Slum Priest in Bangkok
From the Huffington Post, June 24:
By Katherine Marshall
My always iconoclastic grandfather intrigued me by insisting that he wanted to go to Hell. It might be unpleasantly hot but the people there would be interesting and would have a sense of fun. The virtuous people who went to Heaven were not people he wanted to spend a lot of time with.
I recently met a man in Bangkok who is clearly en route to Heaven, and who could make it fascinating and fun.
Father Joe Maier has spent the past 45 years in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok, a rather notorious slum community. A Redemptorist priest born in Seattle, Father Joe walks the streets of his neighborhood each day, finding solutions for the constant problems that people face. For years he lived in a shack, either above a busy slaughterhouse or by a foul-smelling waterway. Today, he presides over the thriving "Mercy Centre", a buzzing haven right in the midst of the slum community. There children live, learn, and play in safety, surrounded by love.
Mercy Centre combines many functions: orphanage, kindergarten, center for HIV and AIDS programs, child protection and legal aid, support for housing, and base for children who live on the streets. It has developed organically over the years, from a very small beginning as a makeshift child care center to a substantial organization that is blessed by Thailand's royal family.
Father Joe has managed to build his haven despite the fact that he is a foreigner and, as a Christian, part of a small minority. His success is part raw grit and persistence, part vision, and part force of personality.
The grit takes the form of a determination to keep at it, day after day. Father Joe accepts the faults of those he works with and he works within the system. There are few saints in the slums and every small action for good takes compromise. But Father Joe sees possibilities and solutions where others see hopelessness and corruption. He is a man who never gives up. He does not accept that something he thinks is right is impossible.
The vision is above all about the children. The centerpiece of Mercy Centre is the network of 33 kindergartens, where children spend three years. And at the end they dress in graduation robes, as does Father Joe, and he speaks gravely to them (and to their relatives). His message: "Go to school. Go to school. Go to school. If your Daddy is a drunk, go to school. If your Mommy is a card shark, go to school. If your Grandma is on drugs, go to school." He places his faith, in short, on education and on the chance that it offers to overcome even the worst start that life can offer. Mercy Centre has successes, too: graduates who have gone to the United World Colleges and who have impressive degrees and career paths. Many teachers at Mercy Centre are graduates from long ago. The vision, then, inspires people around him.
Another part of Father Joe's vision is that peace is grounded in a broad spirituality, rather than any specific dogma. He works with the Muslim imams in the area as well as the Buddhist monks. If there is ever trouble in the area, he says, there is a tacit pact that the Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists will support each other, with food or whatever else is needed.
But much of Father Joe's achievements come back to sheer force of personality. There's a well of outrage that is obvious and bursts out on occasion, an outrage that comes from seeing raw injustice and suffering all around. But there's also hope and love that win out. Father Joe seems able to find real good in everyone, as well as humor. He takes problems one at a time and he simply will not give up.
Today's news is full of Thailand's military coup and political stalemate. What's happening there has a lot to do with the divisions between the haves and have nots. Thailand's booming economy transformed the country in many ways but it has left many behind. It seems hard to believe, picking one's way through the drains and smells of vast slums that city dwellers are better off than many in the rural areas, in terms of health and nutrition. In the city hope always seems somewhere within reach and the magnet draws many in. But daily reality is harsh and it seems cruelest for the children caught in the vortex. It is simply impossible to explain or justify a society where some are so rich and so many are so poor, and where predators are a daily fact of life.
So Father Joe walks the streets, greeting everyone as an old friend, goading them to act, taking a child on if no one else takes care. He tells stories, talks about the "fookin'" bureaucrats in his way or the demons that plague him, and laughs at himself and his colleagues. People love and admire him because he is so human but also because they sense the deep courage, care, and faith that drive him.
by Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published by the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, June 1, 2014
Auntie Boon Mee looks and carries on in life pretty much how you’d expect a high-class Klong Toey slum pioneer woman to look and carry on.
Not that she “can run faster than a speeding bullet or jump over tall buildings in a single bound” or do any of that stuff — the street-sweeper says she couldn’t do that even when she was young and first moved with her new husband to the Chao Phraya riverside swamp called Klong Toey 60 years ago.
She’s pure, unadulterated Klong Toey pioneer stock. Eighty-two years old — remembers the year for sure, as her mum told her, and also that she was born on a Thursday. Teacher’s day. Everything else is lost. The date on her ID card was invented years ago, when some kind official registered a good day and month to be born.
She’s 20,000 baht in debt at the moment. That’s what she admits to; it’s probably more, but in Klong Toey’s debt-ridden culture, it’s “un-slumlike” to admit to more.
Borrowed from the neighbouring noodle shop at 10% per month, her debt shot up. She needed cash to buy a motorcycle taxi for her youngest and only remaining son. In street trash talk, he’s called “Blurr”. He’s OK as a motorcycle taxi driver on short trips. Not so safe otherwise.
That’s how she got her shoulder banged up — riding sidesaddle on Blurr’s motorcycle to get one of her brooms fixed. He skidded, she slipped. She wouldn’t go to the hospital. Said: “No need. I’m not bleeding.”
Six decades ago, her village wedding was done all proper-like. Too poor for a dowry, her mum asked for a brass ring — a wedding ring to show respect and dignity. Thus, approval of their elders and blessings were given and taken.
The morning after her wedding, she and new husband asked for “a going away blessing” so her mum and dad gave them rice cooked in banana leaves for when they got hungry along the way. They said their goodbyes and set out to seek their fame and fortune.
The word was there was work and wages in the Klong Toey river swamp. You could move in for free and for work: carry 100kg rice sacks on your back from the wharf onto the ships. Women were hired to sweep and clean. So they boarded an early morning bus to Bangkok and then walked to Klong Toey. Her mum had said, “Girl, stay near the river, there’s always fish.” Mum didn’t know if there were black crabs around Klong Toey, but she thought there might be.
Auntie Boon Mee had grown up in mangrove trees and mud flats 50km from Bangkok. Her mum and dad had a tiny wooden boat. They caught small, black, saltwater crabs used in Thai spicy food, sometimes by hand with no gloves for protection against the snipping of the claws.
At Klong Toey, Auntie Boon Mee and her husband were happy newlywed pioneers. Their first home was a lean-to shack salvaged from scrap wood. They had work, a home and nice slum neighbours. She patched up an old mosquito net for sleeping. They began a family ... raised two children in Klong Toey, where they thought they could give them a future. But the swamp slum was not always kind. Often, even now, she laments: “I should have taken my boys back to the mangrove trees and taught them to catch black crabs bare-handed as I learned from my mum and dad.”
Her first son died at 20. He was sick from “whatever”, that was brought on by injecting heroin into his veins along with various other “whatever else” he could put into a needle.
He had been arrested and was awaiting sentencing when he convulsed in the local jail. So the good policeman, a neighbour and fellow settler, solemnly and without a smile, told Auntie Boon Mee that the arrest of her drug addict son “was a case of mistaken identity”. She quickly borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbour, got him into it as best she could and carted him home. He died a couple of hours later. Everyone said: “Thank goodness he died at home. A police cell is not a good place to leave your ghost.”
Auntie Boon Mee had no money for a coffin. But the man at the Benevolent Chinese Society liked her, knew of her street sweeping and donated his best plywood casket.
Her husband died shortly thereafter. One early dawn, she was sweeping outside their shack when she heard him groan and collapse. He died in her arms, not Hollywood style, but with him gasping for air while her youngest son — Blurr, the motorcycle taxi guy — shouted “Dad, breathe!” and she blew air into her husband’s mouth. He had come around before, she says, but not this time.
After her husband died and was cremated in another donated plywood casket, she still had three small children living with her. She doesn’t know exactly how they ended up with her. They were stray kids. They’d help her sweep the streets and one morning they simply followed her home.
She used to spoon-feed these three children, who are now grown up. When neighbours asked why she spoon-fed them, she explained that she didn’t have much money, almost nothing, and she wanted all three to eat at well as they could. She didn’t want them to fight over their food so she dished it out by spoon, making it equal. This way, no one would go away hungry and no one got more than another.
It was about that time she got more into sweeping. She wanted the area in front of her shack to look nice; wanted her “orphans” to feel proud of their home. The place didn’t need to be dirty and filled with garbage.
Now that’s what she’s known for. A kind grandmother and Klong Toey street-sweeper. Plus, a bit of gambling in the local Jhap Yee Gee — 10 baht a chance and 100 baht if you win. A winner each hour, 12 hours a day.
She’s never accepted money for keeping the slum clean.
Fresh garbage? She’d never sweep that. Leave it for hungry cats and stray dogs. “They have to eat, too,” she says. Even the rats. Feeding strays plus seeking intercession at the local Sacred Tree brings her good luck at the local Jhap Yee Gee, she says.
But of late — the past few months — her luck has changed. She’s losing more than winning. She’s asked a woman neighbour — the same age and known for telling fortunes — if this string of bad luck comes from catching all those small, black, saltwater crabs when she was a girl.
Or maybe she didn’t make enough merit while praying for the souls of her first son and husband. You never can be sure about these heavenly matters.
So she sweeps the streets of the slum — her way of paying back and saying thanks for her life along the river and for her slum neighbours, and, even, for the bad patches she has faced.
A while back — maybe four years — it was announced on the loud speakers that Auntie Boon Mee was now duly elected. She was second in charge after the newly elected president of the Slum Committee.
Everyone was congratulating her and she didn’t have a clue. People were buying her “shots”. (Special medicine that’s a morning wake up for her aching bones. Some folks have a morning wake-up cup of coffee, others ...)
The street-sweeper of Klong Toey had won the slum election. It happened this way.
There are no secrets in our slum and moneylenders are not unaware. They needed her on their ballot. So they went to Auntie Boon Mee and said: “Auntie, let us put your name on our local election ticket and we’ll pay for the motorcycle and make your debts disappear.” They did not say: With a majority vote, government improvement projects will come to our slum, and of course, there might always be a bit left over for the local politicians.
She said: “Absolutely not.” They put her on the ticket anyway. She got votes. Lots and lots.
Embarrassed, not knowing what to do, early the next morning she went and swept around the Sacred Tree near the Klong Toey walk-up flats, seeking wisdom. She left her broom there. Somehow there was now a sacredness about the broom. She said she felt better: it would be OK to accept the position of vice-president. She said no bribes. However, if the moneylenders did not come around and bother her any more, well, that would be a relief.
But there was one problem.
Her hair had grown out — returned to its natural colour of grey. This is an embarrassment. In Klong Toey, no matter what your age, your hair must be black. Rarely grey at the edges. So she accepted a proper hair colouring from her hairdresser. As a gift. Not a bribe.
A couple of mornings ago, she had just finished her special Klong Toey breakfast: First, a morning shot of “bone medicine”, as she calls it. Second a glass of sweet local coffee with a raw egg mixed in. Third, a Jhap Yee Gee lottery ticket. Although she didn’t win, she says her luck is changing. She’s winning more often. Probably because of her sweeping around that Sacred Tree.
It began to rain. Some children going to school asked her: “Auntie Boon Mee, why do you sweep while it’s raining?”
She replied: “My children, I can’t help it if it rains while I am sweeping. That’s not my fault. Blame the rain.”
And so, there you have it. Auntie Boon Mee, a world-class street-sweeper, wearing out one broom per week, and our slum’s very own second-in-charge. Elected by the people, for the people. Maybe she can’t run faster than a speeding bullet or jump over tall buildings in a single bound, but she is much more than a fictional superhero to us.
She’s a wonderful role model and our high-class Klong Toey swamp slum pioneer. It’s a privilege to know her.
Last week was the official beginning of the new school year in Thailand. For our House Moms and Dads at Mercy, who take care of almost 180 children, the whole first week is a super big deal.
On the day before the actual first official school day, we took an informal (and very unscientific) survey to see which group among our Mercy children was feeling the most excitement. Here’s what we found out:
Our teenagers, especially our boys who live on our farm, were 101 percent joyful at the prospect of returning to school. After spending much of their school holiday tilling the fields and planting rice and vegetables, they said they are looking forward to less strenuous activities like dissecting frogs in biology class and figuring out algebra. (One boy, Ek, age 20, is now earning a vocational college degree in agriculture in Kanchanburi province. He says he will return to our Mercy farm after graduation to teach the other boys best methods and practices.)
Our middle-schoolers said they couldn’t wait to get back to their old friends and new studies. They were ecstatic!
Our eleven children who attend local vocational college and universities know what they want to do and are taking their next academic steps with confidence, their eyes wide open. Or so they say. If they change their minds, we won’t mind, as long as they keep going to school.
Of course, our first grade students – we have eight total – were beaming, almost electrified, by their joy at the prospect of the first day of class.
They couldn’t believe, after graduating from our three-year kindergarten, that they would finally be going to a real “BIG KID” school. On the day before their first day, they prepared by putting on their new uniforms, sharpening their new pencils, and placing their books and stationery in their new book bags. (Kind of makes you wish you were a kindergarten teacher.)
Our House Moms said that our First Graders were beside themselves with anticipation and could barely fall asleep. They giggled and whispered secrets to one another long into the night.
And the first day of school did not disappoint!
For our house moms and house dads, sending our kids off to school on that first day was a huge relief.
Imagine having to fit out 180 growing children with shoes and uniforms, backpacks, stationery, books, plus transportation, lunch, and after school allowance. Plus candy money for our 31 primary school children.
Plus… imagine the logistics of transporting kids to over two dozen different schools every day – public, parochial, and international schools, special needs schools, vocational colleges and universities.
What the new school year means to Mercy:
The Janusz Korcaak School. Over 40 children attend our special street kids school – kids who have no other place to learn or make friends, including street kids, kids with minor disabilities, and several Cambodian kids who lack the documentation required to enroll in formal public schools.
Kindergartens. Over 2,500 students are attending our 23 slum kindergartens throughout Bangkok, which include two construction camp preschools, one in Samut Prakarn, the other, surrounded by high rise luxury condos, in a tiny street running between Sukhumvit 24 and 26.
Education Sponsorships and Emergency Sponsorship Funds. Children in our kindergartens whose parents cannot afford our 10 baht (30 US cents) daily fee also can’t afford the costs of uniforms, books, and stationery. We take care of the school costs for these children and enroll them in our education sponsorship program. Over 350 of the very poorest children currently have Mercy education sponsors, from kindergarten onward.
Reform Schools. Through the Thai juvenile courts, we have arranged to look after more than forty former street kids who have been placed in government reform schools. When they complete their academic school year, many will join us back in Mercy.
Education for Sea Gypsy Children. In Ranong Province on the island of Koh Lao, we supervise the education of over 100 ethnic Mokan children. The young ones are enrolled in our kindergarten on the island while their older brothers and sisters are boarded in our home in Ranong, where they attend primary and secondary schools. Two of the oldest children are now earning vocational college degrees. Is this a revolution? We hope so! (Not one of their parents on Koh Lao ever learned to read and write.)
This morning I passed a first year kindergarten classroom filled with three-year-old girls and boys singing the “Elephant Song” in glorious unison, just as their moms and grandparents and great-grandparents sang before them. Such a beautiful site!
For four full days our children gathered at the community stadium behind our Mercy Centre for a professional basketball camp, brought to Mercy by the US Embassy and conducted by Top Flight Academy. With plenty of exercise, laughter, joyful competition, delicious food (thank you, Sunrise Tacos), and lots and lots of rehydrating fluids, it was the perfect warm up for the new school term. Photo gallery here.
How do young children develop lifetime learning skills? Local news Channel 3 reports that our Mercy Kindergartens - which have taught over 40,000 poor children how to read and write in the past 41 years - are paradigms in preparing children for their formal education. Our Mercy kindergarten studentsgain the skills to propel them successfully into primary school and far beyond.
Our foundation's Executive Director Fr. Wirach Amonpattana tells the Channel 3 reporter, "When Thai children have access to quality education at an early age, they become valuable long-term resources to their communities. A strong early education is like the base of a sturdy ladder, motivating children to advance upward in their studies with self confidence."
Please click on the link below to see the entire story - in Thai language only:
Let me tell you the story of Master Gan - a new child at Mercy Centre. A mighty five-year-old, he’s the spirit of Songkran and Easter rolled into one. Right now, he’s not at the top of his mental and physical peak because he’s got chicken pox, but that won’t hold him back for long.
He’s Songkran – Our Thai New Year Water Festival:
Overhearing a conversation about our Songkran holiday plans at Mercy – the part about asking elders for a blessing, pouring lustral water over their hands, and seeking forgiveness…
Master Gan thought about it a moment, and said he wanted some extra lustral water to go back to the Klong Toey market to see Uncle Duck Vendor and ask a blessing from Uncle.
Also ask for a bit of forgiveness:
Because he, Master Gan, and that stray cat had sometimes teased the ducks Uncle was selling from his stall in the marketplace. Also he wished for forgiveness from Heaven Above to help Uncle. Master Gan knew that Uncle Duck Vendor always prayed before butchering the ducks, but that he prayed in Chinese, and was afraid the ducks might only understand Thai.
Uncle didn’t speak Thai very clearly and only knew the Chinese prayers his mother had taught him long ago. Thus, he was afraid to go to the Temple to make merit – thought people would laugh at him. Plus Uncle has pride and dignity. He is a proper duck vendor. If the ducks, failing to understand his Chinese prayers, didn’t quack in unison… well, that wasn’t Uncle’s fault.
Also and most important of all, Master Gan wanted to ask Uncle Duck Vendor for a blessing for his (Gan’s) parents in prison, and of course, not to forget the cat who slept daytimes near Uncle’s rented market stall.
True, neither the stray cat nor his parents can speak or understand Chinese, but maybe that’s okay, Gan reasoned.
AND MASTER GAN IS EASTER, TOO. His life is an Easter/Songkran celebration, even in his present state with chicken pox.
And we, too, like Gan, ask for blessings.
That for our children – reminded by this Easter/Songkran moon - we must re-consecrate our Sacred Rituals to ask the Sacred Fire to warm us. We must ask the Air to bless our children so that people and plants and animals can breathe. To make the Water pure again, so our brothers and sisters the fish can live and flourish. And we ask a blessing to Mother Earth herself that she can grow trees and flowers and protect us.
And we resolve to stop being so mean spirited and hurting everything and thus everyone. It’s spring time, the time to plant. It’s the most sacred time in Thailand – Easter and Songkran.
Our Thai Easter and Songkran Moon is the same moon in the heavens – the brightest moon of the year.
How Gan Joined Our Mercy Family:
It began this way. There was a police shoot up, with guns pointed up at the sky, not at people, but about that in a minute….
Early each morning, our main cook finishes her food purchases in the Klong Toey fresh market no later than four a.m. except on rainy squally days. (I should mention that our cook has got a sharp eye for both stray kids and stray cats.)
Sunday, three weeks ago, before Songkran and a month before Easter, our cook was in the back section of the market where they sell chickens, ducks, and fresh fish. A young boy holding a stray cat, both a bit ragged, came up to her.
It was barefoot Master Nong Gan. He approached our cook and said just what he says to every kind-looking adult in the market: “I’m good at carrying stuff. Do you need any help?”
Our cook raised her eyebrows, slightly, Thai style. Gan continued, “My name is Nong Gan, and I help out Uncle Duck Vendor here in the market while my dad and mum are away with the police for a while, but they promised they would come back soon, and I hugged my mum ‘cause she was sad and I promised I’d be okay and I would save my money to buy her some ribbons for her hair. I’d keep them for when she comes back. Because the policeman said, she couldn’t wear ribbons, and my mum cried, and then the policeman said, ‘well, maybe, sometimes.’”
Our cook was impressed with Gan’s torrent of words and the way he expressed himself. She asked her market cronies, “Who takes care of this boy and his cat?”
One of them pointed to a grizzled duck vendor and said, “that old guy over there with the gimp leg, butchering ducks.”
It turns out that Uncle Duck Vendor shared an adjoining shack with Gan and his parents. When the police came to arrest his parents – firing warning shots in the air – Gan crawled out through the window and hid under Uncle Duck Vendor’s shack.
When Uncle came home a couple hours later, Master Gan, totally spooked from the noise of gunfire and the apparent disappearance of both his parents, would not talk or eat for two days. Uncle didn’t know what to do, so he gathered up Master Gan and put him on the back of his motorcycle with the basket full of ducks and drove to his stall in the market.
That’s when that stray market cat came up and made friends with Master Gan and after a while, he joined the cat, eating some left over rice together.
Uncle Duck Vendor said he keeps an eye on Gan as best he can and brings him along to the morning market, but between butchering ducks and haggling with his customers, he’s too old to look after a little boy, plus a stray cat, too, even though the stray cat pretty much looks after himself.
Uncle Duck Vendor also mentioned that during quiet moments when he has no customers, Nong Gan was teaching himself how to read. Uncle Duck Vendor, who spoke only broken Thai, felt disappointed that he couldn’t help much.
What to do? Our Mercy Centre offered to help look after Gan, and the community elders talked. No neighborhood bad guys had noticed Nong Gan or tried to use him. He would be the perfect mark – and a most profitable catch – for any human trafficker. Even easier and more convenient, any drug dealer could use Gan as a mule for local drug sales.
They all agreed with our cook that we would take care of Gan, if Gan would also agree. He nodded his okay. But he also insisted that he would come to the market often to help Uncle Duck Vendor, especially when counting change because Uncle couldn’t count very fast. And that we help let Gan learn to read and write, and if he didn’t understand, we would explain. And Gan insisted that he keeps the stray cat. We blinked on the cat. Told Nong Gan it was a “stray.” If the cat stayed with us, fine. But you can’t force a stray to live anywhere.
So it was settled. Next step: we – that is, Nong Gan, our cook, our legal aid team, and Uncle Duck Vendor (some ladies in the market promised to sell ducks for him that day) – immediately set off to visit Nong Gan’s parents in prison and asked them to give our Mercy Centre temporary guardianship over their son.They did.
Gan has joined us as our newest Mercy child. We’re honored, of course. True to his spirit, and really, his genius, he has convinced our cook to buy duck for Sunday’s big meal. Our kids are on school break for now, but Master Gan talks about going to kindergarten with great anticipation.
Uncle Duck Vendor teaches him market Chinese; and here at Mercy, he speaks to everyone he meets who looks like they might also teach him a little English. As we suspected, the stray cat has returned to the market, and Nong Gan goes each morning to help Uncle Duck Vendor count change, in case he gets confused with the bigger bills…and also to feed the cat.
Wishing all our friends a Happy Songkran and Blessed Easter.