GREEN BAY — Some couldn’t hold back tears. Others were all smiles as they shared their experiences at a gathering on March 12 in the downstairs area of St. Jude Church. One after another, members of the Hmong Catholic Community stepped forward to reflect on their recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Feb. 11-21. The gathering followed Liturgy of the Word in the church.
Twelve members of the group of 26 who made the trip were from Wisconsin. They were joined by pilgrims from Minnesota, California and Texas. Redemptorist Fr. Berm Chakrit of Thailand served as the spiritual leader on the pilgrimage. Mass was celebrated daily. He was assisted by Deacon Shuying (Joe) Vang of St. Bernard Parish in Appleton. Chong Thao Ly, a catechist, certified through the diocese, prepared prayer materials for the pilgrims and led the rosary and Stations of the Cross in the Holy Land. Ly also served as a translator.
“I was very busy with the tour guide, interpreting every word he said so those that don’t speak English could understand everything that was going on,” she explained.
The pilgrimage was Ly’s second to the Holy Land. Her first trip in 2000 was life changing, she said.
“I was so inspired that I came home and read the Bible all summer from Genesis to the end,” said Ly, a member of St. Bernard in Appleton. “The first time, I felt a conversion. The Bible came alive for me.”
Ly witnessed a conversion in others this time, especially Bao Kong, one of the pilgrimage organizers from St. Jude Parish. Community members were able to carry the cross to the 14th station. Kong wept during this experience. She later collapsed at the tomb of Jesus.
“I was going to take her away from there and my mom told me, ‘No, don’t, I need to see where they laid him,’” explained her son, Larly Kong. “I carried my mother out and brought her into the church. She wasn’t responding and threw her hands up like she was on the cross. She screamed out, ‘They are whipping me, they are beating me, they don’t love me.’”
Bao continued to shout out about sin and the need for forgiveness.
“We took her out and laid her down,” said Larly. “I couldn’t recognize my mother. Deacon Joe and the tour guide soon arrived. The guide poured water on her face and said a prayer in Hebrew. He then blew into her face. I saw her face come back. She then said, ‘God loves you.’ (The guide) said that he has seen this happen two or three times before and that it’s a blessing.”
“I experienced Jesus’ suffering at the tomb,” said Bao. “I felt that I was in heaven. I felt closer to Jesus. Jesus and I were one. I feel very peaceful (now). I know Jesus more.”
Larly made a confession following the experience with his mother.
“That reconciliation was the one where I was the most unconditional,” he said. “The problem was I was crying so much I couldn’t say everything I was trying to say.”
Bethlehem, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Nazareth, Cana and the Garden of Gethsemane were among the sites mentioned during the reflections and a photo presentation. Ly was happy that one of the Masses was moved.
“We were going to celebrate Mass at the Shepherds’ Field,” she said. “I told our tour guide, ‘I want to celebrate in the (Church of the Nativity). I’m so thankful that he made that arrangement.”
Deacon Vang said that he wished he could have spent more time at the tomb.
“It was so busy. We had to stand in line for an hour to see the tomb,” he said. “You weren’t able to look very long, maybe 10 to 15 seconds.”
“I wanted to see the actual places where Jesus walked, where Jesus prayed, where he preached,” said Larly. “When you read about it, it’s one thing. When you actually go there and see it and, in some cases touch it, you get a different perspective.”
Mary’s home stood out to him.
“It was like a cave, a dwelling,” he said. “We think our homes are so small. Mary’s home is probably smaller than my room. That was really humbling.
“I tasted the Dead Sea,” he added. “I actually took a scoop. It’s super salty. When am I going to ever have this opportunity again?”
Larly would like to return to the Holy Land and see more young people from the Hmong Catholic Community share the experience. He is starting a youth group for ages 13 and older.
Planning for the pilgrimage began four years ago. Funds were raised through egg roll sales and other efforts. The long journey was worth it, said Bao.
“It was my dream to visit the Holy Land once in my life,” she said. “It was hard. I told myself, ‘God is with you.’ God gave me strength. There was a lot of prayer. I made my dream.”