Two thousand and fifteen years ago that raggedy handful of Jerusalem street kids saw it all happen. The bad guys ordered their foreign occupying forces to capture him and execute Blessed Mary’s Son. But they also made it look legal so these bad guys could get away with it and wouldn’t have to go to prison. Lots of people were shouting to get him up the hill for execution fast.
The kids whispered among themselves: “That guy carrying the cross with thorns stuck on his head, wearing the purple cloak is Jesus the Holy One."
The scavenger dogs were barking, but strangely not barking at Jesus.
The kids got as close as they safely could and watched. They were street kids, formerly shepherd kids, but there simply wasn’t enough to eat, so they ran to the city. People scorned them, called them riff raff, just like our own kids who grew up upcountry tending water buffalo on the farm, dirt poor and hungry until they ran to the city.
The Jerusalem kids ducked in and out of the mob, trying to get a glimpse of Jesus. They were trying to act brave, but were terribly frightened like everyone else. These were dangerous times.
There was a girl with them, but she had to dress up and act like a boy so that no one knew she was a girl. She was the one who spotted Blessed Mary, surrounded by three other women protecting her at the edge of the mob. They couldn’t do anything much as women and had no material or political power. Just “nobodies.” They were in danger, if anyone noticed, but no one did.
And the street girl knew of the Blessed Mary and of Bethlehem 33 years before. Her own shepherd mum had told her the story. It was back when her mum’s parents had a job tending a rich man’s sheep. As a five-year-old shepherd girl, her mum had seen young Blessed Mary on the sacred night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And mum had told her story of that sacred day many times - about the Shining Bright Star, the brightest she had ever seen, and about the Magi and their camels and the Angels singing in the Heavens.
And time goes on. For fifteen years following the birth of Jesus, mum and dad continued to tend sheep there in the fields outside Bethlehem, herding sheep for the rich man as they always had, until a neighbor falsely accesed dad of stealing three sheep.
It wasn’t pleasant.
Three sheep went missing. A neighbor said that dad stole the three sheep and sold them. Shortly after the theft, one night just before dawn, people came to visit dad, took him away, and made him disappear. Nobody ever saw dad again.
In fear, mum ran away with her daughter to Jerusalem city a few miles away. There, she and her daughter survived – lived on the streets of Jerusalem for 18 years before the Blessed Mary's son would be dragged through Jerusalem's streets, tortured and killed. Her daughter had grown up on these streets.
All the street kids knew Blessed Mary as a beautiful and special lady they’d pass by on the streets. Whenever they met her she showed them dignity, told them they were important, and gave them food.
The last time they saw her was just a few days ago. Our street girl had nicked a bit of food from a market stall near the temple and was fast on the run from the shopkeeper shouting “Thief! Thief!” She raced full speed ahead almost running into Blessed Mary, who stopped her and said, “Stay with me, child, I will pay the shopkeeper. I am Mary, the Mother of Jesus.” Flabbergasted, the street girl, daughter of the widowed shepherd woman, told Mary how her own mum had named her Mary in memory of that sacred night in Bethlehem.
But now, just a few days later, they were watching, horrified as Jesus was dragged, pushed, half carried up that lonely hill.
She saw Blessed Mary, saw her watching the tragedy play out, saw her heart breaking. Jesus had stumbled a couple times, as they dragged and pushed him up the hill. Mary, the street kid girl, ran up to Blessed Mary, and wanted to soothe her, but the boys warned her, "You’ll get caught." She went anyway, and the boys followed.
Blessed Mary looked beautiful but terribly sad, crying quietly. And that Jerusalem street girl said that’s how my mum cried when they took my daddy.
Blessed Mary gathered the street kids around her, held them close, and said, “Don’t be afraid. Stay here with me.” And they stayed till most of the mob had passed, and then she told the street kids that they must run away.
Mary had to follow Jesus up the hill, where no one knew what would happen. But the kids wouldn’t leave, saying “Blessed Mary we will protect you.” She told them she knew they would always protect her, but she could not take them up the hill to Calvary. They must stay put. She will find them again and explain. Perhaps not today, but soon.
Blessed Mary and the three women walked sadly up that lonely hill as the street children watched. Our scriptures tell us that not long after, slowly, the sky began turning black, blotting out the sun. The children suddenly knew that Jesus had died. But they were surprisingly unafraid, and then, just as suddenly, the light broke through the darkened skies.
We told part of this story to our street children here at Mercy Centre – the rest is their own version: the Easter story of Blessed Mary and a street girl named Mary.
That’s the story our own Klong Toey street kids tell. And in their telling, they say to Blessed Mary, “we will protect you and never leave you,” just like the street kids of Jerusalem.
And after Jesus died and rose from the dead, our ancient legends tell us that He went down into the land of the Dead, looking for Adam and Eve. He took them by the hand. “Come with me,” he said, “it’s time to go home to heaven. It’s been a long time.”
Our own kids want to know if Jesus can find their mums and dads who are missing – the ones who never come to visit them. They ask, "Will He send angels to go find them, and let them know their kids are here safe and sound? And did he also find the daddy of the street girl named Mary and take him to heaven?"
Easter is a happy time in Klong Toey. It's also the Thai New Year here. Both holidays are marked by a full moon that gets so bright it’s almost like daylight. We celebrate that the crops are planted and that fish fill the waterways. We celebrate the joy on earth. We celebrate that Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore the Fire and Water and Earth and Air are blessed and we are renewed once again.
And that’s life today for our Klong Toey street kids, just like the Jerusalem street kids in those days of 2,015 years ago. The street children said to Blessed Mary, we will protect you, we will die for you. And Blessed Mary says, I will return for you, perhaps not today, but soon.
Last week we held our liveliest, happiest, and certainly most colorful celebration of the year. Our entire Mercy Centre was festooned with balloons, flowers, toys and stuffed animals. To say it was a joyous day would be an understatement. In fact, it was riotously crazy fun! It was Graduation Day for the children who attend our 23 preschools spread across Bangkok’s poorest communities. Amid glorious pomp and circumstance, over 500 poor children donned caps and gowns and received their diplomas; and in a rousing speech that brought all the children to their feet with fists in the air and smiles on their faces, Fr. Joe urged our young scholars, no matter what happens in the future, to stay in school! All photos by Ric Gazarian.
The Irish Ambassador to Thailand HE Brendan Rogers brought the Irish community of Bangkok together last week in an event that recognized and honored Father Joe’s 40 years of community service as co-founder of our Mercy Centre. It was a beautifully orchestrated informal celebration, (beautiful – both spiritually and musically) hosted by the Dubliner Bar in Bangkok.
In his speech, Ambassador Rogers spoke of Fr. Joe’s life-long commitment to protecting and educating the poorest, most marginalized Thai children. Pictured above, Fr. Joe, beside Ambassador Rogers, gives thanks to everyone in the community who has supported his foundation over the years. Photo below: an incredibly gifted ensemble of Irish musicians performed for the event – an ensemble that included Mick Moloney, Terry McBroom, Donie Carroll, and Brian Taheny.