Mercy Comes to a Slum
For three decades, Father Joe Maier has made it his mission to take in the throwaway youths of Bangkok's largest ghetto.
Los Angeles Times - The World | COLUMN ONE
October 02, 2006|John M. Glionna, Times Staff Writer
BANGKOK, Thailand — Like a proud parent, Father Joe Maier dotes on his children -- such as the young beggar boy whose dad got him high on paint thinner and gave him broken bottles to cut his arms so he'd look more pathetic to passing motorists.
And the sexually abused triplets -- the girls' mother was dying of AIDS, their father in jail, their grandfather a drunk. Maier paid the old man two cases of whiskey to rescue the trio.
Now the ruddy-faced 66-year-old Roman Catholic priest smiles at a girl laboring over math homework, her oval face strained in concentration. He recently bought the solemn 16-year-old from her drug-addled mother, who needed cash for gambling debts. He paid 1,000 baht, or about $26.
The child, he says, is priceless.
"She came very near to being sold into the sex trade," says Maier, a Seattle-area native. "Instead, she's going to school for the first time in her life. She's now a very happy girl."
The abused beggar boy and triplets are thriving under his care as well.
For three decades, Maier has been a straight-talking guardian angel watching over Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum, a grim sprawl of swamp muck, garbage and tin-roofed shacks. Sandwiched between a droning freeway and the Thai capital's gritty port district, the ghetto is home to 100,000 impoverished Bangkok residents.
Since founding Mercy Center in 1972, the priest has ventured on foot into the slum to rescue outcasts from cardboard hovels, garbage-can homes and freeway underpass hobo camps.
Many others are abandoned on his doorstep -- left by AIDS-stricken mothers with few choices or shamed parents mired in drug and alcohol stupors.
To most, they are Thailand's throwaway youths. But for the priest known affectionately here as Father Joe, they are family.
"You try to give a kid a chance to be human for a while," Maier says. "You shoot them like an arrow into the wind and you hope for the best. You want to show them that for one bright, shining moment of their lives there was a Camelot called childhood."
The recent case of John Mark Karr, extradited to the United States from Thailand after falsely confessing to the 1996 slaying of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, has given Maier new momentum in his battle against child sexual abuse.
Although statistics are hard to come by, international rights groups say 200,000 children and women work in Thailand's lucrative sex industry, where underage victims fall prey to pedophiles from Europe, South America and the U.S.
For years, Maier has offered refuge. He has spirited sexually abused kids to safe houses to avoid pedophiles and hard-luck parents who would sell them back to their abusers. He has shepherded them to court to testify against traffickers, helping to send some to prison.
"The pedophiles offer parents money for their addictions in exchange for access to the children," he says. "They say that one day the kids will forget the sex. We say they will never forget. They are scarred forever."
His sprawling Mercy Center in the heart of Klong Toey, part of his nonprofit Human Development Foundation, has five orphanages and shelters, and the nation's largest free hospice for mothers and children with HIV and AIDS. About 220 children live here full time, more than 50 of them suffering from AIDS.
Started as a one-room schoolhouse where he taught the children of pork slaughterhouse workers, the foundation operates 33 slum preschools serving 4,000 children daily -- all on a $2-million annual budget he solicits from the Thai government as well as local and international donors.
Maier is himself the product of a broken home -- the son of an alcoholic father who deserted the family. Longing to see the world, the young priest arrived in Southeast Asia in 1967, landing in Klong Toey five years later.
Each day, the Grateful Dead-loving priest makes his rounds at the complex through its grassy courtyard overlooked by palm trees. Wearing blue jeans and untied leather shoes, his eyebrows flaring like two exclamation points, Maier is a gathering storm of talk and activity.
Sometimes profane, he often juggles three stories at once, regaling listeners in fluent Thai. He offers adults a wai, the traditional Thai greeting with pressed palms resembling a quick prayer. The children get a streetwise knuckle punch to show he's one of them.
Maier has his favorites, such as the 35-year-old man with Down syndrome he found abandoned on the street years ago. Nicknamed Galong, or "bird without a nest," the man is the center's good-natured mascot. There's also the speechless teenage girl in a wheelchair who smiles as Maier leans in and touches her arm with parental tenderness.
As for the babies with AIDS, he coddles them the most.
Outside Mercy Center, Maier's gruff style with Thai politicians and others he blames for the problems in Klong Toey have earned him critics. The outspoken Catholic priest in a country of more than 60 million Buddhists often steps on toes, some say.
Still, many government officials heed what Maier has to say: He is a frequent panelist on city commissions, and council members often call him for advice on Klong Toey.
"People say I fly off the handle, that I often go too far," he says. "But I'm only what I am. No more and no less.”
Years ago, frustrated by the dearth of adequate housing in Klong Toey, Maier went back to school to earn a master's degree in public planning. Since then, his foundation has stepped in when the city government doesn't. After fires burned down swaths of the slum, Maier built 10,000 single-family homes that were far better than the old tin shacks.
"Father Joe is the surrogate parent to the slum's forgotten children," says Saisuree Chutikul, chairwoman of Thailand's Committee on Combating Trafficking of Women and Children. "He has a lot of influence."
Virat Sompobsupanart came to Mercy Center in 1982 as a troubled teen. He is now a community outreach worker. "Father Joe's mission is to allow people their dignity," the 40-year-old says. "He gets things done. And he isn't afraid of anyone or anything."
In a spare, no-nonsense style, Maier wrote a series of newspaper articles about Klong Toey that have been compiled into a book called "Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse."
The title refers not only to the animal-killing stalls but to the many people trapped in the slum who fall prey to drugs, disease, violence and sex.
Still, there are those who scratch out a survival, even success.
They are children like Gee. Maier found the boy, then 11, living under a freeway, using dirty rags to wash windshields at intersections to help care for his grandmother. He was also a drug addict, hooked on a mixture of cough syrup, soda and ground-up mosquito coil. He sniffed glue and paint thinner, a vile yellowish concoction known as 505.
Gee and some other boys had been approached by three British tourists who offered them money and drugs to pose nude for photographs and videos. For months, the men molested them.
When Mercy Center social workers discovered the youngsters, Maier whisked them to safety until they could testify against the men, who were later convicted.
"Society tends to fixate on the predators," Maier says. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, send the bad guys to jail, but what happens to the children? Who's taking care of them?"
With only half a year of schooling, Gee was illiterate. But he blossomed under Maier's care. He learned to read and write. He took up the guitar, often playing for the AIDS and HIV patients. He also protected Galong, the Down syndrome man, who is often hectored by street urchins.
"He came here a glue-sniffing abuse victim and now he's a rock star," Maier says of Gee. "He no longer sees himself as a victim. He sees himself as Jimi Hendrix."
Where Truth Got in the Way of an Agenda.
Now 18, Gee recently left the center for a restaurant job, but not before Maier sat him down for a heart-to-heart: "I said he had family here. And I told him that he was going to be a great guitar player."
Despite the successes, Klong Toey takes its toll. One boy with AIDS suffering from tuberculosis died days after arriving at Mercy Center.
"It's hard to see a child die before anyone was kind to them," Maier says, "to say goodbye to a kid who never knew friendship."
But Maier knows each child must confront death in his or her own way. He recalls his promise to one young AIDS victim that he would be at her deathbed.
"Yet she didn't want me there," he says. "It's tough to die. It's tougher to do it when you have somebody there who doesn't want you to die. So she waited until I was gone. I was upset when I learned that. Then I got my head together and said, 'You arrogant SOB. That girl had to do things her way.' "
Suddenly, Maier's cellphone rings with bad news from Klong Toey.
A teenage girl living at Mercy Center has been gang-raped at a nearby ghetto school -- for the second time. Maier is told the girl giggled as the boys took their turn with her.
"Is this self-loathing? How do you protect a girl like this?" he says with a sigh. "We try to protect these children day and night. But we just can't be there every second."
So why does he stay? Why does he continue to do battle in a Bangkok slum, in a war he often does not win?
"Why go?" he counters. "By fate or the grace of God, I ended up here. After all these years, I have an obligation to stay.
"And anyway, where would I go? Who would want me?"