By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Angela Chit Htwe knew the only thing she could do was pray after tornadoes killed several of their neighbors and severely damaged her family’s house.
“I went to church by myself and prayed. I thanked God that I was alive and prayed for all who had died,” said Chit Htwe, who speaks Burmese and spoke through an interpreter for an interview with The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.
Chit Htwe and her husband, Andrew Si Thu, came to Kentucky as refugees from the ongoing political turmoil in their home country of Myanmar, previously known as Burma, which has struggled with internal conflict for decades. A military coup in February 2021 overthrew the elected government.
Settling in a Bowling Green subdivision and surrounded by neighbors who came to the U.S. as refugees and immigrants themselves, Chit Htwe and Si Thu felt it would be a safe place to raise their two daughters.
At the same time, the husband and wife frequently experienced internal conflict between Chit Htwe’s beliefs as a devout Catholic, and Si Thu’s beliefs as a Buddhist with a strong prejudice against Catholicism.
Chit Htwe belongs to Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green, home to the diocese’s Myanmar Catholic ministry. Participating in her parish has always been important to Chit Htwe, but Si Thu was at best unsupportive, and at worst antagonistic toward her faith.
The family’s life was torn apart when a series of tornadoes devastated western Kentucky during the night of Dec. 10.
While their family was spared, they lost half of their roof and later learned their neighborhood had experienced the most fatalities in Bowling Green.
Tragically, they discovered on the TV news that the entire family of their daughter’s best friend had died in the storms.
“I had never experienced any sort of (natural) disaster in my life,” said Chit Htwe, adding that at first, “I didn’t know how to react.”
She decided to go to Holy Spirit Church to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
But after Chit Htwe returned home, her husband began to shout at her, asking, “Why are you so stupid?” and berated her for turning to her Christian God, who did not seem to have stopped any of the devastation or pain.
Chit Htwe said nothing.
Finally, after a period of shouting — and Chit Htwe remaining silent — Si Thu stopped.
He looked at his wife and said, “I am so sorry.”
He then added, “I want to know the God that you worship.”
This was the first time, Chit Htwe later shared, that her husband had ever apologized to her in all their years together.
Chit Htwe explained to her husband that “we do not worship God only when we are wealthy and in a good place — we also do when suffering.”
Something shifted in Si Thu, and he decided that he wanted to become Catholic.
Stunned but cautiously optimistic, Chit Htwe connected Si Thu with Father Stephen Van Lal Than, associate pastor at Holy Spirit Parish. The priest himself is from Myanmar and leads Myanmar Catholic ministry at the parish.
Father Van Lal Than visited the family shortly thereafter and Si Thu expressed his desire to enter the Catholic Church.
“I came by to see if this was a genuine conversion and I believe it is,” the priest said.
Father Van Lal Than, who grew up in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, has studied the Buddhist religion and even has many friends who are Buddhist. He explained that Buddhism itself does not promote violence and hatred toward other religions, but that was how Si Thu had interpreted it.
He said Si Thu began asking question after question about Catholicism.
“He has never studied theology but his questions were so profound,” Father Van Lal Than told The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Since then, Si Thu has begun the Rite of Christian initiation of Adults process to enter the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil this year.
He meets regularly with Father Van Lal Than. Since he does not speak a great deal of English, he’s not able to fully participate in the parish’s standard RCIA sessions. Si Thu is one of six local Myanmar people who will enter the church this spring, the priest said.
Si Thu has some co-workers who are Catholic, and he has started asking them questions about their faith. If their answers do not satisfy him, he writes down his questions in a notebook and presents them to Father Van Lal Than.
He also spends time reading the Gospels and writing down more questions for the priest.
Chit Htwe does her best to answer her husband’s eager questions too, such as explaining why ashes are used on Ash Wednesday or why meat is not eaten on Lenten Fridays.
Chit Htwe said she has explained why the externals do not matter as much as the internal: “Ashes are just an external sign — you must purify your heart too,” she told him.
This concept of internal transformation has helped to form a path of healing from the years of hostility in their marriage.
About her husband becoming a Catholic, Chit Htwe said she has urged him: “Don’t do this because of me.” She wants him to do this for himself, which he said is his goal.
The change in Si Thu has made a marked difference in their family life overall. He is kinder to Chit Htwe. He apologized to their daughters for his short temper — which is still a struggle, “but so much has changed,” said Chit Htwe.
Previously, he despised Catholic music but now plays Catholic songs in their house.
Chit Htwe sees this as the fruit of many years of prayer for her husband, during which she would pray for more patience with him “and to change his heart.”
Father Van Lal Than said he knows about Si Thu’s previous struggles, and “I have seen a huge change in him now. He is very active now, asking questions, very engaged.”
“I think it is the Holy Spirit,” he said.