Every Sunday, they come from across central Indiana to worship in Greenwood.
Mizo refugees, chased from their homes in Myanmar and relocated in the U.S., sing traditional hymns in their own language.
The children go to Sunday school in the basement of Greenwood United Methodist Church, while Pastor Lal Ralte helps his congregation apply Gospel lessons in their new and changing lives.
After years of relocating and being expelled from their country due to their faith, the Mizo people have found a permanent home. The congregation has integrated into Greenwood United Methodist Church seamlessly.
Though they have their own service, they also worship with the larger church community. They take part in weekly fellowship meals, and the Mizo children have started attending the church preschool.
What started as about 20 people gathering in an apartment has become a burgeoning faith community of nearly 100.
“It’s been a fascinating journey,” said In Suk Peebles, head pastor at the church. “This has become the cultural center for the Mizo here in Indiana. It’s a place of worship, a community meeting place and where they can celebrate their heritage.”
The Mizo people are a nationality centered in Southeast Asia, living primarily in Bangladesh, northern India and Myanmar. Unlike other ethnic groups of the area, the Mizo are Christians, with most being Methodist, Presbyterian and other Protestant faiths.
Because of their faith, the Mizo have suffered persecution, discrimination and oppression. Since 2000, Burma’s military regime in particular has forced the group to leave the country. Thousands fled to the U.S., Australia and Europe.
Faith becomes anchor
Ralte has seen his people dispersed from their homeland for his entire life. Born in 1967 into a Methodist Mizo family, he was called as an adult to be an evangelist throughout northern Myanmar, what used to be called Burma.
He would host revival camps and youth groups to help spread Christianity to the Mizo. After completing his ministerial training, he was ordained and worked in an ever-expanding group of Methodists in Myanmar.
In 2007, as hostilities toward the Mizo became more intense, Ralte and his family fled to Malaysia. He was pastor for a large group of refugees in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
In 2011, as the United Nations Refugee Agency started moving the Mizo people to safe locations in the U.S., Ralte and his family moved to Indianapolis.
Torn from the lives that they’ve known and the new world they’d been thrust into, their faith became the anchor that kept them grounded.
Ralte led a weekly service in his three-bedroom apartment for about a year. People came from as far away as Logansport to sit on chairs, couches and the floor in order to worship.
But as the congregation grew to include almost 40 members, there wasn’t any room for new members.
When Ralte approached Peebles about possibly moving their worship to Greenwood United Methodist Church, they spoke about the congregation.
“I met with Pastor In Suk, and she helped us a lot,” he said. “We are very happy.”
Peebles wanted to meet the Mizo people in person, so she attended one of the Sunday services in Ralte’s apartment. She found a deeply faithful people who so valued their time to worship that they’d travel for hours just to be there.
“I told them to come on over, and that was the beginning of our relationship here,” Peebles said. “Being an ethnic group, it’s important that they have whatever space they need and time for fellowship that might be different from us Americans. So we give them whatever they need.”
In mid-December 2012, the Mizo started conducting a special service in the church sanctuary on Sunday afternoons.
“We made it very clear we didn’t want to put them in a fellowship hall or somewhere away from the main sanctuary. I wanted to make sure they had a prominent space, the same space where our entire congregation worships,” Peebles said.
That initial service brought 37 people to the church. Now, more than 80 worship weekly.
Almost from the start, the congregation endeared themselves to the larger Greenwood United Methodist Church community. A Mizo tradition is to have a service at midnight on New Year’s Eve. They rang in the start of the new year together as a congregation.
“New Year’s Eve watch is similar to what Christians here do on Christmas Eve, with a midnight service,” Peebles said. “At first, our congregation was not used to it. But it’s been an eye-opening experience for us.”
And the Mizo have tried to give back to the church when they can.
Starting this year, they’ll provide $200 each month to the church offering. For people who are struggling just to buy food and clothing, that’s significant, Ralte said.
They have volunteered to wash dishes at the church’s weekly fellowship lunch. Members pitched in during the annual cleanup day, raking leaves and washing windows at the church.
Helping new immigrants
The Mizo continue to immigrate to central Indiana, with more trickling in every few months. As a minister and refugee himself, Ralte has become the point person for each new Mizo who arrives in the area.
Often they step from the airplane at Indianapolis International Airport with nothing except their refugee papers and a single change of clothes. Ralte picks them up, takes them to their pre-arranged apartment to stay and starts the search for a job.
As part of the condition of living in the U.S., each refugee has to get a checkup with a local doctor. So Ralte ferries them to the appointment.
When pregnant members of the congregation needed to see a obstetrician, Ralte made sure they made it to their appointment on time.
He has arranged with employers throughout central Indiana to hire the Mizo into entry-level jobs. Members of the congregation work for companies such as Fed Ex and Ingram Micro. If they need proper clothes for a job interview or a ride to work, Ralte is the one to make arrangements.
“Every day I am helping them,” he said. “Yesterday, I drove more than 100 miles to drive people around.”
Peebles was able to meet many of the Mizo gathered in central Indiana. One was a group of four men and their children who were living together.
When one got a job, they made sure the others were supported with food and clothing until the others could find work at a meatpacking plant in Logansport.
“They were wearing the same clothes all the time; they didn’t have very much. But they made sure their clothes were cleaned all the time,” Peebles said.
Because the men didn’t have cars, Ralte would drive up to Logansport every Friday to pick them up. The group would live with Ralte over the weekend, go to church services on Sunday, and then he’d drive them back north on Sunday evening.
Greenwood a focal point
The Mizo will remain refugees for up to five years. After a year, they can apply for permanent residence in the country. By five years, they have the opportunity to apply for full citizenship.
But Ralte’s unification of the Mizo has not stopped just in Greenwood. Working with the church, he hosted a meeting for all of the Mizo in the U.S. to gather and discuss their situations.
They also wanted to celebrate their new homes and new freedoms. More than 300 Mizo came from Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Texas and Iowa.
“There are pockets of 10, 20, 30 people living in those areas. But the Greenwood one has become the largest one,” Ralte said.
Ralte also opened up to Mizo of all faiths. Congregations from the Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist and United Pentecostal churches attended to share in their common culture.
“He has shown an amazing leadership. He’s a leader to a lot of folks; it doesn’t matter what church they go to. He looks over them,” Peebles said.
With the growing Mizo congregation now established, church leaders are working to ensure they are better prepared for day-to-day life in Greenwood.
English a big hurdle
Few Mizo speak English. Often, Ralte serves as translator for simple conversations.
But through a grant from Metro Ministries, the outreach arm of the United Methodist Church Central District, the Mizo are being enrolled in English classes. In addition, more children are being sent to preschool.
“We felt if we were able to give funds for about 10 persons to learn English, they could share that with others in the congregation,” said Lisa Morris, executive director for Metro Ministries. “The impact we were expecting was they’d share what they’d learned, and learning the language is important for the children to go to school.”
Two weeks before Christmas, Greenwood United Methodist Church had a one-year anniversary celebration for the Mizo. Congregation members gathered for singing, dinner and presentations by the Mizo.
Both Ralte and Peebles are proud of the growth of the new Mizo parishioners, as well as the enhancement to the greater Greenwood United Methodist Church community.
They are anticipating increased growth and look forward to seeing the relationship between the groups grow stronger.
“It’s been quite exciting. We share the baptisms together, the holy rituals of our faith. It’s been wonderful,” Peebles said.