When Mu Hpare arrived in Bowling Green, Kentucky, two years ago, she didn’t use the oven in her apartment for two weeks for fear that she would burn the building down. Instead, she and her one-year-old son ate straight from the boxes and cans she bought at the grocery store.
She wasn’t the only Burmese refugee who had trouble adapting to the new culture and country where they had been resettled. Used to sleeping on bamboo mats in jungle huts with no windows, they lay down on the floor with the windows open, though their apartments had beds and air conditioning. They didn’t know how to turn on a water faucet; they had never seen a carpet or refrigerator.
Strangers in a strange land, Bowling Green’s new residents needed long-term help for rebuilding their lives. In 2009, Fr. Jerry Riney, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church, set out to see what his parish could do. The result, though not without its challenges, shows what can happen when people move beyond their comfort zones to meet one another in the love of Christ.
A Place to Call Home. Luis Oré, himself an immigrant from Peru, serves on Holy Spirit’s social concerns committee. He made contact with the local Burmese and met seven who were Catholic. Fr. Riney was impressed with their first request: “They didn’t ask for food or clothes. They said they wanted a place to go to Mass.”
A parish home was something that many had never known. Burma (renamed Myanmar by its military regime) has one of the world’s most repressive governments. Its citizens have no basic freedoms. And ethnic minority groups, to which most of the country’s Christians belong, are targeted for persecution—beatings, hard labor, rape, abduction, murder. Some five hundred thousand Burmese are Catholic, the fruit of missionary work two centuries ago. Many of these believers have fled to refugee camps in other countries; some have been there for years, rarely seeing a priest.
Those seven Burmese in Bowling Green found a home at Holy Spirit. Many others followed, especially after parochial vicar Fr. Steve Hohman and parishioner Laura Staynings went door-to-door at the apartment complex where many Burmese live, inviting them to Mass. Today, some 34 families—almost 150 Burmese—participate in parish life. Since transportation is an issue, the church rents a bus to carry them back and forth.
Love Breaks Barriers. In addition to transportation, language is an issue. Holy Spirit’s Burmese parishioners speak one of three different languages; though they are learning English, not many are fluent yet. Occasionally, a Burmese priest comes to visit. But usually, Mu and twenty-one- year-old Joseph Khai interpret at catechism classes and the Mass. With their help, twelve adults were prepared for Confirmation at Easter this year, and fourteen children received First Communion.
They could have waited for the Burmese priest’s visit, says Fr. Steve. But “they are so enthused to be part of us that they wanted to receive the sacraments with the rest of us.” For his part, Fr. Steve wants to learn enough Burmese so that he can read parts of the Mass and other sacraments without interpreters. But he adds: “We don’t want a Burmese parish within the parish; we want them fully integrated into our parish family.” For that reason, Holy Spirit’s old and new parishioners are encouraged to get to know one another. Opportunities are provided, and the parish Web site includes helpful tips for “visiting with families who do not speak English.”
It was hard at first. Everyone was “shy, hesitant, and stuck to themselves,” says parishioner Jennifer Bell. “But we are all learning that the language barrier doesn’t prohibit a relationship and friendship. Before, when I saw refugees on the news, I was removed. Now I am a friend to some of them. They are real people to me now.”
The Missions at Our Doorstep. As the number of Burmese parishioners grows, Holy Spirit is responding with an impressive range of services and supports. One of the newest, Adopt-a-Family, focuses on building community by pairing a Burmese family or individual with an American counterpart. They might sit together at Mass, share a monthly meal, meet informally, play games, or go shopping.
“It was fun!” is a common response from all participants. But when Phoe Reh was in a serious auto accident recently, the common bond with his adoptive family, Jeff and Julie Altfillisch, proved to be a lifeline. Right away, Julie drove Phoe Reh’s family to the hospital where he had been airlifted, staying long into the night. In the following days, the Altfillischs provided transportation, obtained a durable power of attorney for medical decisions, and helped Phoe Reh’s family get a percentage of his wages while he recovers. Other parishioners helped with driving, meals, and rent payments.
Currently, Luis Oré and Jennifer Bell are spearheading a comprehensive parish program that will help the Burmese master English, develop a child-care service, and discover marketable skills. It will also offer training in areas like health care and housekeeping. A fee will be charged—a realistic protection against everyone’s falling into a “handout” mentality. And as the Burmese get more acclimated to American life, the vision is that they will run these programs themselves.
Also realistic is Holy Spirit’s ongoing effort to involve as many parishioners as possible. “We don’t want any volunteers to burn out,” says Fr. Steve. But really, he adds: “We want more people involved because God has brought the Burmese to us, and we are developing a sense of mission in working with them. In the fall, our church is doing a mission trip to Jamaica—but this is mission work right here in our community!”
Who’s the Real Giver? The chance to live in America has opened up a future full of hope for the Burmese. Mu Hpare, who spent years in a Thai refugee camp, speaks for many: “I was dying, with no hope of a better life. Now I am a new person. I have freedom.” Currently employed at a preschool, Mu says her goal is “to be a nurse. And for my son, John Newman, to become a doctor.”
Joseph Khai is grateful for the simple fact of being able to go to Mass and receive Communion every Sunday. This has helped him grow in his faith and relationship with God, he says. “Since attending Holy Spirit, I pray more. I want to do more volunteer work in the community.” That’s true for the Burmese as a whole, Joseph believes: “We all want to grow in our faith, and we desire to help others as we have been helped at Holy Spirit.”
The outreach is so mutually beneficial, though, that it’s not clear who is benefitting most.
“When I saw the Burmese at church, a light went on,” says Laura Staynings, who teaches ESL (English as a Second Language). “I knew I could help, and I have found my niche, what I am supposed to be doing at church.” She finds joy in it, especially when the children recognize her and come up to give her hugs. “I look forward to seeing them learn English, blossom, and have better lives.”
For Jennifer Bell, who was laid off from her job two years ago, reaching out to the Burmese has given her life new purpose. “It has also given my husband and two daughters a way to serve together as a family. And since I tend to get comfortable as a Catholic, it’s the difference between just saying that I believe in works of mercy and actually doing something.”
Bethany Oré has had one family over for some “southern barbeque” and takes their boys to the library. But to her, the whole Burmese community “represents the love of Christ in the church. They are so welcoming, always giving hugs, shaking hands, sharing smiles.” And, adds her husband, Luis: “We all are reminded that the Holy Family were refugees when they fled to Egypt.”
Spiritual Food. Getting to know people who have been through so much often gives food for thought. Writing on Holy Spirit’s “Burmese ministry” blog, Jennifer Bell recounted an incident from one of the First Communion classes for the Burmese children.
We were learning about the Ten Commandments. I found myself explaining the word “covet.” I asked the children if they had ever experienced these negative feelings of jealousy or wanting so badly what another person had that it consumed them and became their god, rather than God.
She was expecting a “typical kid” answer like “I wanted my friend’s new video game.” Then Ta raised his hand and said, “Yes. In Thailand I had no food. Other families had food.”
Wow! After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I quickly asked the kids: “If Jesus had been there with Ta, what would he have wanted the people with food to do?” They all replied: “Share!”
The exchange both humbled and nourished her, Jennifer wrote. And it gave her perspective:
Our Burmese community graces me with gifts like these each time we meet. I once overheard Fr. Jerry say, “We need them maybe even more than they need us. They are a blessing for us.” His words certainly ring true for me.
Bob Horning lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.