by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – What does a God-blessed land look like? To a displaced people from Southeast Asia, it looks like Kansas.
For the past four or five years, refugee families from the Chin ethnic group of Western Myanmar (formerly Burma) have found new lives in Kansas City, Kansas.
Many Chin are Protestant, but some are Catholic. Until a delegation of Chin knocked on the door of St. Patrick Parish in April 2013, pastor Msgr. Michael Mullen didn’t even know there were Catholic Chin living in the area.
From that time on, the Chin have become a vital part of St. Patrick Parish. The St. Patrick Chin community now consists of about 30 families.
“Our parish has gained from the presence of Chin Catholics, because of their faith and openness to family and children,” said Msgr. Mullen. “That’s inspiring. Any parishioner here who has become familiar [with them] has become inspired.”
For a little more than a year, the Catholic Chin have been meeting at St. Patrick Parish for Mass and social events. Twelve Chin children are enrolled in grades kindergarten through eighth in the parish school, and another 10 are in the early education program.
The warm welcome and integration of the Chin into the parish led to a visit in early fall by an old friend to many Chin: Bishop Lucius Hre Kung, of the Diocese of Hakha in the Chin State. “We never dreamed this would happen,” said Bishop Hre Kung, himself an ethnic Chin.
“It’s so nice when they come here, with their community and culture,” he continued. “And the state is amazingly accepting — especially the church — hosting them with open arms. This really makes a strong impression. God may bless this land and this church.”
The establishment of a Chin Catholic community in the archdiocese had led Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann to invite Bishop Hre Kung to investigate the pastoral needs of the Chin here in the archdiocese. And while he was in the country (from Aug. 10 to Sept. 1), the bishop also visited Chin Catholics in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Baltimore; Buffalo, New York; Jacksonville, Florida; and Des Moines, Iowa.
“They were really happy to see me,” said Bishop Hre Kung, of his welcome by the St. Patrick Chin parishioners.
“Some cried. They thought they would no longer see me,” he said. “Some were [former] boarding students with me, so they remember their past lives. They long to see me and hear me.”
Two of the greatest challenges faced by the Catholic Chin are living and passing on their faith. This is made more difficult because most Chin adults do not speak English. For a while, the Catholic Chin associated with Protestant Chin at a local Baptist church.
“When [the Chin] first came here, they were looking for a stable place where every Sunday they could come to a Catholic setting and worship together,” said Msgr. Mullen. “They said, ‘We want to hand on the faith to our children.’
“They also wanted to have the sacraments, so that the idea of Mass, the Holy Father, the role of the bishop, the veneration of the saints, the creed — all those things Catholic — would remain clear and strong. They felt, from prior experience, if they weren’t meeting in a Catholic setting, those things would fade.”
Although the Chin are deeply grateful for all that Msgr. Mullen has done for them, they have a great desire to pray and receive the sacraments in the Chin language.
The sacrament of reconciliation, for example, becomes very difficult because of the language barrier.
“The bishop celebrated Mass . . . and before Mass [it was announced the bishop would hear confessions], and at least 15 people stood up right away,” said Msgr. Mullen. “There is a need for ministry, and all the sacraments . . . and for catechesis.”
Many of them had not been to confession for years because of language difficulties, said Bishop Hre Kung.
To meet this pastoral need, Bishop Hre Kung and Archbishop Naumann discussed the possibility of the Diocese of Hakha sending a Chin priest to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
“The archbishop is very positive about this,” said Bishop Hre Kung.
The Chin are very self-sufficient, said Msgr. Mullen. They look out for each other, organize themselves and do things to improve their situation.
“Their leaders are providing social services to their community, such as translation,” said Msgr. Mullen. “And Catholic Charities is helping, too, providing English classes.”
Assisted with a grant from Catholic Charities, the Chin began a three-quarters of an acre garden at the parish. They’ve also pooled their money to buy a van to transport children to the school. On the van’s side is a proud announcement: St. Patrick Catholic Chin Community.
Will more Chin come to St. Patrick Parish? That’s very possible, said Bishop Hre Kung. New Chin families continue to join the parish.
“We have some in India and Malaysia,” said the bishop. “The target destination may be here, because there is already a community, and [because of] the wondrous welcome and hospitality with this archdiocese.”