I’d like to tell you a fantastic story about a bunch of street kids we took camping a few weeks ago.
It was glorious! Just try to imagine a collective burst of joy that shakes the skies and you will start to get an idea of the fun these children had for four days and nights. (Related photo gallery here.)
Normally these street children sleep in abandoned buildings, under bridges and viaducts, and sometimes, if they’re lucky, on a floor inside a friend or relative’s shack for a few days. They trust almost no one, live by their wits, and survive day by day in a world that is horrible and dangerous. Their fatality rate is comparable to soldiers in combat. They really do die young.
Although these kids trust few adults, our social workers were able to persuade forty street kids to join our Mercy staff for a holiday at Kao Yai National Park, where they played children’s games just like other children, took long hikes, exercised until they were exhausted, cooked their own meals, made friends, learned lessons about sharing and about trusting others, laughed more than you might think humanly possible, and, best of all, lived without fear for four full days.
Someone asked me to jot down some words on the celebration of my Ordination and First Mass - about being a "Senior Priest."
Forty Five years ago - counting from today - as a newly Ordained Catholic Priest, I said my First Mass and gave my first Priestly Blessings in a small farmtown-wooden Church in South Dakota in the United States.
It was and still is terribly important that I began my Official Priesthood there, saying my first Mass in that rural community where my Irish and German ancestors homesteaded after the American Civil War. Me, the son of a farmer and the son of a farmer's daughter.
Through these years of my priesthood, it seems that the great rules of Evangelization have become clearer.
To politely say, Good Morning - Good Evening to everyone I meet.
To say I am sorry - to apologize when I am wrong, always giving honor to all I meet along the way.
To say thank you even when it might not seem necessary.
I have been honored and blessed beyond belief in that my Religious Order, the Redemptorists, sent me to Thailand and then Laos, and then, 37 years ago, back to Bangkok to the Slaughter House in the slums, to be Parish Priest for our Catholics who butcher the pigs - where I have been accepted as a true family member and a real part of this beautiful slum community.
My and your stories are not yet finished - the last words have not yet been written and the final scenes are still open-ended. A song writer said: "Been doing some Hard Traveling down the Road" and yes, the future is a mystery, but there is hope. There is joy.
Prayers - fr joe
Here in Klong Toey our children at Mercy Centre played “make-up games” in the streets as did the children behind the barricades, but children do that everywhere. We remain unscathed physically. Emotionally the wounds and scars run raw and deep, and we pray for peace, justice, and the meekness of wisdom.
A founding member and current advisor of our HIV/AIDS homecare and outreach teams, Khun Apiwat Gwangkaew was recently named President of the national Thai Network + (People Living with AIDS).
The Thai Network + is a nationwide organization comprising hundreds of local and regional groups advocating for the rights of PLWA. The Network creates national platforms, based on the voices of those living with AIDS, on issues ranging from national drug licensing and universal drug access to grassroots education and outreach. Apiwat first came to Mercy as a hospice patient and has a remarkable story to tell. In his own words:
"When I was a child, my parents could not take care of me. I was placed with a foster family. The foster family did love me but I missed the warmth that comes from my own family.
Drawing by Ali
In the last few weeks, as Thailand has edged closer and closer toward political and social chaos, we received many calls and e-mails from friends expressing their concern for our children. Thank you so much!
This week everything feels more hopeful. Protesters still occupy the shopping district, fortifying their perimeters with walls of gasoline-soaked tires and sharpened bamboo stakes. The army is still protecting the financial district. But now both sides are talking about withdrawing from their positions. We hope and pray for peace.
Whatever happens, we want all our friends to know that life goes on as always at our Mercy Centre, that we worry about our country and our future, but our focus every second of every day remains on the lives of poor, vulnerable children living on the streets and in slum shacks throughout Bangkok. Our street outreach teams continue to visit and protect children on their daily rounds. Moms and grandmoms still come to Mercy with family emergencies. They rhythms of life on the street and at Mercy remain the same. We are still a big family surrounded by neighbors we know and love.
Since January, 10 new children have joined our Mercy family. Eight of these children (7 boys and 1 girl – Pleam, Praem, Dton, Eh-eh, Than, Phan, Kee-nu, and Mint) lived many years in a local home for children with AIDS - The Kevorkian Home – which recently closed. Two other children, both girls – Ploy, age 5, and Pookie, age 13 - are from the streets.
Right now is by far the most exciting time of year at Mercy Centre.
Every day it seems something wonderful happens. On a Monday Father Joe receives an honorary award as a Child Protection Ambassador for Thailand, the first foreigner ever to be so honored. On a Tuesday, two of our children, Miss Ewe and Miss Oom, score the highest grades in their class. Actor Jackie Chan drops by our Mercy Centre to sing and dance with our kids on a Wednesday. Then Thursday arrives, and we celebrate World AIDS Day at Mercy Centre, where hundreds of poor teenagers gather to learn about prevention and compassion. On a Friday, our boys living on the farm win their soccer match.
And every new day is one day closer to Christmas. The excitement builds. Our children know that Santa Claus and presents with cakes and ice cream are just around the corner. Plus the New Year celebrations!
We have much to be grateful for in 2009.
When the world economy plummeted in 2008, we began adjusting for this year, cutting costs everywhere except in staff numbers, and then we made a promise - Father Joe, Sister Maria, all my colleagues at Mercy, and myself - to the poor we serve.
We promised, no matter what, to make sure that every poor child we meet goes to school. We promised to never turn away a child in need and to welcome each boy or girl into our family. We promised to provide an umbrella of care for the poorest of the poor living with AIDS. We promised not to let our poor neighbors down.
As the year ends, even as 2009 funding declined as predicted, we have still kept all our promises. A few statistics:
3,451 Children enrolled in Mercy Kindergartens
753 Children graduating into primary school
434 Education sponsorships for Bangkok's poorest children
114 Emergency and micro-loans to our Women's Group
132 Street children we protect by the day
189 Children living in Mercy Centre
543 Children we represented in police stations and courts.
5,000+ Poor people living with AIDS in our care or receiving our assistance in our hospice, in their homes,, aand at government hospitals
1,000,000+ Servings of rice we provided to our children, students, the elderly, and handicapped.
And behind these statistics are thousands of individual stories. Father Joe wrote a beautiful piece - "It's All in The Game" - about three of our kids: Nong Fon and Nong Peh, both blinded from AIDS, and their Big Sister Miss Rin.
Miss Rin, age 15, mentally disabled and physically disfigured from birth, was abandoned to the streets where she, too, got AIDS. As far as we can tell, and we don't know much because Rin refuses to speak of her past, her whole life had been one of hiding from others in fear. Yet on the first day Miss Rin came to Mercy, in fact the very moment she met our two blind girls, Nong Fon and Nong Peh, Miss Rin found love.
Miss Rin loves Nong Peh and Nong Fon with a tenderness so profound it defies our understanding. They giggle and laugh together all day long. She showers, diapers and feeds them, plays games with them, and makes them laugh whenever they are the slightest bit sad. All three girls have speech impediments, yet somehow everything they say to each other is crystal clear. At night, Miss Rin tucks them into bed and sings them her own made-up lullabies.
These children are the beauty that is Mercy.
Thank you for providing our children with a world full of dignity and joy in 2009. Thank you for giving to our foundation in every way you give, for sponsoring our children, for volunteering, for every gift you bring or send us, for every phone call or letter you've written on our behalf, for every kind word you've said about us to friends and family. All of you make an enormous difference.
Please continue to support us in 2009 and 2010. Please help us in any way you can to keep our promises to the poor.
Wishing all our friends a Merry Christmas and New Year filled with joy,
Usanee, The Mercy Teams,
And All Our Mercy Children