INDIANAPOLIS — Angela Dim lives on the southside of Indianapolis, far from the Zomi (pronounced ZOH-mee) region in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where she was raised in the Catholic faith.
The refugee is thankful for the Zomi Chin Catholic community at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. And she is grateful to worship at Mass there, mostly in English but twice a month in her native tongue.
But it is still not the same as worshipping at Mass in her native land, surrounded by Zomi customs and culture, and her home country feels every bit of its 8,200-mile distance away.
That distance was bridged July 8-10 when Dim was surrounded by more than 1,000 members of her native tribe gathered from around the United States for the third National Zomi American Eucharistic Congress, held at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.
“When we go to English or other Chin Masses, we know (Jesus) is present,” she said. “But when so many (Zomi) sing and adore and worship in our own language, we feel most satisfied, like the feeling we have at home (in Myanmar). We can express our prayers better.”
It was Dim’s first time participating in the national event. It was the first time the event was held in Indianapolis.
After an evening of fellowship and entertainment July 8, the heart of the eucharistic congress began the next morning with Mass in Roncalli’s auxiliary gym. A quick look around the parking lot revealed license plates from at least 14 states, some as far as Minnesota, Texas, Maryland and Alabama.
As Mass began, a line of Zomi wearing their clan’s traditional attire sang as they processed down the aisle of the makeshift church in slow, forward-and-back steps to the beat of a lone drum.
Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa, Oklahoma, shepherd of the last diocese that hosted the gathering, was the principal celebrant of the Mass.
“I must apologize if I am difficult to understand,” he said as a Zomi priest translated. “I’m afraid my Burmese accent sounds a bit like English.”
The Mass was followed by an outdoor eucharistic procession that wrapped halfway around the large high school and its attached gyms, performing arts center and chapel.
“This was my favorite part” of the weekend, Dim told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “I have never seen this before. It was so beautiful. Some were silent, some were quietly singing, some were praying the rosary. It was a very long line.”
With “Behold the Lamb of God” as its theme, the congress included catechetical sessions on confession, the Eucharist and the celebration of the Mass. Each talk was offered in tracks for adults, young adults and youths. There also was adoration and Sunday Mass.
“We chose the theme because the United States bishops started the National Eucharistic Revival,” said Father Robert Kim, a Zomi priest of the Diocese of Tulsa who started the National Zomi American Eucharistic Congress in 2018.
The 2019 congress also was held in Tulsa, which has the nation’s largest Zomi Catholic population. Then came the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
Lucy Vung-Nu, a young Catholic woman from Illinois, was attending the congress for the first time.
“It’s so amazing to see so many Zomi Catholics gathered in one place,” she said enthusiastically. “Where I’m from in Illinois, there aren’t that many Zomi people as opposed to other Burmese tribes, so it was really special to me to see so many of this one ethnicity in this one place.”
Indianapolis was chosen for this year’s congress because it has the second largest Zomi Catholic population in the country.
“It’s like we’re beginning again,” said Nicholas Mung of Oklahoma City, who missed having the event because of the pandemic. “Now we continue to learn how the Eucharist fits in our lives. We continue to learn how to build our faith, especially for our kids. I am very, very happy!”
“The whole weekend was very faith-filled,” said Rusty Albertson, director of outreach for St. Mark the Evangelist Parish. “There was a lot of excitement and a lot of reverence, especially during eucharistic adoration. People were kneeling even in the bleachers.”
“The Burmese people, that’s the standard for them — the participation, the singing, the reverence,” he added. “When one of the reasons you become a refugee is because you want to practice your religion, it brings your faith to the forefront.”
Kim, who is pastor of the only Zomi Chin parish in the U.S., shared with The Criterion how important the faith is to Zomi Catholics.
“In my home diocese (in Myanmar), every morning we had Mass in the parish (church) at 6 a.m., Monday through Friday,” he recalled. “Always at Mass there were 70-100 people.”
Many tribes started fleeing Myanmar in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s as they became victims of attacks carried out by both the government and rebels opposing the government.
Before being settled in the United States, many Zomi were sent to refugee camps in Malaysia, said Kim.
“It is a Muslim country,” he noted. “Economically, there were many Chinese-run businesses. We needed jobs, so we worked at Chinese restaurants that are busy on the weekends, so we could not go to Mass. We did not have the chance for confession.”
“That made us feel a strong desire for the sacraments,” he said. “We come to the U.S., and we have the freedom to go to Mass and confession.”
In addition to helping Zomi Catholics grow in their faith, the eucharistic congress also serves as a reunion, said Kim.
“We meet people from our hometowns or people we met in the refugee camps,” said Kim. “We never dreamed we’d meet in the U.S.! This is great divine providence beyond our imagination — after 10 or 15 years, we meet again!”
The next National Zomi American Eucharistic Congress will take place in Nashville, Tennessee, July 8-9, 2023.
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Hoefer is a staff writer at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.