BANGKOK, Thailand: When Father Joe got word that George W. Bush was planning to visit the children he cares for in Bangkok's largest slum, the first thing the American priest did was ask them: "Do you want to meet him?"
Rev. Joseph H. Maier, a tough, no-nonsense man who mixes easily with drug pushers, thugs and prostitutes, is hardly known for being deferential — even when it comes to the president of the United States.
"We always ask our children when anyone and everyone is coming to visit, because it is their home — the only home they have — and they heartily agreed," said Father Joe, as he is best known, before Bush's visit Thursday.
"The children see him as a kind uncle coming to visit, not in his official position."
Bush, on a three-country tour of Asia, will spend some time at the Mercy Center and Human Development Foundation, started by the Redemptorist priest nearly 40 years ago to aid often desperate residents of the vast Klong Toey slum.
Ministering first to a small Catholic community of slaughterhouse workers in the grimiest depths of the slum, the 69-year-old priest now looks after a shelter for street kids, four orphanages, a hospice, kindergartens for more than 4,100 slum toddlers and a home for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS. Most of those helped are Buddhists.
His work has earned him international awards and honors from Thailand's respected monarchy although he's challenged authorities, plied officials with whiskey to bend the rules, and cut deals with the criminally inclined in defense of his turf and charges, especially the children.
"There are geniuses, poets, artists and physicians among the kids who call Mercy their home, and yet they are labeled as Klong Toey children and not the children who are worthy of proper education and jobs," Father Joe said.
"The visit of Mr. Uncle President is telling them they are of great value, and not to believe any of the bad stuff people might say," said the native of Longview, Washington.
He said his children would be asking Bush to carry a message back to youngsters in America: "Yes, things are tough here in Thailand. The streets and slums are rough: we have been beaten up, used and abused, but today is fine and tomorrow is going to be even better, and today we are going to have as much fun as we possibly can."