August 23, 2019

‘Their faith sustained them’

Chin bishop sees ‘big difference’ in Burmese refugees at St. Barnabas

Bishop Lucius Hre Kung of the Hakha Diocese in Myanmar (formerly Burma) greets a young girl and other Burmese refugees after celebrating Mass in the Hakha Chin language on Aug. 4 at St. Barnabas Church in Indianapolis, the faith home of refugees from the Hakha region of Myanmar. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Bishop Lucius Hre Kung of the Hakha Diocese in Myanmar (formerly Burma) greets a young girl and other Burmese refugees after celebrating Mass in the Hakha Chin language on Aug. 4 at St. Barnabas Church in Indianapolis, the faith home of refugees from the Hakha region of Myanmar. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

When Bishop Lucius Hre Kung visited St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis two years ago, a mere six families comprised the parish’s Hakha Chin Catholic refugee community.

Visiting the refugees and parish again on Aug. 2-6, he was struck by the difference two years has made.

“There is now a lot of joy and confidence and integrity in the [refugee] community,” says Bishop Hre Kung, head of the Hakha Diocese in Myanmar (formerly Burma), of the roughly 200 Hakha Chin members of the parish. “There is a big difference—you can read it on their faces.” (Related: Explaining history, dispelling myths of refugees from Myanmar)

‘Their faith sustained them’

The smile on his face spoke of the bishop’s joy at the improvement among these people whom he knows have endured hardship and trauma.

First came the flight for their lives from the violence, destruction and bloodshed of the decades-long conflict between Myanmar’s oppressive military junta and rebels opposing the government.

Next came the hardship of living in refugee camps. St. Barnabas parishioner Paul Hnin, 35, recalls his own seven-year experience surviving in such conditions.

“They have 15, 20 people living in a room this size,” he says, looking around the roughly 8-foot by 10-foot meeting room at St. Barnabas where he spoke with The Criterion. “And only one bathroom for these people. It is no good.”

And then there was the struggle of adjusting to a new home with new challenges and a new language.

Through it all, says St. Barnabas pastor Father Daniel Mahan, their Catholic faith has been a refuge for the refugees.

“Many of them have suffered greatly through the years leading up to their arrival in the U.S,” he says. “And they have shown me that their faith is what has sustained them and what they treasure most.”

‘A push to reach out to Catholic Chins’

But it was difficult to fully practice that faith before learning the English language.

Hinh explains that while there are two other Myanmar refugee groups at Indianapolis parishes—the Karenni at St. Pius X and the Zomi Chin at St. Mark the Evangelist—the Hakha Chin are unable to communicate with them. The Karenni and Zomi Chin learned the national Burmese language in school as well as their own tribal dialects. Not so for the people of the Hakha Diocese, says Bishop Hre Kung.

“The difference is many Hakha Chin had no chance to go to school,” he explains. “They only know their local language.”

In that language, a leader of the Chin community at St. Barnabas taught catechesis, and the refugees gathered for communal prayer. But there was a gaping hole in their Catholic faith life, a hole that became a leak.

“There was no [priest] to say Mass or offer the sacraments in their language,” says Katie Dollens, St. Barnabas’ director of marketing and communications. “So Protestant and Baptist churches who had Chin-speaking communities said, ‘Come to us. We’ll take care of you.’ ”

During his visit in the summer of 2017, Bishop Hre Kung took note of the need for a priest who could minister to the community in the Hakha Chin dialect.

A year and a half later, a sea change occurred. Through cooperative efforts of the archdiocese and the Hakha Diocese, Father Eustace Thang arrived in December 2018 to minister to the Chin of St. Barnabas in their native language.

“Now that Father [Thang] is here, there’s a big push to reach out to Catholic Chins and let them know that Mass and the sacraments are offered in Chin at St. Barnabas,” says Dollens.

Hinh nods enthusiastically in agreement.

“When Father [Thang] came, the ones who went to other churches started coming here,” he says. “Now there are about 47 families and singles.”

So as they strive to master the English language, the growing number of Hakha Chin members of St. Barnabas can still be fed spiritually in their native language, not just through Mass and the sacraments, but also through catechetical instruction. Father Thang also hopes to soon start Sunday Scripture studies in small Church groups and a citizenship program.

‘My goodness, they’re learning!’

Learning about the faith is important, says Bishop Hre Kung. But so is common education.

“When Bishop Lucius came here two years ago, he said the Hakha Chin need to build a community, so the children need to be educated,” says Hihn.

St. Barnabas pastoral associate Patty Cain, who works closely with the parish’s refugee community, says the Chin families, the parish and its school took the bishop’s words to heart.

“He came in June 2017,” she says. “By the time that school year began, we had 23 [Chin] kids enrolled. We’ve got close to 50 this year.”

This fact makes Father Mahan beam with pride.

“We really enjoy having their children in our school,” he says. “They’re learning—my goodness, they’re learning!”

He notes that teachers were concerned about the students regressing in their English skills during the summer. So the teachers, along with other parish volunteers, offered a summer language skills camp “with fun word games to keep [the children’s] interest,” says Father Mahan.

“We’ve noticed that the children are feeling much more confident in their use of the English language,” he says. “That will help them so much at St. Barnabas and beyond.”

‘A pastoral heart for his people’

“Beyond” includes at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, where several Chin graduates of St. Barnabas School continue their education.

During his recent visit, Bishop Hre Kung had an opportunity to tour Roncalli and meet with the students.

“They made me join in football and volleyball games—I lost both matches,” the 60-year-old bishop says with an amused grin.

“I think they were happy seeing me play on the football field instead of the missionary field,” he adds, the grin turning into a hearty laugh. “I lost the matches, but I won the souls!”

He also paid a courtesy visit to Archbishop Charles C. Thompson on Aug. 6 before heading to Illinois, the next of many stops to Catholic Chin communities around the country during his monthlong tour.

“Because of his pastoral care to the Chin community and helping them to survive in their faith, I want to express my gratitude to the archbishop and all of the community,” Bishop Hre Kung explains. “For two bishops to meet is good and natural. We inspire and encourage each other.”

Archbishop Thompson was, indeed, inspired.

“He’s a very kind bishop, a good man of faith and devotion,” he said of Bishop Hre Kung. “He truly has a pastoral heart for his people, coming so far to visit them and the priests.”

‘How to break down barriers’

While there has been good progress, there are still great needs within the Hakha Chin community at St. Barnabas.

With Hihn translating, St. Barnabas Chin member Martin Ling, 50, notes that one need is for “transportation to get our children to school. We don’t want our kids to go to the public schools, but transportation [to St. Barnabas School] is hard because there is no bus.”

Cain chimes in, explaining that many Chin families “only have one car, which is usually gone when the kids need to go to school because a lot of the jobs [their parents] can get are second shift. And the moms often don’t drive because they can’t get a license.”

Lack of transportation also impacts the ability for Chins to attend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Even if the means are found to attend ESL classes, says Dollens, “they don’t have a network to have someone watch their children. And many citizenship classes don’t allow children.

“Every situation, there’s things we need to figure out how to break down barriers so we can help them become fully participating members of the community.”

Bishop Hre Kung had one suggestion to resolve the networking problem.

“He spoke about all being one in Christ, for Burmese at St. Barnabas,

St. Pius and St. Mark to be friends, to pray together and grow a community of faith,” Hihn translates for Ling, who referred to the bishop’s homily during a Mass he celebrated in Hakha Chin on Aug. 4 at St. Barnabas.

While Bishop Hre Kung acknowledges the language barrier between the Hakha Chin and the other two Burmese refugee communities, he suggests they “come together for Christmas, Easter and other times, led by parishes and the archdiocese. This will overcome the barriers.”

‘Truly inspiring and uplifting’

Despite the existing hurdles, the bishop is pleased with the progress of the Hakha Chin community in the last two years.

And the community was delighted by his presence. Hihn and Ling struggled to express their joy, repeating the words “happy,” “so happy” and “very, very happy” with bright smiles when asked how they felt about Bishop Hre Kung’s visit.

Father Mahan had a few more words to express the Chin community’s gratitude for the bishop’s presence.

“They were so pleased that he would make the long journey from Myanmar to visit them,” he says. “It was truly inspiring and uplifting for them.

“What impresses me most is that he doesn’t have to do this. The [former] members of his flock are living abroad, and he doesn’t have to visit them. … He’s truly a shepherd who is looking after their needs.”

As for Bishop Hre Kung, he says he merely wants “to accompany [the refugees] and encourage them to be good Catholics and good citizens in this land.”

Asked when he might return, the bishop grins and says, “When God allows.”

He went on to acknowledge that it’s “important to accompany these people in their faith.” Then with a look of quiet certainty, he smiles and adds, “But later, maybe they won’t need that.” †

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