Wednesday, 27 August 2008 22:10
The cook found them at the side entrance just before dawn, when you could still make out the stars: Six-year-old Fon, her mum and our ferocious, slum-born, street-wise guard dog, all curled up asleep together. The "ferocious" guard dog, by the way, in spite of all training to the contrary, welcomes strangers; the more shabbily they dress, the more friendly he becomes.

Fon became our Christmas present, coming to stay with us for a while to share her wisdom and joy - her dance, her song, her innocence. And she led us as we followed the Magi and the Christmas star.

She's a special little girl who, at the age of six, is still learning to walk and talk, but she knows how to dance and sing. Something went terribly wrong when she was born. Baby Fon didn't get enough oxygen. So, later, in a rented room, with dad sick and mum working, she had no real social contact. She walks at her own pace and mostly without help, and her dancing is graceful but slow, as she's careful not to stumble and fall. She's still not too good at talking but she can sing quietly, crooning without words.

She usually tags around with Dao - glorious Miss Dao - who, at three-and-a-half years of age, decided to become Fon's "older" sister. It was Dao who took Fon's hand and led her everywhere. And it was Dao who taught her how to sing.

Our sacred stories and legends: Of wise men, astrologers - scientific intellectuals, really, who'd probably read the Hebrew scriptures - who, with prophetic wisdom, followed the star shining in the East which led them to Bethlehem.

Angels were in the high heavens singing, telling the shepherd families, who probably had also seen and been mystified by the star, about a special child born on this day. They were told to go to Bethlehem town, over the hills, not far, where they found the child lying in a manger near an inn.
I think about Joseph and Mary standing in line, travel weary, stamping their feet and trying to keep warm. Winter can be cold in that part of the world. Forced to report for a government census, they had travelled on foot and by donkey some 80 kilometres from Nazareth. Tradition suggests that the journey took them nine days. The innkeeper, perhaps a compassionate man, looked at this pair dressed like vagabonds who sounded like people from the North - Galilee - and told them he was truly sorry, that the inn was full. There was no room.

Then a kindly voice - perhaps the innkeeper himself, maybe his wife, perhaps an angel who'd noticed their plight and Mary's heavily pregnant state - mentioned a place nearby where animals were stabled.

Desperate to get out of the cold, they made it to the stable.

And maybe it was also that way with Fon and her mum. Perhaps there was a kindly voice saying, "There's a place in the Khlong Toey slums where maybe you can go. A woman and her small daughter would be safe there."

That morning Fon's mother begged our cook to look after her precious only daughter, just for a while, so that she could take care of a pressing matter. She said she'd be back and, tears in her eyes, disappeared into the early dawn. It was that "ferocious" guard dog of ours who kept licking Fon's face - plus several cookies from the cook: One for the dog, one for Fon; then two for Fon so she could give one to the dog - that persuaded the girl to come inside.

A couple of days later, we discovered that Fon couldn't hear. A bit of warm olive oil soon solved that problem; and we made sure that the first thing she heard was the pealing of a tiny silver bell, like angels singing in the heavens.
That beautiful sound elicited her first smile.

The second big smile came with the ice-cream cone. She was afraid of it at first. It's cold to the touch and can look scary if you've never seen one before. So Dao, who knows lots about ice cream, licked her own cone first, showing Fon that it was okay; and that second smile came with her first tentative taste of the confection. Wow!

Dao showed her our Christmas crib, and immediately Fon lay down and went to sleep. The dog came and curled up beside her. She slept with a smile on her face. The dog snored. They dreamed together.

Two thousand years before, Joseph also had a dream: To take the child and Mary and run away! Run now, in the middle of the night! They're coming to kill your child. Maybe both of you, too.

We learned later, when she came back, that Fon's mum had been forced to run, too. No, they weren't coming to kill her or her child, but it was something almost as horrible. Some Slimy Slipperies were forcing Fon's mum to do some bad stuff that you don't even want to think about. Bad stuff to make her find money. To pay back some loans - in triplicate. Cash she'd borrowed for her husband when he was dying of that unpopular disease. She didn't give up and, by a stroke of good luck, or maybe through the intercession of an angel, had found a policeman, a good man, boyhood best chum of her husband's. People said that there'd been loud shouting, the sound of gunshots. The Slimy Slipperies slunk off - back into the darkness.

She was still poor when he died. But at least she was safe. Unharmed. Debts cancelled. So poor that the friendly Buddhist abbot lifted the lid of the box holding donations for the destitute and allowed her to take enough, so that merit could be made, and the monks could chant the holy sutras.

It's Christmas. The Holy Season. Let us look for the Star. Let us try to understand and not be afraid of the heavens and cosmic events. Let us take that journey to Bethlehem. And if, on our journey, we should meet Fon and her mum sleeping on the pavement, before dawn when we can still see the stars - sleeping all curled up with a doubly ferocious, slum-born, street-wise guard dog who welcomes strangers - let's stop and invite them in. Maybe even offer them some cookies.

Fr Joe Maier, CSSR, is the founder and director of the Human Development Foundation in Khlong Toey. To contact him, visit http://www.mercycentre.org/ or phone 02-671-5313.