OWENSBORO, Ky. – A group of Catholics in western Kentucky is working together to help the people suffering amid Myanmar’s turmoil that has continued to devastate the southeast Asian nation following the 2021 military coup.
Through their nonprofit organization, Myanmar Humanitarian Charities Inc., they have three goals: providing basic needs like food, water and medical care; Catholic education for the children; and development of Catholic churches.
Myanmar Humanitarian Charities specifically fundraises for the people of the dioceses of Hakha, Kaly and Loikaw – which are the home dioceses of many people who came to the Diocese of Owensboro as refugees.
Western Kentucky is home to a significant population of refugees from Myanmar, according to the Kentucky Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Louisville.
According to the refugee office, between 2017-2021 a total of 442 arrivals from Myanmar came to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a total of 235 came to Owensboro. Two parishes in the Owensboro Diocese currently offer the opportunity for Burmese Mass: Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green and St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro.
As more people come to western Kentucky from Myanmar, they have spread an awareness of the plight of those back home.
“The need is so great,” said RoseMary Trowbridge, who with her husband, Kenny Trowbridge, are members of Myanmar Humanitarian Charities’ board of directors and belong to St. Stephen Cathedral Parish in Owensboro.
“Things were bad already,” she added, referencing the country’s ongoing human rights abuses, poverty and turbulent political climate in which innocent people suffer the most. “But things are worse now.”
Fellow board member Andrew Mung, who came to the U.S. from Myanmar and today belongs to Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green said the people of Myanmar have suffered terribly since the coup took place in February 2021.
“In Myanmar, the COVID pandemic hit and everything shut down for a year,” said Mung told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro’s diocesan newspaper. “Then the military junta took over. … It is making life even worse.”
Board members said the atmosphere is even more terrible than the news has portrayed.
“Everywhere is dangerous, but especially for young people,” said board member Bernardine Naing, who also is from Myanmar and belongs to Holy Spirit.
The board members detailed further atrocities. The military has attacked churches, villages and even schools; in one instance 13 children were killed and many children and teachers were injured.
The board members said it is hard for citizens to be well-informed about what is happening because the military controls the media. In addition, citizens are required to have identity cards with their name, religion, and ethnicity.
Trowbridge encouraged fellow western Kentuckians to consider donating to the mission at https://helpmhc.org/donate. She said the Diocese of Owensboro is “indebted” to the Burmese people who have made Kentucky their home, blessing the diocese “with their presence.”
This past July, the National Catholic Burmese-American Conference took place in Owensboro and drew more than 1,800 participants from across the U.S.
The conference included the ordination of only the second Myanmar-born priest in the U.S. in known history, Father Martin Ma Na Ling. The first ordination of a Myanmar-born priest, Father Stephen Van Lal Than, also took place in the Owensboro Diocese the year before.
Board member Kathryn Byrne commented on the witness of Burmese Catholics’ faith: “At a time that Catholics are falling away from the Church, it is a sign of hope.”
Her husband, Mike Byrne, who is also a board member, said Myanmar Humanitarian Charities is really a twofold project: not only “helping our overseas brothers and sisters,” but also “becoming neighbors with our fellow parishioners.”
“It’s a great way to get to know our fellow parishioners and is a step to becoming true friends,” he said.
“We are the Church for each other,” said Trowbridge. “We are the universal Church.”
Barnstead is editor of The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.