For the Burmese refugees who gathered on the afternoon of Sept. 21 at Catholic Charities’ offices in Camden, the World Meeting of Families started a day early.
Dozens of Burmese refugee families living in South Jersey gathered to meet with a religious leader from their home country, Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang of the Diocese of Kalay in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma.
The bishop, like so many other pilgrims from around the world, had come to the United States to participate in the international gathering of families and the pope’s visit.
Soft-spoken in conversation, the 56-year-old bishop became energetic as he addressed the more than 40 men, women and children gathered, in their native Burmese.
He urged them to prioritize education for their children but to hold on to their heritage.
“I’m trying to encourage them to work very hard, to give priority to education for the children. … and at the same time to keep our dialect and culture; to integrate here but not forget their own language,” Bishop Thang said. “They are longing, thirsting, to hear their own dialect.”
After the meeting, he greeted each attendee individually, shaking hands, joking and taking pictures with the families, many of whom came dressed in brightly-colored traditional clothing. Some had lived in the United States for years, while others had only just arrived, like Maria Hoih, who came to the United States with her husband and two children in late June.
“My bishop is here,” Hoih said, speaking in Burmese. “I’m very proud to be Catholic.”
The stop in South Jersey is the last in a long United States trip for Bishop Thang, who stopped in seven states in less than three weeks for pastoral visits with Burmese Catholic communities in Los Angeles, Portland, Tulsa and St. Louis, to name a few, prior to his arrival in Philadelphia on Monday.
Ethnic, religious and political persecution under a repressive military government that gripped Myanmar for 50 years forced thousands to flee the country between 1962 and 2012. As a result, Burmese are scattered throughout the world. Many lived for decades in temporary, desperately poor refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand or Nepal before settling in a third country permanently, such as the U.S.
The U.S. saw an influx of Burmese refugees in the mid 2000s. More than 80,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in the United States since 2004. The nation is home to more than 20,000 Burmese Catholics.
“They all are lost sheep, our faithful. It’s easy to forget our own identity,” Bishop Thang said.
“The United States is made up of immigrants. That’s our history. Each community of people that comes to the U.S. faces the struggle of adapting to the new culture while holding on to their own heritage, their identity,” said Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, in remarks to the gathering of Burmese families. “And that’s part of being an American: holding on to that heritage.”
Catholic Charities estimates that it has resettled more than 300 Burmese refugees in South Jersey. Often new arrivals are placed in the same apartment complex as other Burmese families, forming tight-knit pockets of Burmese culture.
One such community exists in Somerdale, near Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lindenwold where many Burmese Catholics attend Mass. The community has been supported and embraced by the parish, under the leadership of pastor Father Joseph Capella, who started a shuttle service with the Burmese community in mind to help people get to Mass on Sundays.
The rectory grounds house community gardens sponsored by Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program where many of the Burmese grow their own food. Several Burmese students are enrolled in the parish school this year.
When Francis Kap Lian, a Burmese case manager with Catholic Charities’ program, learned that Bishop Thang and another visiting Burmese priest from the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were coming to Philadelphia, he asked Father Capella if the parish might have room for two guests.
Not only was there room, but the living arrangement will allow Bishop Thang to say Mass in Burmese multiple times for the community at the parish during his stay.
For Father Capella, it’s all part of the broader theme of family.
“I truly believe the Holy Spirit working through the church, and the current Holy Father wants us to focus on our mission of love, which is the theme of the World Meeting of Families,” Father Capella said. “What does it mean to be a human family?”
Father Capella’s parish is one of great diversity, with parishioners representing several Latin American and African countries and the Philippines. His description of what a parish family should be complements Bishop Thang’s “both-and” message for immigrants from his country: both assimilation and preservation of a unique heritage.
“We seek community. We’re wired for that. We follow a Trinitarian God, that community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” Father Capella said. “We need to reach out to them to let them know that they’re a part of us and we’re a part of them. Not just ‘you join us,’ but ‘we join you’ as well. Both of us have things to learn to see where God wants to move us together.”