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Three kings aren’t enough to capture West Side’s diversity

For the Feast of the Epiphany, Our Lady of Hope Parish doesn’t limit itself to just the Three Kings.

Four donned elaborate robes and came bearing gifts for the Christ child on Sunday.

To celebrate the Festival of Kings each year, church organizers enlist four parishioners to portray kings representing Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The organizers have little difficulty finding re-enactors whose journeys to Buffalo began on the very soil of those continents.

Our Lady of Hope, which resulted from the merger of three parishes, is likely the most diverse in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. It is anchored on the city’s West Side, where immigrants have revived blocks of old housing stock and opened stores and restaurants of many flavors.

The Burmese are most visible. A U.S. resettlement program begun 10 years ago has brought about 8,000 Burmese some 8,000 miles to Buffalo’s West Side.

Lafayette High School, where 45 languages are spoken, is a short distance away on Lafayette Avenue. At least 14 languages are spoken among Our Lady of Hope’s families, says Pastoral Associate Ron Thaler.

The clergy and staff of Our Lady of Hope takes pride in this identity.

“Our families are made up of people from Europe. Asia, North and South America, Africa, the Caribbean,” said the bulletin distributed to the hundreds of people who attended Sunday’s Mass. “We come with our various customs and languages, with our understanding, tolerance and love, with our working and praying together to celebrate as one people of God.”

Each week, various nationalities are well-represented during the offering that precedes Holy Communion. An African song of peace rings out during the sign of peace. And on Sunday, Thaler explained, “we included all the nations of the world in our rendition of the Gospel of St. Matthew.”

That meant Paul Kakhu, who came from Myanmar – as a military government has called Burma since 1989 – donned the robes of a king. So did Ivan Okwir, who comes from Uganda and Sudan. Carlos Arroyo served as a king for the fifth year; he’s from Puerto Rico. Thomas Regandsdorfer, whose ancestry can be traced to Europe, was born in America. The golden-hued train on his robes extended for at least 10 feet.

As the kings waited to make their entrance, cellphone pictures of them were snapped by family and friends. The congregation sang “every nation on Earth will adore you Lord.” Children bustled about, and parents hustled to keep them in some sense of order.

Casual visitors to Our Lady of Hope are likely to be struck by the dozens of young children bobbing about in the pews.

“We’ve had so many baptisms,” said Sister Susan Bowles, who works with the parish’s many immigrant families.

Over to the side, awaiting their cue, were Peter Kam Thang and Monica Dim Khan Hiang. The Burmese couple and the youngest of their five children – 4-month-old Jacob Thong Sian – played Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus.

Even with the noise around him, the baby slumbered peacefully.