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 | By Sue Parker

Refugees From Myanmar Wait to Be Welcomed Into the Church

How RCIA continues in the pandemic

The Sunday before the “stay home, stay safe” order was issued in Michigan, 33 RCIA candidates at St. Mary Cathedral in Lansing had shown up to be fitted for their baptismal garments. Schools had been closed a week earlier, and concern about the spread of the coronavirus was growing. RCIA Director Rebecca Kanclerz had arranged for the candidates to come in shifts and to practice social distancing, but she could see fear on some of their faces — especially the elder members of the group. Thirty of the candidates (15 adults, 9 teens, 6 children) are refugees from the Karenni state of Myanmar, who have been settled at different times over the years by St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Services.

After observing the unease at the fitting, Rebecca asked Father Karl Pung, rector of the cathedral, if she could teach the remaining RCIA sessions remotely. Father Karl agreed, and then God provided. Just before the “stay home” order was announced, volunteer translator Thoe Reh went to the homes of all nine Karenni families and set up Zoom accounts for them so they were able to continue their preparation. “Thanks be to God” was Rebecca’s reaction.

As it says in 2 Corinthians, “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (9:8)

Few of the candidates speak English fluently, so in the role of translator, Thoe Reh has become an essential part of the RCIA team. Thoe began coming to St. Mary’s in 2010, after living in a refugee camp in Thailand since 1996. He had fled Myanmar at the age of 4 with his parents.

Rebecca has tried to acquire a “let go and let God” attitude about the delay for initiation: “This group has been so excited! I didn’t want them to be disappointed.” Rebecca adds that not having Mass presents a particular problem for candidates learning English as a second language. “For learning prayers in English, it helps to have the assembly teach them,” she says. And although Rebecca is grateful for the ability to stay in contact with the candidates by Zoom, she says, “I can’t read facial expressions, or see everyone at the same time. It’s difficult to really be present when you can’t make eye contact or be face to face.”

Neh Reh, one of the candidates, confirms that gathering with the assembly is important. “Going to Mass is helpful. It is hard to learn the prayers without hearing others say them,” he says. Smiling, Neh Reh adds, “As an old man, it is hard to learn a new language.”

He and his wife, Nga Meh, moved to Lansing from Myanmar five years ago. They are excited about being baptized, and joining their five children and eight grandchildren as members of the Church. Neh Reh says the parish has been welcoming, and he especially appreciates the English-as-second-language classes offered there.

Regardless of how full the church is at their baptism, Neh Reh and his family will celebrate. “Family faith is important in our life. I am very happy for me and my wife to be baptized. If I could, I would like to make a party with the whole community,” he says.

“Family faith is important in our life. I am very happy for me and my wife to be baptized. If I could, I would like to make a party with the whole community.”