By Father Frank Mann
[as published in The Queens Gazette]
There is an extraordinary spirituality that shines throughout the story of Father Joseph Maier. His heroic struggles offering trailblazing hope and promise are remarkably astonishing. A uniquely fearless man, sporting unwavering courage, Father Joe is likewise one of those certain few who just might be worthy of being bestowed the title "prophet". His unshakable faith both uplifts and inspires, transforming darkness into light in so many unimaginable ways.
Joe Maier is a colorfully unpretentious, self-deprecating Redemptorist priest with a remarkable sense of humor. Born in Longview, Washington in 1939, he journeyed to Thailand in 1967 and ministered in Northern Isan and then among the Hmong in Laos. In 1972, he slowly transformed a soul-numbingly devastating slum into an oasis aptly named the Mercy Centre. It is located in Bangkok's Klong Toey district. Over the years it has flourished and expanded to include several AIDS hospices for mothers and their children, the building and operation of numerous preschools, five orphanages, shelters for street kids, safe haven homes for the sexually trafficked and abused, medical clinics for family health and welfare and much more. Here, through its direct and active corporeal works of mercy, The Mercy Centre creates simple but progressive hands-on solutions that touch the lives of thousands every day
For more than 35 years the Mercy Centre's straight-talking, street-smart guardian angel and ecumenically impassioned Maier has toiled tirelessly in his fiery advance on the crippling conditions of abject destitution and abuse. Here, one might say, is found a sure and certain justification of a battle waged for human dignity. Here, in one of the largest and bleakest slums of Bangkok known as the "Slaughterhouse", harsh impoverishment is being mitigated by hand joining hand and heart speaking to heart under the shepherding care of this empowered "fisher of men".Klong Toey is nestled between a noisy highway with its suffocating and oppressive vehicular exhaust and the Chao Phraya River. It is aptly named the "Slaughterhouse", as this was the locale where the chickens, cows and pigs were butchered and gutted for Bangkok's consumption. Here are found those victimized by the raw sewage of dire poverty, the relentless prowling of thugs and gangsters and the pervasive corrosion by drugs, glue-sniffing kids and alcohol abuse. Here, too, the pangs of prostitution erode the very fabric of a meaningful and happy life. Gambler moms go about the daily routine of pandering their daughters. There likewise coexists the sordid exploitation and the brutal assault on its most precious innocents, the children. These are the little ones who have been abused, trafficked, orphaned and abandoned. Here are found those born of forced destitution--the result of the evils in society, which reduces individuals to spiritual, social or economic obscurity. With unwavering compassion and unconditional love, they are likewise be-
ing nurtured, healed, educated and loved. In a recent interviewin a special visit to New York, Father Joe shared, "I hurt real bad as a kid. I really wanted to help other kids so they wouldn't hurt like I did." Maier is himself a product of a broken home, his father being an alcoholic who deserted his family. However, the suffering endured in Fr. Joe's youth was transformed into something nothing less than miraculous in the Mercy Centre. Father stated, "Here one can find 33 pre-schools teaching 4,000 kids. In fact, many of the teachers here got their start in the same slum schools." Father continued, "Over the years, the numbers of our alumni have swelled to the tens of thousands." In his masterfully penned and deeply moving book on the life and work of Father Joe titled The Gospel of Father Joe, journalist Greg Barrett aptly states, "The Mercy Centre is growing international scholars and injecting hope into impoverished neighborhoods that did not have either." Furthermore, in the foreword to Barrett's remarkable work, Bishop Desmond Tutu shares, "The story of Father Joe and the Bangkok squatter land he calls holy is a critical chapter in the modern day memoirs of humankind. His Mercy Centre is more than a refuge and grassroots education system for children caught in the bramble of our new prosperity, it's the vivid expression of God's will for how we are to treat family."
Father Joe likewise shared, "Besides the solid foundation in education, the Mercy Centre provides housing for homeless street kids who have often been rescued from oppressive exploitation and injustice of one sort or another. Many have been found orphaned by the AIDS crisis as well. We also have a hospice for adults with AIDS." Maier also stated that there are "safe haven houses" for the youngsters. He said, "Very often these children have been saved from the world of violence and abuse because of our presence here. These are the rescued wounded who are offered refuge and swiftly spirited from being throwaway kids to being part of a larger loving family." It is of interest to note that many of these younger folk are sheltered from both predator and parent(s) alike. Father shared, "Very often the parent(s) fall on hard times and they are often inclined to sell their child to an abuser. The pedophile monsters likewise often offer money to aid the deep rooted addictions of the parents, all in exchange for these children." Maier stated, "We try to give a kid the chance to be human for a while. You want to show them perhaps for one bright shining moment of their lives that there was a Camelot called childhood." Father sighed, "Some of these children are so ill and they have very little chance of reaching adulthood or even adolescence. All we can do for these children as we do with all our children is to love them and make sure they feel a child's love of life."
However, the harsh fact of the matter remains a rather stark and nauseatingly revolting statistic. International rights groups say that the shocking horror is rampant—more than 200,000 women and children work in Thailand's sex trade. Here underage victims fall prey in a cauldron of pedophile predators from various parts of the world, including the United States. Father Joe has likewise been instrumental in accompanying these children to court to testify against the traffickers, helping send many of them to prison.
Father Joe shared, "Each day I pray not so much for the gift of sanctity, but the grace not to be an obstacle. Without doubt, the highest attribute for any of us to aspire to is that of mercy. I pray not to be an obstacle to God's mercy. I pray not to be an obstacle to the prophets, who are the children. We must pray to be more attentive to their voices. I think this is where we have often lost our soul. There is where we have gone wrong. We have forgotten to listen to the children, the prophets."
Amidst the seeming futility of the stench of desperation and the raw sewage of neglect, AIDS and certain death, one can find in the "slaughterhouse" the grotto of a vast and abiding tabernacle of the Lord's presence both moored and anchored by the Gospel mandate. Here too the reader might find schooling in one of life's more important lessons. It would certainly seem that the harsher side of life often acts as a jolting and powerful catalyst to motivate and inspire us to be grateful for and appreciate the gift of life when it has been sweet to us. It would seem fitting that no matter how anguished things may get at times on our side of the tracks, there are unquestionably countless others who are worse off than we. Perhaps the Mercy Centre offers a profound addition to this reflection: that we spend less time focusing on all of our unfulfilled wishes and be more attentive to the blessings that God has given us. Furthermore, the Mercy Centre and the fiery, albeit tender devotion of Father Joe, reflect the transforming vision of Blessed Mother Teresa who was an instrumental catalyst in encouraging this Apostle in Bangkok to make a difference in the lives of others. Likewise, the late founder of the Missionaries of Charity engages us all with the urgency of a mandate, "Be a cause of joy to all you meet by your love for God in action."
Greg Barrett stated, "Father Joe was honored in 2004 by Thailand's Her Majesty Queen Sirikit as the one foreigner who has made the most significant contribution to the protection of women and children." He added, "During the ceremony, Her Majesty broke from tradition and descended from the stage. She walked smiling to Father Joe, grasped his hand and whispered, 'I thank you for the women and children.' In Thailand there is no higher honor."
For more information on the Mercy Centre, visit www.MercyCentre.org. The Centre is always in need of public and private donations, gifts, grants and school and child sponsorship. The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolution and Revelation in the Slums of Bangkok by Greg Barrett is published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley (www.josseybass.com). Likewise, Father Joe has written a book, Welcome to The Bangkok Slaughterhouse (www.asiabooks.com). Proceeds from the sale of his book are donated to the Mercy Centre.