July 29, 2022

‘It touched my heart’

More than 1,000 Zomi Catholics gather in Indy for National Eucharistic Congress

A eucharistic procession is seen making its way around the campus of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis on July 9 as part of the National Zomi American Eucharistic Congress held at the school on July 8-10. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A eucharistic procession is seen making its way around the campus of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis on July 9 as part of the National Zomi American Eucharistic Congress held at the school on July 8-10. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

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 on July 8-10. During that weekend, Dim was surrounded by more than 1,000 members of her native tribe. They 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, and the first time the event was held in Indianapolis.

‘I am very, very happy!’

After an evening of fellowship and entertainment on Friday evening, the heart of the Eucharistic Congress began Saturday 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, Okla., shepherd of the last diocese that hosted the gathering, served as 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, said Dim. “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 the congress theme, the next two days 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.

“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.

Lucy Vung-Nu, a young Catholic woman from Illinois, attended 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.”

“It’s like we’re beginning again,” said Nicholas Mung of Oklahoma City, who missed having the event in 2020 and 2021 due to 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!”

‘A strong desire for the sacraments’

The event also included adoration and Sunday Mass.

“The whole weekend was very faith-filled,” said Rusty Albertson, director of outreach for St. Mark. “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. When one of the reasons you become a refugee is because you want to practice your religion, it brings your faith to the forefront.”

Father Kim shared with The Criterion about the importance of the faith 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.”

Burmese of many tribes started fleeing Myanmar in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s as 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 Father 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. We come to the U.S., and we have the freedom to go to Mass and confession.”

But that privilege was lost to many Zomi Catholics in the last two years due to the pandemic and the lack of Zomi-speaking priests, said Father Kim.

“After this crazy crisis, we had this special moment of adoration and confession” during the congress, he said. “We started at 7 p.m. [on Saturday] and concluded with Benediction at 10 p.m. We had six priests hear confessions for two hours. Everyone went to confession—we are so proud of that!”

In addition to helping Zomi Catholics grow in their faith, the gathering also serves as a reunion, said Father Kim.

“We meet people from our hometowns or people we met in the refugee camps,” said Father 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!”

Dim said she was “so excited to see people from my same city in Burma! And I got to meet so many new friends.”

‘I feel like I am born again’

“It was such an honor to host this event here in Indianapolis, especially for the Zomi parishioners of St. Mark,” said Father Tim Wyciskalla, the parish’s pastor.

The first two events were held in 2018 and 2019 in Tulsa, Okla., home to the nation’s largest Zomi Catholic population, according to Father Kim. He is pastor of the United States’ only Zomi Chin parish.

Indianapolis was chosen as the site for the 2020 gathering “because the Zomi Catholic community at St. Mark is the biggest [population] after Tulsa,” said Father Kim.

“To finally welcome so many other Zomi Catholics living around the United States, as well as the various Zomi priests, and to host others from their homeland and show their hospitality was a wonderful opportunity for our parishioners,” said Father Wyciskalla.

“Everyone in our Zomi community pitched in, from coordinating food, parking and security,” said Albertson. “They worked all year for this.”

The effort was worth it, said Dim.

“I am already excited to go to the next one,” she said, enthusiasm filling her voice. The next National Zomi American Eucharistic Congress will take place in Nashville, Tenn., on July 8-9, 2023.

Reflecting on her current experience, Dim said she feels “peace and Jesus alive in my body. It really touched my heart. I feel like I am born again.” †

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