Fr. Polycarp Khaw Nei Thawng 2020-2022

A safe place in trying times
Fr. Polycarp Khaw Nei Thawng is a diocesan priest from Myanmar who arrived at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa for English studies in March 2020. It wasn’t exactly the greatest time to be relocating across the world since airports were closing one by one and countries were starting to shut down international travel in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic didn’t bother him much, though. Fr. Polycarp says that he figured if his flights were cancelled, he’d just stay in Myanmar. It would be what it would be. He was leaving it up to God.

His journey, which involved four separate flights, was an interesting one to say the least. At the Bangkok airport, he boarded a shuttle to transport him from one terminal to another. He watched as other passengers wore facemasks and diligently cleaned their hands and the surrounding surfaces with sanitizer. Meanwhile, he stood unmasked and virtually unprotected. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is in the middle of a major crisis. Fr. Polycarp is acutely aware of his nation’s turmoil and the unthinkable circumstances that many people there are enduring. That contributes to his perspective on things like a virus and flight delays.

When Fr. Polycarp arrived safely at Divine Word College, it was at the same time that the school shifted exclusively to online learning. Fr. Polycarp wasn’t familiar with the language, the culture, the community or the building, but now he was to live alone in a room and learn entirely online using a program called Zoom that was as foreign to him as the meals served in the dining room.

There was no time to waste feeling sorry for himself, though. Fr. Polycarp started walking room to room and asking his classmates for help. After nearly three weeks, he discovered where to find his online homework assignments! He also quickly learned that there was a Burmese community in Rock Island, Illinois that was searching for someone to say Mass in their native language. Fr. Polycarp volunteered to celebrate Mass in front of a smart phone that livestreamed the service to the Rock Island parishioners’ homes.

As time passed, in-person classes resumed at Divine Word and Fr. Polycarp was able to improve his English, complete the ESL program and obtain an associate’s degree in intercultural studies. When tensions in his home country flared even more, he found a bit of solace in the support he received from the college community. He confided in the rector, Fr. Thang Hoang, SVD, about his concerns and the college offered to take up a special collection for the people of Myanmar. There was a special holy hour held in the country’s honor, as well. Fr. Polycarp and three other Burmese students even had a chance to educate the DWC community about their home country during a Culture Week that was all about Myanmar. They shared the sights, sounds, flavors, clothing and traditions of their country.

In May 2022, Fr. Polycarp graduated from DWC. Since then, he’s been living in the Rock Island, Illinois area and serving the Burmese community there. He looks back fondly on his time at Divine Word College and says he’ll always remember that his favorite place was at the front of campus where the flagpoles stand side by side. It was his job to put the flags up each morning and take them down each afternoon. And sometimes on cold days, that was the only time he went outside!