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.