Even in forgotten places, there’s a touch of Christmas in the moments families share together.
Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, Dec. 21, 2014:
By Fr. Joe Maier
Christmas this year — the date is marked in local calendars as the fifth day of the rising of the moon in the second month of the Lunar New Year. The word Christmas is not mentioned.
Christmas here in Thailand can silently slip by, unnoticed, if you’re not alert. Our annual commercial Thai greeting cards sold in the shops do not mention the words Merry Christmas, only Happy New Year. Christmas day this year, Thursday, is an ordinary weekday: school for the kids, banks, post offices and government offices all open, an ordinary night to butcher pigs in the slaughterhouse. The usual television soap shows.
Maybe there will be a short mention on the evening news. Officially, Christmas doesn’t exist. That’s why it’s so important, vital that we make the birthday of Jesus meaningful for ourselves, for our children, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian.
For me, Father Joe, it’s my 44th Christmas in the Klong Toey slums/slaughterhouse and my 49th year as a priest.
But no matter where, the Christmas Star burns brightly, even in the sunshine of high noon. You can’t hide this glorious feast of the birth of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary and St Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, even in remote, out of the way and forgotten places.
You can find Christmas in the slaughterhouse and in the drug area of blocks one, two, three, where the beauty is rough and real. And people can nod their heads and say yes, Jesus could have been born here. His mum, the Virgin Mary, wouldn’t have been embarrassed. And we would help St Joseph protect them from the bad guys.
Yes, the loving is there. Because no matter how harsh our slum is, there’s always a bit of love, always a bit of Christmas, somewhere, left over, or maybe just waiting for the babies and the young children. And you see it over and over again, if you look. You see a bit of Christmas in the most unexpected places. You don’t need cribs and churches and stuff like that, although it’s nice. You just need a bit of love.
A couple of afternoons ago, I saw this really savage slaughterhouse slum dog — more mangy even than a junkyard dog. You see, there was this little boy, all alone, crying, and also eating some candy between sobs and tears. And that old dog sauntered up to this little boy and began to lick the tears away on the face of this three-year-old. And of course, to share in the candy. And when the boy — obviously lost — sat down on the street corner to sleep, this savage dog laid down beside him, as if to say, "go to sleep my little brother, I will protect you, and together we can find some good candy to eat". Who cares if it’s even been thrown away. Candy is candy.
A couple of minutes later, the prettiest teenager you would ever want to see, tattoos, purple hair, painted nails, tight jeans, came running up in tears and saw her boy. The savage dog snarled, then looked her over and decided she was okay — a mum — and moved away as mum gathered up her little boy. She said, as tears spoiled her make-up, thank goodness I’ve found you my son. Now you’ve got to come to stay with Auntie because I have to go to work and when you wake up in the morning, I’ll be here for you. And the dog followed, I guess just to make sure.
And it’s Christmas for you — for all of us — and Christmas in our Klong Toey slums, and that’s what the loving and caring is all about. No matter what the price. Because when you’re loving and caring, the price doesn’t matter. It’s worth more than life itself. And you can find a bit of Christmas everywhere, if you look.
Mary and Joseph had to run — they took the Baby Jesus before early dawn as the angel told them to "run as fast as you can. The bad guys from nasty old Herod are coming". And they will kill you for sure. And maybe, if our Klong Toey slum would have been here those 2,000 years ago, we would have been bold and brave and tried to make them safe here. Like they would be safe with you, I’m sure.
In my years in our Klong Toey slum, over and over, I’ve seen mums do everything for their children. Like the three-year-old. His mum would die for him. Look what she has to do nightly to protect and feed him.
I’ve never ever seen a mum abandon her own flesh and blood. It doesn’t happen. But sometimes the pain is too much, and mum and dad aren’t yet ready and willing to die for their newborn — they have to run away for a while. And it’s painfully true. More often for the dads. That part does happen here. You do hear sometimes: "Why did you run from me and our child?"
Thus, grandmas and grandpas pick up the slack and care for their grandchild. They do the best they can. There's not much food, not much nice clothing, but lots of loving. Tough times, as Mary and Joseph had tough times, those 2,000 years ago.
And it's not totally true yet, here in Klong Toey — maybe it never will be — but we try with all our heart: Never an abandoned child. Never an unforgiven brother or sister.
We’re fine here at the Mercy Centre this year. Enough rice to eat — lots of hand-me-down clothes. Lots of loving. Our mob of kids are the most fabulous on the planet. True, we live every day with joy and pain and sorrow, and a bit of Christmas. And that is the wish of all of us for you — that you find a bit of Christmas each day.
When you come to Bangkok we’ll introduce you to "our kids". And even see if that mangy savage dog is around. I’m sure he’s out there protecting some other lost kids who are eating some candy between the sobs and tears. Lost, when their mums can’t find them. That mangy old savage dog, worse than a junkyard dog. Promising to lick your face clear of all the sticky candy and protect you for a while.
That’s the best he can do. And let’s all of us do the best we can do. We wish you a bit of Christmas: the joy of Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus. All of you are family and we are your family. I think that’s the greatest honour one can receive on this planet: that we are all family.
Christmas blessings from all of us here at Mercy Centre in the Klong Toey slums.