Myanmar Catholic community grows in Austin area

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

In 2009, five refugee families from Myanmar (formerly Burma) quietly arrived in Austin and started new lives after more than a decade in refugee camps in Thailand. With the help of Catholic Charities and Caritas, the families  ––  all Catholic  ––  began the process of settling in a new country with a different language and customs. 
With help from the diocesan Office of Life, Charity and Justice, they joined St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin. Through the years, more families have arrived –– the most recent five months ago –– and the community now consists of 23 families.
Beh Reh, 37, has emerged as a leader in the community. The former teacher now has a part-time job and cares for his mother and sister, who is disabled. He is trying to improve his English, but had to drop out of Austin Community College to work. Refugees get aid for 18 months after arrival and after that they are on their own.
“Most people do not speak English,” he said. “Many stay at home to take care of the kids.”
Many don’t know how to drive but want to learn. But first, they need to learn to read and understand English, so they can take the driving test.
Many are not educated in their native language, which makes it harder to learn another one. Those who can speak and write some English are working in low-paying jobs in restaurants, hotels or supercenters. They struggle to pay rent, utilities and other necessities and have congregated in the few affordable apartment complexes in Austin.
What they need, Reh said, are sponsors or benefactors to help the families.
Ethnic celebrations
Missionary of Faith Father Richard Dee Du is associate pastor at St. Mary Parish in Bremond. He is the only priest from Myanmar in Texas and comes to St. Ignatius on the fourth Saturday of each month to celebrate Mass in Karenni, the language spoken by the largest of the ethnic groups. 
But even among the Karen there is a Karenni subgroup. There are also Shans, Kachis, Chins and Kayahs. Most ethnic groups have their own language and not all speak or read Burmese, the official language of Myanmar, which was imposed on all ethnic groups when a military junta came into power in 1962. The ethnic Burmese are predominantly Buddhist.
During Mass, however, everyone understood “Amen” and “Maria” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and knelt reverently during the consecration.
Kachin women wore tops and skirts decorated with silver bangles. Older Karenni women wore their red homespun clothing consisting of short sarongs wrapped over one shoulder with a belt or sash and cords of thin, black rattan wrapped around their knees.
The Christmas party featured songs and dances from the different subgroups. This included the shwebo, a dance extolling the virtues of the thanakha tree, whose bark is ground to a paste to make natural sunscreen. The yellow liquid is applied to the skin in lines, swirls or squares.
Pastoral care
Father Dee Du travels regularly to offer sacraments for communities in San Antonio, Houston, Amarillo and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Holy Cross Father Bill Wack, pastor at St. Ignatius, said the community shows the universality of the Catholic Church. It is also a challenge.
“Having Father Richard is helpful,” Father Wack said. “But we need to take it another step with catechesis and marriage preparation. It takes a lot of patience” because of the language barrier on both sides.
Holy Cross Sister M. Adelaide Cannon learned some of those challenges as she prepared the couple for marriage, especially the paperwork. In the church, all records of sacraments are sent to the parish where the person was baptized. In the case of Boe Meh, it was Myanmar, but she made her First Communion and Confirmation in the refugee camp. Priests would come in from Thailand.
“I sure hope all this gets there,” Sister Cannon said as she pulled out a stack of original documents from a huge manila envelope for review with the couple. No one could guarantee her the package would arrive.
Holy Cross Sister Mary Eleanor Sullivan also ministered to the community’s needs until she was transferred at the beginning of the year.
“It’s been wonderful watching them grow,” she said. “Language is the biggest barrier. Some of them are well-read. Education is very important to them.”
The wedding
This year the small community achieved a new milestone –– its first wedding.
Paulina Boe Meh (pronounced May) married Pio Tay Reh (pronounced Ray) of Nacogdoches on Jan. 2. The bride, 21, met the groom in the refugee camp administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The marriage was performed by Father Dee Du and concelebrated by Father Joseph Ku Reh of St. Bernard Parish in St. Paul, Minn., which also has a Myanmarese community. He travels throughout the Midwest, where many groups from Myanmar have been resettled. The newlyweds themselves have moved to Nebraska.
The bride’s story was similar to that of other young people.
“I was 1 when we went to camp,” she said. “I grew up in camp. We were there 10 years.”
While there, she and her sister, Say Meh, 25 and the mother of two, also attended school.
The morning wedding between Boe and Tay was a mixture of East and West. The bride wore white and was escorted by her mother since her father is deceased. The bridegroom walked ahead of her during the procession. When told to kiss his bride, Tay kissed her on the forehead. 
The Karenni wedding reception is a test of endurance. The bridal party sat at a table on a stage. They watched while everyone ate the homemade food of rice, chicken and vegetables in savory spices. When asked why the bride and groom didn’t eat, Reh seemed surprised by the question.
“They need to listen to the songs people are singing to them,” he replied.
Hospitality is extremely important to the culture.
The couple cut the tiny cake and fed each other and then returned to their seats. More guests got up and sang love songs –– one or two in English. There was no dancing until more than two hours later when the singing ended and the master of ceremonies dragged the wedding party to the floor. The number of guests dwindled and when no one else asked for a photo, the bridesmaids ran to the kitchen for food. Right behind them was the bride.
At the wedding, a woman from the Kayan tribe with her traditional neck rings that appeared to elongate the neck, was the second most popular person to photograph.
Slowly growing
The first Mass that Father Dee Du celebrated for the Austin Myanmar community was in the chapel. This past year the group was large enough that they moved to the church.
The group is not monolithic. When the community gathered Dec. 26 for their third Christmas celebration, some of the prayers and hymns during Mass were in different dialects.
Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar has made life difficult for non-Buddhists. The ethnic Catholic groups had to be strong to survive, Father Dee Du.
“Foreign priests were expelled after 1965,” he said. “It became a closed and isolated country. You couldn’t learn a foreign language.”
Catholic schools were closed. Missionaries were expelled. People began looking for a way to escape. 
“The church had to struggle to stand on its own,” Father Dee Du said; and it did. He was raised Catholic. His grandparents were Catholic. The first native bishop from Myanmar ordained him in 1999. The church now has 16 dioceses and more than 300 seminarians. 
For more information on the community, contact Father Bill Wack at bwack@st-ignatius.org or (512) 442-3602.