By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published November 26, 2009
As metro Atlanta continues to grow and expand culturally, the face of the Catholic Church in the local archdiocese is changing as well. The Catholic Burmese population throughout North Georgia is rising at a rapid rate, and Deacon Peter Swan of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, has been there every step of the way to minister to the group.
“I was contacted by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and was told of this cluster of Burmese Catholic refugees who were settled and are now attending Corpus Christi (Church),” Deacon Swan wrote in his parish bulletin.
Corpus Christi was more than willing to welcome the new group to its parish, but the language barrier created some difficulties. Deacon Swan agreed to assist the refugees by talking with them and conveying their needs to the church.
Ordained a permanent deacon by Archbishop John F. Donoghue in 2001, Deacon Swan remembers traveling with his wife, Pansy, to the Stone Mountain parish earlier this year to meet with the Burmese group for the first time.
“After Mass, I met with the refugees. I was given a room to meet with them,” Deacon Swan said. “And then we waited. They came, first one or two at a time, and then they all poured in. They removed the chairs and sat on the floor. What a humbling gesture. There were over a hundred of them, young and old, men and women and children.”
Deacon Swan listened to the group’s fears, needs and wants. Even though he speaks Burmese, there were families from several regions of Burma, now called Myanmar, with different dialects, making the discussion a little difficult. But the needs were the same: employment, clothes, food, medical and psychological help. Many escaped their home country with nothing but the clothes on their backs, he said.
In August, the Burmese community received encouraging news that a priest from Myanmar would be in the area for a couple of weeks. The community gathered in the Corpus Christi gym those two weeks to attend Mass in their native language.
More than 200 people packed the gymnasium, many wearing traditional Burmese dress. The majority of the crowd was young, but a few older folks graced the makeshift pews as well.
The tradition continued after the Mass as all gathered for a meal in the gymnasium. Children laughed and played while parents watched with a close eye. The group then gathered for a large group picture.
“We were just fortunate enough to have a priest who spoke the Burmese language visiting with us for those two weeks,” Deacon Swan recalled. “Unfortunately I am unable to go out to Corpus Christi every week because of my responsibilities at the parish to which I am assigned. I do go out to the Stone Mountain area about every week just to visit and also to deliver any items that I have collected during the week. Hopefully we will be able to do another Mass in Burmese when Father Philip will again visit us in December.”
“As in most things, having that ‘being at home’ feeling is very important,” said Deacon Swan. “Most of them do not understand any language other than their own. One thing great about our Catholic faith is that the Mass is the same everywhere. Most know what is going to follow next, but not knowing the language that the Mass is said in denies the participant the total experience.”
Frances McBrayer, director of the refugee resettlement services program for Catholic Charities Atlanta, said the Burmese population in metro Atlanta really started to grow in 2007 and the numbers have been steadily increasing over the last couple of years.
More than 3,000 Burmese resettled in metro Atlanta in 2009, and another 3,000 are expected to relocate to the area next year.
“When refugees come to the United States, they do have support from the refugee resettlement agencies (like Catholic Charities Atlanta), but the resettlement process and the transition of a population to U.S. society is a long one and can be very difficult,” McBrayer said. “The faith community provides a very important aspect in the resettlement transition.”
She added that when refugee populations are able to organize themselves as a group, this helps to ease the transition as new refugees arrive.
McBrayer said Deacon Swan has done a great job of ministering to the Catholic Burmese community, adding that quite a few of the Catholic Burmese were attending churches that were not Catholic in order to have services in their own language, as there are several Protestant ministers who have started churches in different Burmese dialects.
“Deacon Peter has really helped the Catholic group organize and form a faith community, and Corpus Christi has graciously provided space,” she said. “In addition to different languages, the Burmese also represent several different religions: Muslim, Buddhist, Christian Protestant as well as Catholic.”
Deacon Swan expects the Burmese population to continue to increase. While they may eventually have the numbers for a church of their own, right now the lack of funds and clergy will keep them searching for places to worship.
“The Burmese community of Corpus Christi is going to grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years,” Deacon Swan said. “Number-wise they will become big enough to have their own church and parish, but resource-wise, I do not see that happening, at least not in the near future. We lack the clergy to fulfill their spiritual needs. As a deacon I am limited to what I can provide for them spiritually.”
In the meantime, Deacon Swan hopes to continue serving this community until more resources are found.
“The best thing about ministering to this community is that these are my people,” he said. “Unlike me, they have lived a very hard and harsh life. Most of them have but the clothes on their backs. I feel as if I have been called to this particular place at this particular time to minister to them.”
“The needs of my fellow countrymen are many and large, but with God’s help and the help of the church we will all make it,” he said.
For information on assisting the Catholic Burmese community, contact Catholic Charities Atlanta Refugee Resettlement Services at (404) 885-7464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.