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Hers is ministry to community in pain

NCR Staff
Long Beach, Calif.

For Mary Blatz a day of ministry could mean anything from advocating against welfare cuts at a community meeting, to analyzing the nightmares of people who saw their families slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, to a shopping trip with a struggling seamstress to Chinatown's fabric shops, to playing games with local youngsters who call her "the lady who loves kids."

For all practical purposes, except for administering sacraments, Blatz is the priest at the Mount Carmel Cambodian Catholic Church, a tiny, lay-run parish located south of Los Angeles in Long Beach. Her assignment as pastoral director here is one few clergy would -- or, because of language limitations, could -- rush to take.

With the urgings of two bishops, the parish wooed Blatz from New York and a teaching position at Columbia University's American Language Program almost five years ago.

She arrived in Los Angeles in 1992 two weeks after the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. Living and ministering with two others in an intentional community, Blatz tries to live the example of Christ among Long Beach's 50,000 Cambodian refugees, the largest concentration of Khmer people outside Phnom Penn, most of whom are Buddhists.

Hers is a ministry to a community in pain, to a people who watched thousands die, including half of the Catholics and nearly all of the priests of their country, during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. Hers is a presence in a community for which, as she says, "life hasn't been normal since 1970."

"What these people went through was a holocaust. ... All of them were persecuted. ... Then they had years in the (refugee) camps. Maybe 25 percent came with some education that could have a bearing on their situation here. There are no reserves in this community. It's a completely new immigrant population," Blatz said.

Here the reality of the cross provides a daily backdrop for a journey of faith lived in community. "We are walking through the pain. That's Christian life. It's exciting. There is a resurrection. There is some way. But you have to walk through the pain," Blatz explained.

At Mount Carmel, this way of evangelization is traveled in very small steps. The first step was "presence and friendship" -- the three women living together in the house that once served as a rectory. From there they facilitated the formation of a core base community of 10 families, drawing 100 or so people for worship and lectionary-based sharing. That life of faith has since dovetailed with a life of action. "We are trying to move from being an emergency to being a mission. A lot of basic groundwork has to happen," Blatz said.

But before that foundation can emerge, the Cambodian refugees must heal from their trauma so they can reconstruct bonds of trust. This collective pain has forced the women to design new models of ministry.

"They don't like meetings, for example, because (in Cambodia) they worked 16 hours a day (in labor camps) and had four-hour meetings, only four hours of sleep. They are not interested in church organization through meetings," Blatz said.

It has also taught these ministers profoundly Christian lessons. "You have to understand how to forge an accepting community. Here we are challenged to the ultimate to understand about forgiveness."

Blatz said that a community model of worship is essential to the psychological and spiritual health of the refugees. "The whole objective of the Khmer Rouge was to strip them of their culture and identity. So this community needs to exist as a community. When people are told just to go to the pews, it is not effective," she said.

Blatz, raised in a large Irish-German Catholic family, who holds a graduate degree in pastoral ministry and catechetics from the international institute Lumen Vitae in Belgium, has also learned about Buddhism. "Religious dialogue with the Buddhists is important. People don't want to be separated from the Buddhist community," she said.

Blatz learned about being church and creating community during the 30 years, off and on, that she attended St. Mary's Parish in Coltsneck, N.J., a congregation widely known for progressive community (NCR, Oct. 18, 1996). "That parish was different. When you went on Sunday, you were really fed. There was always something you could be involved in," she said. Service to refugees in New Jersey and later in refugee camps in Hong Kong and Indonesia led her to the Cambodian people.

She said she remembers the day they phoned her at her parents' home about the L.A. job. "My mother shouted, 'Mary, there are two bishops on the phone for you,' " Blatz said.

That's when a unique form of ministry began. "When I came here ... I tried to be quiet. I knew I couldn't be a splash in the Cambodian community, that it had to be a quiet and warm entrance. I knew I wouldn't know what to do, but here were three empty and warm buildings where I had to be a spirit."

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997