Last Friday night our beloved slum beside the slaughter house burned down. Nobody lite a match, it doesn’t happen that way. However, Seventy year old wooden shacks – seventy year old wiring – over-loaded circuits. Lights left on in an abandoned shack. It was horrible. An area the size of two city blocks completely devastated. Nothing was left standing.
But our kids – now fire victims - are okay. All of them. No one hurt. No one had to go to the hospital emergency room. Some scratches, burns and bruises, but nothing worse. There won’t be any scars, except the fear, the horror and lasting night mares of the children.
It was near midnight. The electricity went out, and the only light was from the flames. This fire ‘hurt’ me, Fr. Joe, more than most. This slum is my home; where I grew up as a young slaughter house priest.
Those over 45 years ago, we all started with nothing, really. Our first make-shift chapel under a bridge next to a railroad track, then in a wooden, tin roof slum house, finally the second floor above an illegal school. In those days, our slaughter house kids were too poor and too much laughed at because they lived literally above and beside the pig holding pens in the slaughter house. No school wanted them, and those who did, our kids dropped out in weeks because all the other kids bullied them, scorned them. So we began our own kindergarten in a non-used pig pen, - anything to ‘get started.’
Yes, that was years ago, but these memories flashed through my mind, as I stood there, watching the flames. And the original community, with and wooden shack homes haven’t changed that much.
Those kids, now adults, educated, send their own kids, even grandkids to our kindergarten, escaped with their lives and little more.
Forty five shacks/ homes, and seventy three families – over twenty children.
The house I ‘grew up in’ in the slums as a young priest – trashed…. The 2nd floor completely burned out, roof caved in, windows all broken.
Slum Fire is ugly. Not nice to anyone– doesn’t care: just burns and burns, till there is nothing left. And the wind –fickle: blows the fire this way and that. No favourites. Doesn’t really care how much you plead nor beg. After 3 hours, the wind switched back on itself, and the burning didn’t spread any further. But the damage was done; forty six wooden shacks and seventy six families.
I was there, a few steps away, in safety, holding a couple of six years old by the hand – to dry their tears. A boy was holding a charred statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary which he and his sister had run back into the flames of their burning shack to rescue. No mum to stop them as she is in prison.
I kept telling the kids: Don’t worry; we can build a new house, and in the morning, buy you some new school clothes so you can go back to school on Monday. And then they started to console me, as I ‘choked up a bit.’ They said … Don’t worry, fr. Joe, we will take care of you.
And as you know we NEVER close our schools. Our slaughter house kindergarten of course has moved out from that un-used pig pen of years ago to another part of the slum - small child walking distance, but safe from the fire area. Two of the fire victim families with no place to stay, came and ‘set up camp.’ A couple days in the school.
Now, they are with relatives near-by.
Together, in partnership, with district office, local police, army and hospitals and the temple and the schools our community will bounce back, that’s what we do here in the slum. The slum might look weak and fragile from the outside, houses made of rotten wood and families poorly dressed. But we are stronger that some might think – we have (unfortunately) many years of experience with fires and accidents and tragedies – HOWEVER we always come back and we will this time too.
Dear everyone. Blessings for Chinese New Year and the whole year of the Rooster.
Xin Jia Yu Yi Xin Ni Huad Xai
The Soothsayers tell us, that these are very special days.
Beginning with today, Thursday. The day we are to have paid all our debts and give red/pink envelopes to all the children and younger members of our family. The money is to be fresh bills, and of an even number, 40 or 60 or 80 Baht, and yes, they can go and buy candy, but they are supposed to keep the money, so that they will have money to use all year long. That means, here at Mercy, me being the oldest, and being “Father Joe” to prepare envelopes for everyone.
Then tomorrow Friday, is the day to pay respect to our ancestors and to make merit at the temple, or in Church.
Then Saturday, is the day to relax. No work. To go and visit near-by relatives. To have a special meal, already prepared by the grandmothers and mothers for weeks already. The annual house cleaning should already have been done. In the kitchen, the rice cooker is to be sparkling clean, ready to cook new rice, and thus have rice to eat for the whole year.
And to wear red clothing – the color of joy, of happiness, or at least a red ribbon, but certainly not dark colors.
Here at Mercy during Holy Mass we tell the children that they cannot say any bad words these whole three days , otherwise the words will stick in our mouth all year, and come out in our conversations, even when we don’t want them to.
And lest I forget, we must have firecrackers. Absolutely necessary to make noise, and frighten the nasty spirits back into the old year where they are caught, and thus we can begin the New Year happy and joyful.
All of us here wish you a Joyful and Blessed New Year.
Prayers – Fr. Joe and our 150 Mercy children, and all of our 33 slum shack schools and camp site schools, and 3,500 kindergarten kids and the sea gypsy kids and everyone.
It is a New Year and Mercy Centre is thriving as always with children’s play and laughter at every corner. The weather this time of year is pleasant, not hot not cold, no flood and no harsh sun. However, in the South of Thailand it has not been like this. Over Christmas the Southern provinces have experienced an unusual bad monsoon and almost half of the country has been flooded resulting in over 30 deaths, broken train tracks, collapsed bridges and closed airports. People have lost their homes and farmers have lost their crops.
Our Mercy home in Ranong was also hit but thankfully nothing more severe than a flooded 1st floor and some broken furniture.
Others were not that lucky and on Wednesday during the annual staff meeting we all gave donations to be sent down to help those affected in the Southern provinces.
Children’s Day (Sports Day)
Saturday 14 January is the national Children’s Day in Thailand and all over Bangkok there will be fun events and activities for our Klong Toey kids to participate in. This day is all about enjoying life as the young and celebrating the new generation – and our Mercy children will be accompanied by the house parents and travel to as many fun events they can manage in a day :)
Today Friday 13 January the Thai schools arrange their yearly Sports Day and all of our Mercy schools engaged with amazing outfits, happy songs and great enthusiasm to show their athletic skills and most importantly strong team work. We even had an Olympic Flame!
For more great pictures and a video from this super fun day see our YouTube and Facebook
This year, 2017, it is 45 years since HDF Mercy Centre opened their first school doors and the first set of children’s feet were skipping of excitement and loads of energy to start learning writing and arithmetic’s; and grateful parents that finally had a place their children could be safe, fed and cared for while they worked.
50,000 Kindergarten graduates later HDF Mercy Centre will be hosting a series of events and activities throughout the year. To honor the ones who have supported us and made it possible to continue and expanding for the last 45 years; and also to invite new members of our extend family to join us and help us spread the word of the children and every partner we have in the shanty slums of Klong Toey and Bangkok. Please do join us to show the world who we are and most importantly how amazing our children are and that we will continue to work in partnership with the poorest of the poor for many more years to come – our job is far from done.
Stay tuned for more information of upcoming events!
Happy weekend to you all