By Fr. Jim Betzen
In the past couple of years, I have been seeing more and more Micronesians at St. Mary of the Visitation Church in Ottumwa. They come as groups to Christmas and Easter Masses with flowered shirts and dresses. I think they come to our parish since there are Hispanic immigrants here and they feel more comfortable with other immigrants.
Sometimes, Hispanics will speak to them in Spanish thinking that they are Hispanic. The local pork processing plant, JBS, draws the Micronesians to Ottumwa. From my conversations with them, I learned that they come from the island of Chuuk and their first language is Chuukese.
Chuuk is one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The other states are Kosrae State, Pohnpei State and Yap State. I tell other parishioners that they are Micronesians because I don’t think many people have heard of Chuuk. The parishioners from Chuuk tell me with a smile that the top tourist attraction is World War II wreckage in their lagoons.
Ministering to the Chuuk community has been an unexpected challenge. Like the Hispanics, many of them are devout Catholics. Having traveled from city to city where packing plants are located, many of the Micronesians have not been confirmed or received first Eucharist or been married in the Church. For baptism, I require birth certificates for correct spelling of their names, parent names and name of city, state and country. I give baptism classes in English using a copy of the baptismal rite. When necessary one of the two parents interprets for the other. In January 2021, I had a group infant baptism. Two members of the Chuuk community helped me interpret, register families to the parish and gather the birth certificates.
Like all immigrant communities, the Micronesians have some bilingual leaders. I look to these leaders to get to know the Chuuk community and to interpret. After attending weekend Mass, many in the Chuuk community gather in a home two Sunday afternoons per month for a prayer meeting and meal together. I recently attended one of their prayer meetings. We talked about the Mass and a visit with the bishop and a priest from Chuuk in September 2019.
Many of the Catholics from Chuuk live in South Dakota, Missouri and Iowa. The priest from Chuuk heard confessions and helped with the liturgy. We also talked about having a bilingual weekday Mass at St. Mary of the Visitation Church after Easter. Most of the Liturgy of the Word would be in Chuukese and we would pray the Our Father in both English and Chuukese. The music would be Chuukese. Before I left the meeting, they gave me a copy of the Our Father and Hail Mary in Chuukese. I will need some help with learning the pronunciation.
Several members of the Chuuk community are present with Anglos and Hispanics at weekday Mass. Like the Hispanics, the Chuuk families gather around the tabernacle to pray after Mass. One day the Hispanics gathered around the tabernacle to pray while the Chuuk family waited in the pew. I invited them to pray before the Holy Family statues on the other side of the church. It was an interesting experience to see and hear prayers in Spanish and Chuukese at the same time.
I will continue to register families from Chuuk in the parish and meet their sacramental needs as I do for the Anglos, Hispanics, Africans and Filipinos in our parish. I appreciate the leaders in the Chuukese community that are helping with the spiritual care of this community as catechists, interpreters and prayer leaders. Even though I do not speak Chuukese, working with immigrants for about 40 years has helped me. Listening, learning and welcoming are very important to this ministry.
(Father Jim Betzen is pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa.)