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Greensboro parish welcomes Burmese refugees
GREENSBORO — For about 100 Burmese refugees living in the Triad, Christmas Day will be more than a celebration of Jesus' birth. It will be a chance to worship freely, in their own language.
A Mass at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Greensboro will be said in Burmese and will include liturgical elements that are traditional in the Southeast Asian country. Afterward, St. Paul parishioners will celebrate with the refugees over a Christmas dinner and gifts. For some of the refugees, most of whom spent years in refugee camps before coming to the U.S. in the past few years, it will be the first time in years they have been able to receive the Eucharist or hear a Mass in their own language.
"It makes it so meaningful to them when the celebration is in their language," said Redemptorist Father Vang Cong Tran, a priest in residence at St. James the Greater Church in Concord, who will celebrate the Mass. He works with Asian refugee communities across the diocese, including a more established Burmese community in Charlotte. "The Mass is very important ... when the Mass is in their culture, in their language, in their history – it makes it real to them."
Pictured above: A young Burmese refugee prays at a Mass in Winston-Salem recently. "They long for the Eucharist," said Father Vang Cong Tran, who ministers to Asian refugee communities across the Diocese of Charlotte.
The journey to this precious Christmas gift began in 2010, when parishioners from St. Paul Church visited a refugee camp in Malaysia and spent time with refugees.
"Two of my former students (at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio) are now ordained and serve as priests in (Burma)," said Father John Allen, St. Paul's pastor. "I wished to learn about their experiences as priests but knew that a personal visit in their country would be impossible."
Burma, now called Myanmar, has been under the rule of a military junta since the 1960s and only recently has begun showing signs of liberalization. The United Nations has condemned the government for human rights violations, and ethnic and religious minorities including Catholics have been systematically persecuted. The government's harsh rule has caused thousands, most of them indigenous people, to flee across the border to Thailand or Malaysia.
Among them is Mark Khup, who now works with Catholic Social Services in its Charlotte refugee resettlement office. He came to the U.S. in 2008 after spending three years in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Burmese are forced to labor for the military, he says, doing tasks such as putting up tents. Church communities are often not allowed to use their buildings for services; a church in his community was decommissioned and the land slated for a Buddhist temple.
Indigenous communities are often forced from their homes and resettled, said Liam Stapleton, a St. Paul parishioner who was part of the Malaysia visit. "When they get displaced out of their communities ... they've lost their identity," Stapleton said. "The mainstream people in Burma burned their houses down and they had to run over the hills into Thailand. (But) a lot of times life is not better over there."
St. Paul parishioners hope to help the Burmese on two levels: those in refugee camps and those who have emigrated to the U.S. Health care and education are two key needs in the camps, and St. Paul is working to establish a scholarship fund for children there. And here in North Carolina, the parish is offering a faith home and working with Father Tran to help refugee communities across the state. New arrivals need housing, furniture and household goods, clothing, and often lessons in English.
The needs are great, and parishioners are still figuring out how best to help. It's a puzzle, but "the jigsaw is coming together," Stapleton said.
After years of upheaval, the safe haven of a Mass in the refugees' own language is a balm to the spirit.
"They long for the Eucharist," said Father Tran. "They know that the Church loves them and encourages them."
Settling into a new life in the U.S. is challenging, Father Tran said, but having a nurturing faith community helps. "People appreciate the welcoming hearts."
— Marian Cowhig Owen, correspondent
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