The National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics gathered for its tenth annual conference at Trinity High School in Camp Hill, Aug. 31-Sept. 1, returning to the roots of the now-national organization.
The purpose of the NCBAC is to bring together Burmese Catholics living in the United States, and provide opportunities for growth in the faith, prayer, worship and community building. It is under the auspices of the Asian-Pacific Islander Subcommittee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church.
More than 1,200-strong at the national gathering at Trinity, the national conference was born of two small communities of Burmese Catholics in the Harrisburg and Emmitsburg, Md., areas more than a decade ago.
The communities, including first- and second-generation Burmese, gathered for Christmas, Easter and other liturgical holidays, noted John Sailon, founder of the NCBAC. Sailon, who lived in Harrisburg from 2002-2011, was a member of those small groups, which eventually grew to include members from Buffalo and Baltimore.
Encouraged by the idea for a national gathering, and ways of assisting refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) coming to the United States, Sailon met with members of the Asian-Pacific Islander Subcommittee to discern a national Catholic organization for natives and descendants of the southeast Asian nation.
On Sept. 5, 2010, five members were selected to the official National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics. Its inaugural conference was held in Harrisburg, with subsequent gatherings taking place across the country.
“We’re very excited and happy to bring the conference back to its roots in the Diocese of Harrisburg, where it started ten years ago,” Sailon told The Catholic Witness. Its highlight was a spirited Mass celebrated by Bishop Ronald Gainer and concelebrated by Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of the Diocese of Pathein, Myanmar, and 25 priests on Sept. 1.
With the theme of “Carry Your Own Cross Daily and Follow Me,” the two-day conference included workshops on various aspects of Church teaching, break-out sessions for youth, cultural entertainment, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and outdoor Stations of the Cross at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg.
“Through the annual conference, we can celebrate our Burmese faith and culture together, and that is important to help Burmese people maintain their Catholic faith,” Sailon said.
“The language barrier is the first challenge to Burmese Catholics coming here to live with family, or as refugees,” Sailon said. “They can’t go to Confession in English, they go to Mass in a language they don’t understand.”
“At this conference, and in the Mass here, they are excited to listen to the Mass and hymns in their own language, and to speak responses and pray in their native tongue. It makes them feel connected,” he said. “Without this, they might lose their faith connection. We want them to survive spiritually and faithfully.
As part of its efforts, the NCBAC offers leadership training, especially for youth, communication for social and leadership purposes, mutual support, spirituality development and responsibility. Members are encouraged to participate in these programs throughout the year.
“We don’t want our Burmese people to lose their faith,” Sailon said. “These gatherings and opportunities are necessary for them. We want them to keep their faith rooted in their hearts.”
(For information about the National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics, visit www.ncbac.us.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness