You know, I've been chilling out, looking around, walking the streets of Bangkok, the Slums, and the Slaughter House, these last few days, looking for Jesus. Our Scriptures say that He had to die and three days later would rise from the dead.
Our women said they saw Him and He talked nicely to them, didn't scold them, nor the men for being afraid. So for sure, He won't scold you and me, and certainly
not our slum street kids.
When I was seven - a farm kid in South Dakota with mom and baby sister and brother, one pair of bib over-alls and hand-me-down work shoes from a neighbor kid - I got really sick once and a holy old priest told me that I would get well by Easter Time.
And I did, and we all can “get well” by Easter Time. If we want to.
The words of that old priest - "Joey, with Jesus’ guidance you’ll get well by Easter” - changed my life; and now, I, an old priest, 46 years “in the harness,” can tell you my brothers and sisters that all of us “with the help of Jesus, can, should get well” by Easter. Unless, we forget, or don't want to.
True, once a year, we Catholics have these glorious liturgical ceremonies when we retell our Sacred Truths in Ritual and Song. They go back almost two thousand Years. And they're proper and "churchy" but that's a privilege for a few. For we, children of a lesser god, need to say our prayers and to notice our brothers and sisters wherever we meet them. Even just to nod our head, or say hello.
For the past three years, we have been working together with a poor community of ethnic Mokan (sea gypsies) living on Koh Lao, an island in Ranong Province. This traditionally seafaring community must now make their homes on the land, where they struggle for most necessities, including food, water, basic health care, and the education of their children. They also struggle for recognition as residents and citizens in their country. We don’t want them to lose their culture and religion as sea gypsies. but we also want them to take part in the most important Thai family holidays. Last week we joined with the village to celebrate a traditional Thai New Year. As pictured above and below, the children gently poured water over the hands of each village elder; and the elders placed their hands on the head of each passing child, wishing each one a world of joy, health, and happiness throughout the New Year.
During the New Year holidays, our Street Teacher Kru Nang, our staff psychologist Ms. Aw, and our friends from the Child Welfare Ministry in Bangkok traveled to Ranong to help the Koh Lao village children: to teach them how to play, to create, to imagine, and most of all, to celebrate the joy of being children. (Please visit our photo gallery here.)
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published, Bangkok Post, April 10, 2011
Violence and mayhem don’t just happen in our slums. It’s not how we handle our affairs. When it does, it’s almost always from outside causes.
This was the case for Klong Toey's Khun Dhee, whose life descended into mayhem during the red shirt demonstrations two years ago
He was hit by shrapnel from an old tear-gas canister during a fracas. Its effects are insidious: you can't breathe; smoke sears your lungs, your eyes, the chemicals mixed in with the shrapnel burns deep to scar, maim and cause wounds that won't heal.
Dhee, an artist and portrait painter in Klong Toey bore the entire vicious brunt of the tear-gas grenade. Shrapnel tore his right lung, bruised and cracked some ribs, breaking one, and mangled his right hand. A couple of pieces of shrapnel penetrated his chest and throat, bringing him to his knees.
He kept his head back to make it easier to breathe and clasped his good hand to his throat, trying to ease the pain. He never lost consciousness during those first few minutes and kept a tight grip on his motorcycle key with a sacred image attached.
Over 500 Bangkok children are currently enrolled in our Education Sponsorship Program. These are among the poorest children in Bangkok – children who could never afford the most basic school necessities without the support they receive from our education sponsors. These children are also at a very high risk of HIV, starting in their teenage years.
Last week we brought together all the teenagers – over 100 in total – to participate in AIDS education seminars at Mercy Centre. They were given the facts; they joined in role-playing exercises; they played games and contests. We came at them directly, indirectly, and from effective angle to teach them about HIV prevention. Our education teams also conduct seminars, geared to each audience, in high schools in high risk communities as well as after school in our kindergartens for the parents and guardians of all our kindergarten students.
During a world tour sponsored by the International Peace Foundation, the renowned Clown Reinhard visited Mercy last Saturday and performed in front of a tough and demanding crowd of 100 Mercy children. Yet as tough and demanding as our kids normally are, it didn’t take Clown Reinhard long to win them over. In fact, the moment he appeared, introduced himself, sat down on a chair, and fell on his behind, he had our children in stitches. Several young boys and girls were rolling on the floor with laughter (see photo below). After the show, Clown Reinhard gave a playful clown workshop for our kids. Photo gallery (more children's smiles) here.
So many new Mercy children! Please welcome our brothers and sisters who have joined our Mercy family since the New Year: Wat, Ole, Gof, Noa, Sai, Game, Film Paipha, Paimon, Boom, Cat, Peh, Bai Tong, and Champoo Also new to our family, two babies under six months old – Nong San and Nong Luckee – plus Nong Fai, photos below.
That makes 17 new children in all. Abandoned, abused, orphaned, they are now safe and well looked after as they face brave new challenges at Mercy. A couple of examples: Nong Bai Tong (Miss Banana Leaf) and Nong Champoo (Miss Rose Apple), both age 3 and joining Mercy just weeks apart, are ready for theses challenges. They are learning to play and share for the first time, which involves strong clashes of wills and torrents of tears in the lessons learned, but they are already best friends for life. (Photo Gallery: New Mercy Kids.)
One of our boys, Master Ek, age 15, has been a part of our family for 8 years. For at least one year he was miserable, always spoiling for a fight and always losing in the end. But we knew he was a good kid. His own father never had more than a few pennies, yet when Master Ek found a 1,000 baht note ($33) in a school hallway, he immediately gave it to his teacher. When Master Ek’s father died last year, Fr. Joe asked if we could do anything for him during the ceremonies. So Ek thought a moment and replied, “I want all the Mercy kids to have pizza.” Twenty pizzas were delivered that evening.
Recently Master Ek earned a Bronze Medal in a citywide Thai boxing tournament. Now he’s the pride of his school! And he doesn’t fight outside the ring any more.
Last week, five hundred and five slum children received their diplomas during the annual Mercy Preschool graduation ceremonies. Moms, dads, grandmoms, brothers, sisters, aunties, community leaders, and many of our local school sponsors joined in the celebration, a balance of traditional pomp and riotous fun. Fr. Joe, wearing his doctoral robes for the occasion, presented a diploma to each graduating student; and at the end of the ceremony, in a thunderous “call and response” speech, Fr. Joe encouraged the children in no uncertain terms to stay in school. “If your mom plays cards and your dad is drunk, what do you do?” he shouted out.
And the children shouted back, “Go to School!”
“If there’s no food in your belly and you are hungry, what do you do?”
“Go to school!”
“If it’s raining so hard, your shack is flooded, what do you do?”
“Go to school!”
Whatever is happening in their young lives, we want all poor children to understand, they must stay in school. And if their moms, dads, or guardians can’t provide basic school necessities, Fr. Joe also made it clear, “call on us, don’t hesitate, don’t let your children drop out.” (See the photo gallery.) Previous Graduation Ceremony here.)
Bu Breo has been broadsided by the realities of growing up in Klong Toey's Slaughterhouse slum, but somehow she's managed to steer her 10-year-old son toward a brighter future
By Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., published in Bangkok Post, Spectrum, March 6, 2011
She still hangs on to that old photograph, faded and wrinkled after 25 years, of the cab of a long-haul truck. Dad's at the wheel and mum's snuggled beside him holding their baby, Bu Breo. Now 27 and with a 10-year-old son of her own, Ms Bu Breo phones her father often - says he's a gruff dad.
Before the troubles all those years ago, her mother rode with her father everywhere - riding shotgun. Mum said that her talking kept him from dozing off at the wheel. He didn't need ya ba to stay awake.
Recently, Bu Breo rode with her father again on a long-haul run. It was the first time for her son, Prab Pram. It was also the first time the boy had met his grandfather. Prab Pram boasts that he didn't get motion sickness and it was the first time he had been out of the "Slaughterhouse" Klong Toey slum for more than a few hours.
Bu Breo took him along because she was afraid she would go to prison, again, and her son - her only hope – would be abandoned, as she had been when her mother went to prison. She wanted him to know his grandpa, who would surely take care of him, and send him to the best school he could. He's in Grade 4 now, an honour student.
There is at least one wonderful advantage to life in a large family like ours.
After years of practice and study, our children have started their own Thai orchestra.
And for the past two years in particular their skills have become quite impressive. Professors from Mahidol College of Music have been providing professional instruction on a wide range of traditional instruments - from the Ranat (something like a zither) to the Khong Wong Yai (a large semi-circular Gong-chime played like a vibraphone). The results have been outstanding.
The Mercy Orchestra performed last week at the “Rhythm of Earth” World Music Festival in Bangkok to a very enthusiastic audience. (Photo gallery here.)
We (my Mercy Centre family and I) stumble through life… never knowing the lyrics nor the music to the songs that every new day brings to each of us… never knowing the storyline of each sunrise or sunset.
But we are happy, and try to be joyful with all the Lord sends us between earth and sky, and we learn from our children here at Mercy to try to have as much fun as possible with each new day, and perhaps in doing so, say our prayers along the way, and help another child.
Here is a Valentine’s gift to all our friends: a short video showing how our slum kindergarten kids welcome each new school day. (Watch the video.)
Happy Valentine’s Day.
fr. joe in Klong Toey, Bangkok
Photo by Wang Eng Eng