Yesterday was a gorgeous (but sweltering) day at Mercy. It was gorgeous because we invited hundreds of of our elderly neighbors in the slums and the Monks from our local Wat Saphan Temple. It was sweltering because, well, Bangkok is always at the peak of its heat this time of year. Our elders danced to beautiful old Thai songs; the Monks blessed our guests and staff; and a fabulous feast followed. The entire day was a reminder how blessed we are at Mercy to have so many caring friends and kind neighbors. Wishing all our friends a happy and safe Songkran holiday.
Photos: b&w: Yoonki Kim; color, Tony Stokes.
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.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at our Mercy Children's Classical Dance Troupe and Orchestra, practicing with their teachers, as they do every Sunday (and often on weekdays) at Mercy Centre. This program is made possible by New York musicians, Mick Moloney, Donie Carroll and friends. All photos by Diane Durongpisitkul.
Lovely Miss Sprite had the odds stacked against her before she was even born
Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday, March 9, Spectrum Section: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/398899/a-sprightly-angel-and-a-sacred-tree
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Lovely Miss Sprite. Angel of the week — second year of kindergarten — winner of the colouring contest — elegantly going on five years of age. She has a voice pitched between the song of an angel and a chirping baby bird sitting on the edge of the nest, not quite ready to fly. Likes to put a leaf behind her ear — picked from that Sacred Tree behind their slum shack. Her mum used to do that too. Lovely features, she has a smile that could stop any herd of wild elephants that might be visiting the neighbourhood. As for her innate beauty? You would immediately pick her out of a crowd. There was a problem: orphan girls fetch a pretty price. But we dealt with that.
Chocolate sandwiches are her favourite food on the whole planet. Chocolate paste smushed between slices of bread. Even better still, whole chunks of chocolate in the middle without much bread. Best of all, skip the bread entirely and just gobble plain chocolate. But her disabled Auntie Gung, her second mum, won’t allow the "no bread" recipe. Says that Miss Sprite’s real mum, now dead from Aids almost a month now, and certainly in heaven, would not approve.
Miss Sprite talks non-stop like only a bright five-year-old can. She shares loads of secrets whispered at the speed of a bullet in your ear. And even though you (as a silly, grown-up adult) are not expected to understand secrets of a top-of-her-class kindergarten orphan, you are required to nod emphatically. For this you sometimes get a hug.
Last week we held graduation ceremonies for all our students who completed their studies in our 23 slum kindergartens spread across Bangkok.These children passed all their tests and are fully prepared to take on new academic challenges in the First Grade of their local government primary schools. Dressed in graduation robes and caps, hundreds of children took part in the ceremonies. Fr. Joe, in his doctoral robe, presented each graduating student with a diploma, and concluded the ceremony with his annual exhortation to all the children to “Stay in School. No matter what – even if your mom gambles and your dad drinks and there’s no money or food at home in your shack, you must keep going to school! It’s your right! It’s your privilege! Never give up!” All photos by Yoonki Kim.
It’s not easy being a little kid in a grown-up’s world full of dangers, especially in our Klong Toey home in the center of Bangkok’s largest slum community. Even though our community has more loving moms and grannies than anywhere else on the planet – to quote a song – our Klong Toey home “is a savage place, drenched in Mercy.” And within the “savage” part are predators who want to hurt our children.
No matter how well our whole slum neighborhood looks after our young kids, these kids still encounter danger. They see horrible things on the lanes and alleyways every day and night, and often even worse things close to home, sometimes inside their own shacks, upstairs from their flat, across the catwalks, or in the homes of their relatives and friends.
How do young children know if a situation is perilous? And how can they respond in ways that keep them safe?
Last week our kindergarten students and teachers completed the “All Children Being Safe” Program that addresses the perils of violence and abuse in hard-scrabble neighborhoods like ours. We adapted this program from a successful initiative created by Ms. Angela Walsh for an Australian child protection organization (NAPCAN – The Nat’l Assoc. for Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect). The program itself is a series of books and teaching aids designed to help children in First Nation Australian communities to protect and defend themselves when they face imminent danger.
The bad guy in the Australian version is the Dingo Dog; but Dingo’s don’t mean anything to Thai children. Nor do Koala Bears or Kangaroos. So we changed all the Australian animals to their Thai counterparts – a Dingo becomes a Street Dog in our version. “Good-guy” animals like Kangaroos are replaced by a family of Thai chickens. Koala Bears are reimagined as Thai Monkeys.
This past Thursday our first Mercy Kindergarten students finished reading the entire Thai series in their classrooms. True to the spirit of the lessons they learned, our students held a giant party in celebration of “All Children Being Safe.” They invited their teachers, parents, guardians and neighbors to a feast of Thai treats and put on a pageant proudly showing everything they’ve learned. It was a brilliant celebration of children just being children!
We are most grateful that the All Children Being Safe Program, a partnership between our Mercy Centre and NAPCAN in Australia, was shepherded by the late John Frederick, a dear friend who dedicated his life to child protection and taught us many lessons we carry on today. We honor John’s memory in this amazing project – a project, we hope, will continually expand as an integral part of every Thai kindergarten curriculum.
Prayers as always, fr joe