Most people outside of Bangkok have probably never heard of Father Joe Maier. I was not aware of the man myself until only a few weeks ago by accident. So who is this man and what does he have to do with Thailand? Quite a lot!
About a month ago I stumbled across his book of short stories called “Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums.” I was looking for some interesting books on Amazon.com about Thailand (of course, do you think this Thai fanatic would be looking up anything else?) So I decided to add his book to my order. I knew from the books title and sub-title this would most likely not be a collection of happy reads but I was curious. However Father Joe, as he is called, has a real amicable and easy way of sharing these true, and often heart rending, stories. Once I picked up the book it was impossible to put down.
A self-described ‘product of the Sixties’, a priest but also a hippy, Grateful Dead fan, Vietnam War protestor and maverick’ in 1967 Father Joe was dispatched to his first parrish as far away from the Seminary Order as they could possibly send him which happened to end up being in the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok working amongst the poor. It was an “exciting free trip to the other end of the world” as he says. Now almost forty years later he is still there.
In 1974 Father Joe, with Sister Maria Chantavarodom, helped start a non-denominational, community based outreach project in Klong Toey which has eventually become the Human Development Foundation. They started with a one baht per day kindergarten and since then have opened outreach health clinics, built schools and started programs to help the poor in over 30 slum communities in Bangkok culminating with Mercy Centre, a shelter for street kids and a home and hospice for mothers and children with AIDS.
In many of his stories Father Joe writes of a time when growing up in Klong Toey meant life was tough and hardscrabble at best, you were poorer than poor and always had to do without, well, everything! But people were decent and lived by a unique code of honor. In my neck of the woods growing up in rural Alabama we called that being ‘poor..but proud!’
Sadly in todays world of drugs and violence that honor and innocence is all but gone still Father Joe is there in Klong Toey where he lives simply and honestly in his Mercy Centre helping the poor sometimes just by showing them someone cares. Isn’t that all that anyone really wants, to know someone cares? That’s what Father Joe, a hard nosed, swearing and bare knuckled American priest does best and has done for the past almost 40 years now.
Some of the stories in his book will make you want to cry, some will make you so angry at a system that does nothing sometimes but placitate it’s own greed. Almost all the stories will break your heart but they will inspire you too. I know after reading about life in Klong Toey I sure don’t have anything to complain about.
If you only like nice stories with happy endings then you might want to skip the next page. I am taking a backseat to blogging at this point to post one of Father Joe’s stories from his book. Read it and let him take you by the hand into a world in Thailand not many people see or want to see. If you really love or care about Thailand you’ll be moved and challenged enough to want to help. I hope somehow I can do some small part to help by sharing his stories and getting the word out. Maybe you can too so go ahead. I dare you. In the end you’ll be glad you did. Wit.
Posted here completely unedited is the story exactly as it is posted on the Mercy Centre website as well as others that have also been published in the Bangkok Post. If you want to read more true stories about life in Klong Toey you can order the book here. 100% of all proceeds from sales go to help the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey Thailand.
A Ride on the Wild Side of Mercy published in 2003
The story of a terminally-ill nine-year-old is a lesson in how to live in grace and light
Up until two months ago, a few mornings each week, just before his kindergarten class, Master Note, a nine-year-old boy in our care, rode his imaginary broomstick horse around our Mercy Centre compound.
Note always rode behind his partner, Master Galong, who has a faster make-believed vehicle – an imaginary motorcycle. Sometime Galong has make-believe trouble starting his chopper. Master Note told him that choppers are hard to start in cold weather. Note is extra smart and school bores him. His is small for his age. You can blame Aids for that. Got it from his mom at birth who got it from his dad, both whom died when Note was three. Says he remembers his mom who cared for him as long as she could.
Note’s life – lived in that deep part of his soul where nobody else can go – seems to be filled with light and beauty. He loves to draw and, except for the occasional fire-breathing dragon (a monster many kids seem to draw in times of death and sorrow), Note’s sketchbook is a kaleidoscope of joyful colours and happy imagery.
Note is small for his nine years, frail and fragile, but he has lots of street savvy. He also knows the morning racing circuit with Galong is imaginary. Galong, at age 35 with a form of Downs Syndrome, isn’t as sure. He likes to believe it’s real and who are we to tell him it isn’t?
Note rides behind Galong because he worries about him. When Galong is in his make-believe world, he rides his chopper with reckless abandon. Sometimes the chopper breaks down in the middle of the street, which especially worries Note, who knows Galong has little use for real traffic in his make-believe landscape.
A FEW MONTHS BACK Note went through a bad patch when his Aids kicked up and we almost lost him. Spent three weeks in the hospital for communicable diseases. He’s okay now, but weaker, so he won’t be riding behind Galong for a while. Galong was upset and cried until Note told him that his horse wasn’t feeling well.
Like most of our children, Note came to us by a circuitous route. Atfer his parents died in Bangkok, his grandmother raised him in Rayong until she, too died, at which point he moved to his aunt’s home in Bangkok, where his health deteriorated and he was hosptialised. When recovered, his aunt brought him to Mercy Centre.
Living in different homes in our care, Note and Galong first met when we took them both to the hospital for a check-up. Galong was frightened and Note, who has plenty of experience with hospitals calmed him down. A lasting friendship began. We don’t know much about Galong’s history. We first found him sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a sleazy backstreet bar. He would open the door for customers and blow a whistle to wave down a taxi when needed. Apparently, he didn’t like his job because without knowing us at all, he asked if he could live with us. That was it. He had no earthly possessions, no documentation, and he didn’t know his name, his family, or where he’s from. The traffickers like them that way, with no identity, so if they disappear, nobody cares.
Somebody here conveniently named him Galong which means “a little bird which as lost its way” in Thai, and he took to it right away.
That was seven years ago and he’s graduated from our kindergarten each year. It gives purpose and order to his life. He loves school and helps the other childred. Also, physically he’s not too much bigger than his young classmates, so he’s not to intimidating.
These days, while Note is still weak, we’ve asked Galong not to ride his chopper before school, but sometimes he does, and we have to look other way.
After the bell rings at the end of the school day, Galong likes to help the teacher clean up the classroom. Then it’s karaoke time. He changes his school uniform for street clothes, picks up his raspy voice, but only for about an hour. He’s strict about that. Note told him that if he sings more than five or six songs, he’ll hurt his voice, and Galong believe him.
Note has been with us almost two years and his auntie visits the first Sunday of each month. He takes his daily, almost-complete cocktail of drugs. The public hospitals enter most of our children with Aids in their free medical campaign. You have to be poor we qualify for that.
But we must pay for some expensive drugs that are not covered in the hospital budget, and ultimately the doctors select which children are eligible. While that free medicine greatly helps many of our 40 children with Aids, eventually the kids go trough a bad patch that sends them spiraling.
Recently, I’ve been told, the adults can also get the medicine if they are sick enough and have the “30-Baht Card,” but not until next year.
But back to Note… a friend to all, especially the vulnerable ones. Recently he’s persuaded Galong to join him at art class three days a week. It’s a ritual now. Galong (who can’t read a clock) waits in kindergarten class for Note to call them.
Galong puts on his necktie for art class, it’s that important. He has poor hand-eye coordination, so it was fascinating to see his first self-portrait in pencil (under Note’s guidance) – a reasonable likeness, kind of. In any case, Galong was proud of it.
Meanwhile, Note’s not feeling well most days. He can’t digest his food properly and he has a blood disorder along with AIDS. So it’s three days well and four days sick, as they say in Thai. But right now, as I write this, he is well. And every sunrise is a new day – a gift.
The new issue of the day is tattoos. Somewhere Galong saw a photograph of a guy on a motorcycle with a tattoo, and now Galong has decided he must have one. Note likes the idea. In fact, it took him two weeks to explain to Galong the story of Winnie the Pooh and how wonderful it would be to have a glue-on tattoo of Pooh. Galong only wanted to know if Pooh would ever ride a chopper. Note wasn’t quite sure. He tended to think not.
Note continues drawing. Perhaps his most moving piece is the one of the birthday party with the family he never had. It’s among the few drawings Note won’t explain to anyone. So it seems that the lady sitting at the head of the table is mom, and there are presents for everyone and a bit of cake with candles and probably brothers and sisters he never had sitting around the table. It’s a joyful picture. But it’s his secret.
When Note dies, as die he will, we will look after Galong as best we can, perhaps not as good as Note but certainly better than the bar where we found him. And we’ll do our best, too, to assure Note of our care for Galong.
The boy worries about such things.
For more information about the Human Development Foundation or how to help go online to www.MercyCentre.org
or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or call at –
Till next time,