Zomi children dance during a luncheon Oct. 27 at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Zomi children dance during a luncheon Oct. 27 at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Archbishop Alexander Sample delivered a strong message of welcome to refugees during a Mass Oct. 27 at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland.

Speaking in a neighborhood with many migrants and refugees, the archbishop acknowledged the suffering of refugees, including the many Zomi parishioners, a people who were persecuted in Burma.

“You leave home, come to a strange land to seek security and even here it is hard to maintain,” the archbishop said. “I want to ensure you of our love and embrace of you. We welcome you with our whole hearts and want to ease the way for you.”

The Oct. 27 liturgy began with a slow procession, with solemn drumming and a gong keeping a deliberate pace. Men wore colorful jackets and women bright woven long skirts. Large screens projected the songs and prayers in the Zomi language so everyone could try the melodic words.

Archbishop Sample expressed joy at being with “the beautiful Zomi community.” He reminded everyone that the parish, and the whole Catholic Church, is made up of many kinds of people who bring many gifts. The archbishop made it clear that the Zomi are wonderful parishioners, not just a group to whom the parish minsters.

Servers, readings and choir members were Zomi parishioners. There were many children at the Mass and meal afterward, creating a joyful bustle on a sunny autumn morning.

Aided by Catholic Charities when they arrived, the community now is seeking to increase family income so the children can attend Catholic schools. High housing costs in the Portland area have made the challenge harder, said Francis Khampi, a leader of the Zomi.

Meanwhile, a Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant is helping Zomi men prepare to become truck drivers. Vum Cam Sian, 34, now works at a resettlement agency welcoming newcomers. But he is taking classes to learn how to be a certified public accountant.

Meanwhile, St. Therese School in Northeast Portland and De La Salle North Catholic High School have offered aid. A handful of Zomi children are now enrolled in the schools. One youth has applied to the University of Portland.

Joy Hunt, principal of St. Therese, has marveled at the Zomi families.

“There is such a love of God and respect for others and such an appreciation of the gift of Catholic education,” said Hunt.

A bishop of the Zomi travels from Burma and visits the school, calling her “Mother Joy” and urging her to educate all the Zomi children.

After Mass, the Zomi welcomed worshipers into the parish hall for traditional food, dance and speeches. The crowd donated into a box to help pay tuition at Catholic schools.

“We ran away from our country to avoid religious and ethnic persecution and to seek religious freedom,” Khampi told the crowd. “We brought our Catholicism from our country. We are your brothers and sisters. It is important to us to raise our children in faith. We would love to send our children to Catholic schools . … That where they can learn to love and serve God.”

Father Ted Prentice, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker, admires the Zomis’ faith, spirit of joy and boldness to help their young people.

Other members of St. Joseph the Worker also have high regard for the enterprising Zomi. “They bring a spirit to the church that unifies,” said Lorenzo Nicholson. “Their faith is what drives them.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org