Refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma), given warm welcome in Kansas City, Kan.
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There were no shy voices in the basement lunchroom of St. Patrick School here. In the humble setting of their temporary sanctuary, the people sang with passion:
“Ra tuah, ra tuah, Emmanuel,
Israel thongtla run tlanh hna;
Ngaihchiat lunghno in an tap ko;
Pathian Fapa a rat hlantiang.”
To almost anyone visiting that Sunday afternoon, the tune was familiar even if the words were not: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
More than most archdiocesan Catholics, the Chin people who gathered on Dec. 8 could relate to the ancient Advent hymn. Like the children of Israel, they know what it is like to long for redemption while in lonely exile.
But now, after years of exile, they have finally found a home — both temporally and spiritually — in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Let my people go
The original home of the Chin is located exactly 8,229.84 miles west of Kansas City, Kan., in the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Myanmar (Burma) was a British colony before it became independent again in 1948. It was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011.
The Chin of St. Patrick Parish are from the Diocese of Hakha in northern Chin State, which is located in western Myanmar. Although 89 percent of Myanmarese are Buddhist, most Chin (about one percent of Myanmar’s population) are Christian. There are seven recognized languages in Myanmar, but also a large number of dialects.
Although Catholicism has been present in Myanmar for 500 years, the first Christian missionaries to arrive in northern Chin State were Baptists from the United States. Catholic missionaries only arrived in 1938.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Chin have left their homeland because of government and unofficial mistreatment.
Like other minorities in Myanmar, the Chin have been subjected to a “Burmanization” program — which means assimilation and/or expulsion. They have faced at various times employment discrimination, forced labor, abuse, rape, starvation and extrajudicial killings.
In short, the Chin have been brutalized for their faith, their language and their ethnic origin.
Although most Chin flee to India, the new St. Patrick parishioners came from refugee facilities in Malaysia. They were resettled in Kansas City, Kan., with the help of the U.S. government, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
Cheerful and lively
“This is simple, but we try to make it a church setting,” explained Msgr. Michael Mullen, as he gestured toward the altar set up in the grade school lunchroom.
The Chin have come to the monthly Mass dressed in their Sunday best. Several men wear jackets adorned with colorful Chin motif. Some women wear traditional Chin clothing with similar designs — skirts, blouses and shawls.
The group includes many families with young children. Mothers manage fussy babies, while older children play happily, chatter, and occasionally run up and down the aisles. The congregation, comprised of about 70 people, is cheerful and lively.
A curtain and a crucifix have been hung on a wall behind the table that serves as the altar. Upon the clean, white altar cloth are the usual liturgical items, along with two vases with fresh, red roses.
An ambo has been similarly draped in white. Off to the side are a guitarist and an electric keyboard player, together responsible for the sound system and music.
When the Mass begins, the people’s parts are primarily recited in the Chin language, although Msgr. Mullen presides in English. He also proclaims the Gospel in English, but then pauses after each passage to allow time for Simon Dua Tlia, who speaks English, to read the same passage from a Chin language Bible.
Msgr. Mullen’s homily, also translated by Tlia, was short because something a bit out of the ordinary was happening at this Mass.
“Five couples will marry today in the church,” said Msgr. Mullen. “In each marriage, there is husband and wife and Jesus Christ. As husband and wife, you see Jesus in each other. You see Jesus in your children.”
The five couples — some accompanied by their youngest children — then came forward and stood before Msgr. Mullen and the altar. Behind them stood their witnessing couples. One by one, Msgr. Mullen joined each couple in a simple convalidation ceremony.
The Myanmar government doesn’t recognize religious marriages and requires that couples undergo civil ceremonies, said Msgr. Mullen. Although the United States already recognizes their civil marriages, these Chin couples have a deep love of the sacraments and wanted to regularize their marriages according to church teaching.
After the convalidations, the Mass proceeded as usual. After the dismissal, the Chin hurriedly stripped the altar and turned it into a reception table for the wedding cake and set up additional tables for a dinner. A high school-age brother and sister duo sang a special song for the couples.
The Chin couples were then introduced to an American wedding custom: Each was given a small, round cake to keep in the freezer until their first anniversary.
Free to live,
free to believe
Only two of the Chin speak English. Both Robert Sibia and Simon Dua Tlia attended a seminary in Myanmar, so their language skills and knowledge of the Catholic faith make them natural leaders of their small community.
The first Catholic Chin came to Kansas City, Kan., about four years ago, although some arrived only this year. Throughout their journeys and difficulties, they have attempted to maintain their unity and faith. The Kansas City Catholic Chin, who number about 100 persons, live in an apartment complex near 78th and State Ave. in Kansas City, Kan.
“Chin people are very simple and help each other,” said Sibia. “They usually solve their problems together. Since we came to this city, [we] found work nearby, so they bring more friends and relatives. So more and more people [come] to this city.”
The story of the Chin mirrors in a remarkable way the immigrant stories of the other peoples that now comprise much of the Catholic population of the metropolitan area: Croatians, Slovenes, Poles, Irish, Germans, Mexicans and others.
Like these earlier groups, the language barrier makes it difficult for the Chin to find jobs. Several of the men, however, commute by van to work at a meatpacking plant in St. Joseph, Mo.
Likewise, the language barrier made it difficult to find a place to worship “whether we were in Malaysia or in the United States,” said Sibia.
In fact, after several unsuccessful attempts to fit into other local congregations, the Chin began to gather in an apartment on Sundays to have a Liturgy of the Word service and read through the Mass.
Meanwhile, they continued their search for a parish home.
Home in the
Msgr. Mullen had no idea that the “lost tribe” of the Catholic Chin were living within his parish boundaries.
“Last spring, in April, I got a telephone call and the voice on the other end said, ‘We’d like to come and visit with you Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.,’ and I wasn’t even sure who was coming,” said Msgr. Mullen. “I knew it was a [foreign] voice, but I couldn’t place it.”
The doorbell rang at the appointed time, and Msgr. Mullen opened the door to find 11 men. He took them to the living room and they sat in a circle. Simon and Robert acted as translators for the others.
They explained who they were and asked if they could meet at the parish every week. Would Msgr. Mullen help them?
Msgr. Mullen contacted the Wyandotte Pastoral Region priests and various archdiocesan officials, and worked out an arrangement that accommodated the Chin’s unique needs.
Now, the Chin meet at 2 p.m. each Sunday in the basement cafeteria. Monsignor celebrates one Mass a month, and either he or someone else leads a Communion service on other Sundays.
Along the way, the Chin have benefited from a couple of providential personnel developments.
First, during the summer, seminarian Gerald Alba, who was born in the Philippines, assisted at the parish. Although he doesn’t speak Chin, he and the Chin quickly established a rapport.
“The minute Gerald walked in the door, the Chin brightened up and said, ‘Ah, he’s Asian!’” said Msgr. Mullen. “He did a nice job of getting to know them.”
Second, a Chin priest from the Diocese of Hakha, now serving as a missionary in Cambodia, decided to include St. Patrick Parish on his visits to Chin Catholic communities in the United States during November and December.
Msgr. Mullen is rightfully proud of the way the long-established St. Patrick’s families have welcomed the Chin. Additionally, a small group of parishioners from Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee has offered to teach the Chin English.
Twenty-eight Chin families are now registered with St. Patrick Parish and are rapidly developing their community, said Msgr. Mullen.
They have formed a men’s group and a women’s group. They have a “liturgy committee” that sets up and takes down for Mass. Their children attend weekly parish religious education classes, and the Chin hold additional classes on Sundays before Mass or the communion service. They always take up a collection for the parish.
“It’s almost like the early church, how they’ve developed a community for worship and for catechesis,” said Msgr. Mullen.
The Chin are busy settling into American life as well. Recently, Msgr. Mullen performed a house blessing for the first Chin homeowner.
If history is any guide, the Chin will integrate more into the parish as time goes by. When they are ready, Msgr. Mullen would like the Chin to serve on the school and parish councils, and he’d like to encourage vocations from their group.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I appreciate the spirit of vitality that they bring.”