nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
In another room, an older group of children is being taught about Adam and Eve by Father Michael Van Lian, a priest of the Diocese of Hakha in Chin State and on loan to the archdiocese. Downstairs, a third group of students is being taught by the mothers of a couple of the students.
These are the children of the Chin diaspora — a community scattered across the face of the earth because of official and unofficial persecution in their homeland.
Despite the tragedy of displacement, a small community of Catholic Chin found a home in St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. They are like a portion of Psalm 80 come to life: “You brought a vine out of Egypt. . . . You cleared the ground, and it took root and filled the land.”
Taking a familiar path
This is the first year for summer catechetical and language classes for the Chin children. The summer school would have been impossible without Father Michael, who was sent to Kansas by his bishop in answer to a request from Msgr. Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish.
Neither the archdiocese nor local pastors knew the Catholic Chin were in the area until April 2013, when a delegation made an “out of the blue” call upon Msgr. Mullen.
Since then, their community (currently comprised of about 250 individuals) continues to grow and integrate into the parish.
The men have their own Knights of Columbus council, families are involved in a parish garden project, and more than 30 children are enrolled in St. Patrick School. The community has two vans, proudly emblazoned with “St. Patrick Chin Catholic Community.”
“We do feel that the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and St. Patrick Parish have welcomed our community with their whole heart,” said Robert Sibia, a lay leader and interpreter for the Catholic Chin Community.
“We have a place where we can have Sunday Mass and the school for our kids,” he continued. “We feel like we are stepping into our new home that we have never dreamed. This is the only place that brings our Chin Catholic faithful together into one place.”
The path that the Catholic Chin are taking is similar to the paths taken by earlier immigrant communities, said Msgr. Mullen.
“To some extent, they are [following that same path], because they’re coming to the United States seeking opportunities,” said Msgr. Mullen. “They’re coming for opportunities of work, for a better standard of living and for freedom for themselves and their children.
“And, to some extent, to practice their faith because it’s not that easy in Burma right now.”
Faith of their fathers
Since he arrived at St. Patrick Parish on Thanksgiving Day in 2015, Father Michael has given the Catholic Chin community a tremendous boost.
“Almost [none] of the parents in our community . . . read, write or speak English,” said Sibia. “So having Sunday Mass and a homily in our dialect draws more and more parents to come to Sunday Mass.”
In addition to administering the sacraments, Father Michael makes home visits and conducts prayer services, teaches, translates and even participates in the Chin community social life by playing soccer on weekends with the men.
Because he also speaks the Burmese national language, he celebrates Mass at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Kansas City, Kansas, for other Burmese in eastern Wyandotte County.
But even before the advent of Father Michael, the Catholic Chin took responsibility for passing on their faith, language and culture to their children.
Concern about keeping their Catholic faith was what brought their leaders to the door of Msgr. Mullen in the first place. Previously, they met at a Protestant church, which is home to a larger Protestant Chin community.
Some laypeople — mostly mothers — held informal classes on their own to give their children some basic formation in the faith, said Msgr. Mullen. That has continued at St. Patrick Parish.
The Catholic Chin are discovering, as had other groups before them, that it can be difficult to pass on their faith, language and culture while integrating into the larger American culture.
“Most of our children cannot speak the Chin language well, so we have to teach them,” said Father Michael. “We don’t want them to lose our culture.”
But it is a matter of more than culture.
“When we worship and pray at Mass, we use our Chin language,” he said. “Without learning our language, the children cannot pay attention.”
The Chin community seems to be happy in Kansas and its members are relieved they are in a culture that is generally accepting, said Msgr. Mullen. Thankfully, he has not witnessed them being subject to the kind of discrimination that was experienced by earlier immigrant groups.
“Sometimes [longtime parishioners] will say, ‘I wish there was more we could do together and be more one community,’ and that’s understandable,” said Msgr. Mullen.
“We’ll work gradually toward that as [the Chin] become more involved in the parish,” he continued. “But right now, it’s pretty important for the Chin community to meet as they are, and to have Mass in the Chin language each week.”