February 24, 2017

‘A gift to us’: Priest’s gentle nature helps to guide refugees whose lives have been touched by violence

Father David Bu Nyar, right, celebrates Mass with the assistance of Deacon Thomas Horn, St. Mark the Evangelist Parish’s pastoral associate, at St. Mark the Evangelist Church on Feb. 11. Father Bu Nyar was invited by then-Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin to come from Myanmar to serve the refugees of that country now worshipping at St. Mark and St. Pius X parishes in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Father David Bu Nyar, right, celebrates Mass with the assistance of Deacon Thomas Horn, St. Mark the Evangelist Parish’s pastoral associate, at St. Mark the Evangelist Church on Feb. 11. Father Bu Nyar was invited by then-Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin to come from Myanmar to serve the refugees of that country now worshipping at St. Mark and St. Pius X parishes in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Father David Bu Nyar, 43, sits at the table with his arms crossed in the Myanmar manner of showing respect.

Also in the Myanmar manner, he gives soft-spoken answers. His gentle tone belies the violent nature of the topic.

When asked if refugees from his war-torn country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) have possibly seen fighting, violence, the destruction of villages or even killing, Father Bu Nyar answers a soft-spoken “yes” to each. He calmly admits that even he has witnessed fighting in his home town of Demoso in his younger days.

(Related story: Tips help explain customs, dispell myths about refugees from Myanmar)

He estimates that about 1,000 Myanmar refugees now practice their Catholic faith at St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Pius X parishes, both in Indianapolis. He has come to minister to them.

“Cardinal [Joseph W.] Tobin saw the need of [the] Burmese Catholic Community in Indianapolis,” he explains.

Last year, then-Archbishop Tobin contacted the bishop of Loikaw in Myanmar, asking if it would be possible to send a diocesan priest to serve the Catholic Myanmar refugees in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“I was called by my bishop, who asked me if I can go to Indianapolis to minister and see to their spiritual needs,” says Father Bu Nyar, who was ordained in 2004 in the Diocese of Loikaw. “I accept it as a call from God to [widen] my faith horizon and share my faith, and learn faith from others. It’s good to experience new cultures and new people.”

Father Bu Nyar arrived in Indianapolis in early December to temperatures far colder than the 90-degree weather typical for Myanmar at that time of year.

During his three to five years of ministering in the archdiocese, he will call St. Pius home. He is of the Kayah tribe and speaks Karenni, as do the majority of the refugees from Myanmar at St. Pius.

But Father Bu Nyar will celebrate Mass and other sacraments at St. Pius and St. Mark in the official Burmese language spoken by all from Myanmar regardless of tribe. He will also celebrate Mass in English.

But celebrating the sacraments are far from his only duties.

“I will facilitate smooth interactions between the Church staff and the Burmese parishioners, visit them in homes and hospitals, and advocate for the Burmese community,” he says. “And we will have community meetings, prayer meetings, faith formation courses and other spiritual and social activities.”

In addition to those duties, Father Bu Nyar will serve as associate pastor of both parishes and as coordinator of the Myanmar Ministry for the archdiocesan Intercultural Ministry Office.

“He is a gift to us,” says Father Todd Riebe, pastor of St. Mark Parish. “We are so grateful for his presence here.

“For me, it’s so great to have a priest from [Myanmar] to be able to understand that culture. He knows the people, their popular piety, their spirituality. To have him teach me in addition to ministering is a very special gift.”

Father James Farrell, pastor of St. Pius Parish, expresses similar sentiments.

“This has been a great gift as far as the Burmese community is concerned, and me too,” he says. “Many of the elders don’t speak English well, if at all. It’s important to have him to celebrate the Mass. It’s been a wonderful expression of the Church’s care for them now that they’re in a new country after years in refugee camp.

“We have this opportunity of integrating another whole culture and expression of the Catholic faith in the archdiocesan family and our parish family. We feel very strong about our desire to create something that’s whole, not fragmented. … We can keep building unity we have in our faith, and build bridges across cultural divides.”

Both Burmese and English-speaking Catholics are grateful for Father Bu Nyar’s presence as well.

Angela Dim, a Myanmar refugee of the Zomi Chin tribe and a member of St. Mark Parish, says she is “so excited” to have a priest from Myanmar.

“We consider this our home country now, and it is so nice to have him,” she says. “He’s a very nice man. Most of us don’t speak English, so we really need him. We really thank God for bringing us a Burmese priest.”

So do her fellow parishioners, Mary Ellen and John Magee. Mary Ellen serves as a realtor for the Myanmar refugees of the parish.

“They’re very dear to my heart. I love the diversity they bring—it warms my heart. I think it’s wonderful” that they have a priest who speaks their language, she says.

John, an officer of the local Knights of Columbus Msgr. Downey Council 3660, is excited about a new Burmese Knights’ council that is developing.

“A lot of them wanted to join,” he says, but because of the language barrier, “our district deputy decided it would be better for them to have their own council.” Father Bu Nyar will serve as chaplain of the new council.

Lauren Jones worships at St. Mark Church with her boyfriend Peter Kim, a member of the parish and a Myanmar refugee of the Zomi Chin tribe.

“[The Burmese] come to Mass faithfully, even when they don’t understand the language,” she observes. “I think it’s great for them to have someone to serve their community, go to their homes, talk to them and make them feel more a part of the community. Father Todd has been doing a great job, but he doesn’t speak Burmese. It will help new refugees have a faith figure to give them guidance.”

Kim notes that the refugees still learning English have come to Mass despite the language barrier “because of the Eucharist.” Now, he says, that barrier is gone.

“We’ve been longing for this moment a long time,” he says. “We never thought we’d have a Burmese priest. Now that he’s here, we are so excited.” †

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