Refugees from Myanmar’s Chin State gather to worship in Bowling Green

By Amelia Brett

Long, colorful skirts skimmed the floor as women from Myanmar entered the church room with friends and families. A Chin language, “Hakha,” filled the pages of Bibles and hymn books and could be heard from rows of seats.

The quick rhythm of speaking mixed with a combination of piano and guitar strings as members of the congregation practiced instruments before the service began.

Soft light washed in through the stained-glass windows with squares of yellow, purple, blue, light green and pink.

“Every day, we should pray and thank God for everything he has done for us,” said Van Thang, a 26-year-old member. The overall topic of the service that day was “tukforhnak,” or Hakha for temptation.

History of Myanmar Refugees

Originally, Chin people come from the Chin State in the northwest region of Myanmar.

Myanmar has had a civil war between the country’s military and members of minority groups since 1948, according to Minority Rights Group International’s report “Burma (Myanmar): The Time for Change” on Refworld, a website by the UN Refugee Agency. As a result, about 451,000 people from Myanmar became refugees in mid-2016, according to the “Mid-Year Trends 2016” report by The UN Refugee Agency.

The International Center of Kentucky has made Bowling Green, where it is located, a settlement spot for refugees from multiple countries. As a result, approximately 1,777 refugees from Myanmar moved to Bowling Green between 2002 and 2015, according to a resettlement site profile by the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College.

Having a church in the U.S. provides a place of worship for Chin people outside of their home country while providing a familiar language.

The Church

The front side of CenterPointe Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The Bowling Green Chin Baptist Church service has taken place at CenterPointe Church for three years.

It normally lasts from 1 to 3 p.m. every Sunday and includes praise and worship, as well as Bible readings and prayers.

The building, located about one mile from Western Kentucky University at 1000 Roselawn Way in Bowling Green, also houses a Baptist congregation led by the Rev. Dave Deerman in English at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

Currently, there are about 140 members within the Chin congregation, including men, women and children.

The church is also part of a group called the Chin Baptist Churches USA, which connects Chin church groups. They regularly hold events and gatherings.

According to the Chin Baptist Churches USA website, 95 churches have joined the group.

Religion and Members

The practice of Christianity also connects back to some of the Chin community in Myanmar.

Only 4 percent of the total population in Myanmar is Christian, with Buddhism being the most popular religion, according to a Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project, “Myanmar.”  However, about 80 to 90 percent of Chin people there are Christian, according to the “Country of Origin Information Report – Burma (Myanmar)” by the United Kingdom Home Office on Refworld.

Occasionally, the Chin church in Bowling Green sends missionaries back to their home country to teach Baptist practices.

 The Rev. Daniel Van Uk, 26, said preaching and learning Christianity is important to some people in Myanmar since it’s less common in some areas.

“I chose Christianity since my parents practiced it,” he said.

Van Uk stood in an aisle of the congregation before the service started in a gray suit, holding a Bible. A couple of members greeted him in Hakha as they walked to their seats. The room filled with more people as the time grew closer for the service to begin. As he explained his past in English, his present surrounded him in voices of his native language.

The Rev. Daniel Van Uk stands in the main church room before a service starts.

“My vision was to one day be a pastor before I came here,” Van Uk said, referring to living in Myanmar.

After he came to the U.S., he said he attended Davis College for four years to earn a degree in ministry and graduated last year.

He has been head of the Bowling Green Chin Baptist Church for five months.

Part of the struggle for his congregation has been learning a second language, Van Uk said.

Particularly, it’s hard for the older generation of Chin people to integrate into services if they are not done in Hakha.

The Chin Baptist Church of Bowling Green helps to solve this issue while maintaining Baptist practices.

Members of the younger generation at the church, including the youth group, are normally bilingual.

Small children lined up on stage, with kindergartners standing in front and primary and junior grades in the back. In soft voices, they all sang “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” in English.

The children sing something new every week, and songs are sometimes in either language.

A couple of the older members of the youth group also performed songs in Hakha on stage, with one singing a solo. The room was quiet as she sang in a clear, steady voice.

The singer, Ngai Chin, a 19-year-old member and student at Western Kentucky University, said she originally attended a church in Myanmar called the Saingduu Baptist Church in the Chin State.

She said she moved to the U.S. from Myanmar eight years ago and has lived in Bowling Green for four years.

Ngai Chin has attended the Chin Baptist church for three years, singing worship songs on Sundays and occasionally performing solos.

“It’s a meaningful day for us,” she said. “I come to church to get closer to God.”

She said her old church in Myanmar did not have as much worship compared to Bowling Green.

“It’s a great pleasure to get together and worship together,” she said, smiling.

Music played from the speakers as members sang along in their native language. A familiar word in English churches, “hallelujah,” was repeated in the lyrics of some songs.

“I like coming here and having prayer and worship with my friends,” Bawi nun Thang, an 18-year-old member, said. “We all know each other very well. Everyone is like a family here.”

He sat near the front of the rows, occasionally helping with moving instruments as singers on stage shifted. Most of the older youth group sat around him.

He said everyone works during the week, and this is their time together.

David Thang, a 16-year-old member, said he has been attending the church for four months.

He occasionally spoke to members around him as the remainder of the service was filled with preaching and worship.

“We have to give thanks to God every Sunday,” he said.

The church meeting ended with prayer and low voices saying “amen.” People began to filter out of the door as the youth group gathered their instruments. Van Uk shook hands with a few members that stayed behind to talk to one another. Hakha could still be heard as conversations filled the air again.

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