By Stephanie Dolan
St. Mark’s Catholic Church and School sits on the southeast corner of U.S. 31 and Edgewood Avenue. It’s a staple in its community, and the school is headed by principal Rusty Albertson.
Currently, the school includes a large Burmese population of 170, and – in the spirit of understanding – Albertson, his family and a longtime friend traveled this summer to Myanmar (Burma) to immerse themselves in the culture that bred many of St. Mark’s students.
“This trip was brought on by a relationship with people,” Albertson said. “We left on June 12 and we returned two weeks later. It was a 24-hour flight. The whole purpose of the trip was to become more educated on the people, on the culture and on the faith. We have such a large Burmese population at St. Mark’s.”
“We left on a Wednesday, and we still arrived on Wednesday night just because of the time difference,” Albertson’s daughter, Grace, added.
Grace, 20, is a junior at Marian University, studying political science.
Much of the Albertsons’ time was spend in a town called Kalaymyo.
“Kalaymyo is at the foot of the Chin state,” Grace said. “A lot of people will come to Kalaymyo for work or school. I would compare the size of Kalaymyo to Indianapolis.”
Grace said that, once the group arrived from their day-long trip, they were taken care of very well by the priests of the Kalay diocese.
“Bishop Felix Lian had visited here last year,” she continued. “They’re just now starting to establish Catholic schools in Myanmar.”
A life-changing trip
“We didn’t go over to try and save the world or change anything,” Albertson said. “We went to learn. We did get a chance to go out to several villages and towns in the mountain states. It was much more than I had anticipated. It really was kind of a life-changing trip. It brings to the forefront what’s important.”
Albertson said that, different though it may have been, he was further outside his comfort zone while traveling to Rome last year.
“That was more of a vacation tour,” he said. “This was different. We were immersed in the culture. We titled it ‘Mission of Grace’. Ambrose Kap Chin is a parishioner at St. Mark’s. He was traveling with us. His sister Angela teaches for me here. He hadn’t seen his family in 10 years. He was a very vital part of our trip – not just for interpreting – but to help us know where we needed to go.”
Grace said that one of the things they learned was the global importance of personal identity.
“Identity is important,” Grace said. “The saliency of identity and what it means to people from Burma, and how it compares to people from America. Going into it, we already had that comfort zone because we’d already been blessed by people sharing their experience of Burma. Going there I think we were very pleasantly surprised. We were in contact with all different kinds of people, professions and experiences.”
The beauty in humanity
Grace continued to say that the humanity shown by the Burmese was the best part of the trip.
“I have a lot of really close friends who are from Burma,” she said. “Going and getting to communicate with people was really beautiful. The humanity of it was the best part. It was really eye-opening for us in a way that we understand our own ignorance. It’s a complicated country, but we had a really great starting point from where our knowledge can grow.”
Albertson said that he’s reached out to Bishop Felix, offering to bring two of his teachers over to spend time at St. Mark’s.
“We would house them and pay the diocese for their time here to fund their teachers’ salaries,” he said. “It’s something we have control of. We didn’t learn a lot about their political state. That wasn’t the point of our trip. It was refreshing for us to go with the specific purpose of soaking everything in and then putting that knowledge into the different toolboxes we have to help.”
“This idea of understanding,” Grace said. “When you do something like this the idea is to go and gain knowledge and perspective. If you are able to understand culturally and even on a personal level understand where they’re coming from, great, but the goal is to gain that knowledge and use that in a way that supports your student and facilitates their growth. We went, and we gained a lot of insight and amazing things.”
But some Burmese children also gained some amazing things from the Albertsons’ visit.
“One of the last places we went in Kalaymyo right before we were leaving to get on a plane that afternoon for Yangon was a seminary,” Albertson said. “There were 100 young men in there studying to be priests. It was really moving. You don’t have that here in America. You may have 20 or 30 people. We ate breakfast with them. One of the sisters was there with some of her children. She said that we needed to come and visit her convent. It’s in the same complex. Those children she had were all ill.”
“They were orphans,” Grace added.
“We were getting ready to leave, and my wife was very moved by it,” Albertson continued. “Any money we had left we gave to the sister. They have to drive on a bus 11 hours one way to get the medicine for these children. The medicine is expensive. We started a GoFundMe page when we got home, and it’s already up to $1,200. We’re going to send that money directly to the sisters. We did that because it was the right thing to do, and those are very small things. Pope Francis says just solve the problem in front of you … just do what you can.”
The Albertsons plan to return to Burma next summer.
“I think this was a first step in hopefully a partnership, a relationship, with this country and with its people,” Albertson said.