Weapons of Mass Construction: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

[This week every year Graduation Day reverberates through the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok for hundreds of poor students (nearly 1,000 this year) who are completing the Mercy Centre's three-year preschool program. Several years ago I attended the ceremonies. That experience became Chapter 1 in The Gospel of Father Joe. In honor of Father Joe Maier and Mercy it is excerpted below. The world remains indebted to Father Joe's wisdom and his peaceful way of combating poverty, terrorism, and human trafficking.]

Father Joe delivering the commencement address to Mercy’s preschoolers, March 2007.

[For the Huffington Post version click HERE]

The story begins like the parable it’s become, in a no-man’s-land with the seed of dreams strewn in the most foolish of places: slum rubbish. This was the 1970s when few people believed anything good could grow from the backwater of the undeveloped world. There were no official addresses or property deeds in the cordoned-off corners of Bangkok, nothing much for the municipal books, just putrid ground so primal and bleak that land was free for the staking. It’s where squatters pretended to own real houses and children made do with make-believe.

But these seeds were sown by an angry young Catholic chased from finer society. A priest, stubborn and cursing. The local Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians nurtured that seed, and in time the people and the priest, the abbot and the imam, worked together, as though the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ were brothers and best friends. No doctrine, dogma, or creed was lorded. No growth tethered chapter to verse. The only belief that mattered was the one they shared. In the children. That was common, sacred ground.

Nourished like this, the seeds exploded with growth. There was a harvest, then another and another. The seeds grow still today, more than three decades later, a genus of hope thriving in the muck, as if it had been indigenous to the slums all along. Tales of it grow too, spreading from those roots in Thailand to the media of North America and Europe, and in the retelling, it can begin to sound legendary. How in Gideon’s name does something grow from nothing and multiply like New Testament fishes and loaves? But nothing about it is myth. Every tale is true.

You can see for yourself when a new crop is gathered each year just before the yearly monsoons. For two, three, and often four days, a cordoned-off corner of the world blossoms in a brilliant hue of graduation gowns.

So it was on the sun struck first week of March 2007– thirty-three years after the first seeds were planted.

The Mercy Centre preschool graduation was standing-room-only; moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, the neighbor next door and next door to that one. Seven commencements stretched half the week and through a half dozen slums in celebration of seven hundred graduates from thirty-two schools built “officially illegally,” as the priest says, on the Thai government’s squatter land. Children six and seven years old accustomed to flip-flops and hand-me-downs strutted around in black mortarboard caps and matching silk gowns trimmed in a shade of blue my folk back home call Carolina. And while girls and their mothers and aunts fussed with lipstick and rouge, the boys did what boys do: swirl their heads until the tassels on their caps whir like the blades of a helicopter. Dizzy, they fall to the ground.

The priest was there, of course, more bald with each and every harvest. He conferred the diplomas and delivered the commencement address wearing the black and burgundy of Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. Draped across his left shoulder was a velvet sash with white stripes of cotton, thick enough to brush and braid: three stripes in front, three in back representing the honorary rank of a Thammasat Ph.D. If you were new to the slums or to their graduation rituals, a sash like that in a place like that might stop you. It might even if you weren’t.

Arriving at each school, the American known by tens of thousands of Thai as simply Khun Phaw Joe (“Mister Father Joe”) would park down a ways and out of sight. He’d pull on the gown, fix the sash just so, and then begin “the Walk”– a purposeful stride intended to put education on parade. Each route was different but familiar: past walls of plywood, lopsided floors, rusty tin roofs, and bare-bottomed babies; through humidity flavored by garbage and a subsistence watched over by sun-wrinkled village matriarchs who smiled even as they spit pinpoint tobacco-brown streams of betel nut juice. Heads turned to watch. Motorbikes slowed in deference. Cars stopped to let him pass. Old and young joined in, falling in behind or alongside, knowing full well where he was headed, knowing it was time.

In a backwater where nothing good was supposed to grow, graduation today is a rite of passage.

Some of the hardiest seed will scatter and continue maturing. There are graduates thriving now in the high school and college classrooms of North America with majors in economics, business, biology, computer science, and neuroscience. It’s why Khun Phaw Joe gave the Class of ’07 the same speech he has given every class since the Class of ’95 , the same he will give the Class of ’08. Something about it seems to work.

As the Walk approached the first podium, the room fell silent. Pigeons gurgled their Rs, a mobile phone tweeted, somewhere a baby shrieked. Khun Phaw Joe waited. A small, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary sat in a May altar (on cloth surrounded by flowers) next to a Buddhist shrine of joss sticks and a portrait of the Thai monarch (Massachusetts native King Bhumibol Adulyadej) framed in gold leaf.

Fitted for kid-sized attention spans but fired like buckshot, the commencement address was aimed at everyone crowded into the ceremony.

Khun Phaw cleared his throat.

“If you don’t have anything to eat in the morning,” he began, speaking Thai and scanning his attentive audience of children, then go to school!”

Most of the students sat erect or leaned slightly forward on the edge of their benches or chairs.

“If you don’t have any shoes to wear … ,” he continued, pausing for effect, “go to school!”

“If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home … go to school!

“If your friends want you to sell drugs … go to school!

“If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk … go to school!

“If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch … go to school!

“If your house burns down and you don’t have anything or anywhere to sleep … go to school!

“Go to school! Go to school! Go to school!”

Children joined in, louder and louder, chanting what sounded to me like “Tong by wrong rain high die!”

Go to school! Dhong bai rong Tien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and the neighbor next door joined in.

Khun Phaw Joe directed the burgeoning chorus, his Thammasat gown waving until the bell sleeves billowed.

Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

And that’s the sprint from beginning to now, three decades of harvests. But in the journey, as in the parable, lie the lessons and wisdom of a social revolutionary who bucks convention, the law, and what the rest of us might consider common sense or self preservation.

Father Joe Maier

The Reverend Joseph H. Maier, the eldest child of a philandering Lutheran father and pious Catholic mother, survived his own poverty and dysfunction to become a throwback of sorts: the durable, American-made export. It should be no surprise, then, that he settled on the wrong side of our economic divide and discovered a comfortable fit.

The neglected children of Klong Toey (three hard syllables sounding like a curse but meaning “canal of the pandanus,” a plant growing near the water and cultivated for its flavorful leaves) would put a nice sheen of perspective on his own welfare beginnings.

Today, whenever Khun Phaw Joe feels a pang of self-pity, and often when he sees it rising in others, he quashes it with self-mockery and echoes of an earlier time: “Yeah, yeah, everybody hates me, nobody loves me, all I’m ever fed is worms. That’s my life story. Blah, blah, blah…. Well, guess what? The sun is rising, the rooster is calling, and another day is here. I guess ol’ Joe better get his ass out of bed and get going.”

 

Priest walks the talk in Bangkok slums— lives to write about it

New collection of stories by Father Joe Maier

First, full disclosure. I wrote the book on Father Joe Maier, the cursing, curmudgeon, can-do priest of Bangkok. Literally. The Gospel of Father Joe, it was titled. But that 315-page effort doesn’t preclude me from being honest with you about his latest book, The Open Gate of Mercy: Stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey Slum. Frankly, if I didn’t keep it real he’d probably break my kneecaps. (That part is figurative. I think.)

Father Joe, who turns 73 on Halloween, is a native of working-class Longview, Washington, but he has lived among the poorest of the poor in Thailand for some forty years. In 1971, long before Mother Teresa was a holy icon and eight years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the great nun of Calcutta visited with Father Joe in Bangkok’s flood-prone shantytowns. Father Joe showed her the Klong Toey slums that house tens of thousands of homeless families, and as they walked the rickety catwalks that hold the poor aloft (barely) over dung-brown lakes of sewage, Mother Teresa fell quiet. Seeing mile upon soggy mile of the desperate poor she declared Bangkok’s abyss to be every bit as sorrowful as the squatter camps in Calcutta. Leaving, she made one request of Father Joe. It was a doozy.

“Spend your life working with these poor,” she told him. “If you can.”

For the most part, occasional churchgoers like myself and holy, holy praise the Lord types stay far away from any place where rats the size of house cats squat alongside  squatters. We stay even further away if snakes large enough to eat those rats loiter there. Instead, we pray on bended knee for the deity’s hand to knead the bread that feeds the poor. We tithe in the hope that our godly administrators will do the right thing and invest in people rather than church infrastructure. We might even (wo)man up and go on annual mission trips to the reeking other side of the economic divide, as if two weeks of sweat equity and the Good News of Jesus raises all boats. But these well-intentioned efforts, even when added all together, are relatively lightweight when you consider poverty’s toll and grueling duration.

In Thailand, a hub of global sex trade (“human trafficking” in politer circles), a majority of residents have long worked in the “informal sector” or black market, according to Kasikorn Research Centre, the economic analyst for Bangkok’s large Kasikorn Bank Group. That’s roughly twenty-two million people (about two-thirds of Thailand’s adult workforce) toiling in the black market without retirement plans, health insurance, and other social security benefits found in “formal sector” jobs such as doctor, lawyer, banker, bellhop, bartender, waitress, McDonald’s cashier. These “casual laborers,” as Kasikorn refers to them, include curbside food vendors, garland makers, fortune-tellers, card dealers, drug dealers, and the wretched dealers of flesh. The twenty-two million doesn’t include the nearly 2.5 million children listed by Thailand’s Office of the National Education Commission as absent from school; kids missing the roll call but not exactly missing in action.

In 2000, the first year I visited Father Joe’s Mercy Centre schools and orphanages in Klong Toey, nearly seventy percent of Thai children ages 11 to 14 were not enrolled in school. Then, like now, they were being educated in the street rather than the classroom. They earned their keep in Thailand’s underground economy, according to the UN’s International Labor Organization; and, more convincingly, according to Father Joe. With the help of Klong Toey’s Buddhists and Muslims, Father Joe and his Human Development Foundation had built thirty-two slum preschools in an effort to break the obvious cycle of poverty. Living in the abyss Father Joe had seen firsthand the root causes and consequences of economic injustice. Illiterate parents with no job or steady income would sell themselves or their children to the flesh traders. More often than not, the kids showing up at Mercy had been neglected, abandoned, abused and/or HIV-infected.

“It’s a totally different world where all the kids get hurt and no one gives a shit!” Father Joe had barked to me one day outside a catwalk shanty. We were standing in the gaping divide of our economy— two feet above floating raw sewage.

If, like Father Joe, you dare to reside in Bangkok’s port slums there is nothing underground about the economy. It’s right there; in your face, in the massage parlors, in the alleyways, and on Klong Toey’s hip-wide catwalks. Father Joe absorbed it like a daily beating. Living like this in the stories and their visceral consequences, downstream from downstream, he had to tell others. Had to. Upstream Christians needed to know. But writing for him was something more than a means to raise attention and charity funds. It was and is cathartic; a finger on the valve of his frustration.

Similar to his first book, Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse (Hong Kong: Periplus, March 2005), The Open Gate of Mercy (Bangkok: Heaven Lake Press, August 2012) is a collection of these real-life stories reported from inside Klong Toey’s inner sanctum. They were gleaned the only way possible. By living in the grind of it. Most of the forty stories were written initially for the English-language Bangkok Post, and, like the subject of my favorite piece in the book, “The Left-Handed Artist of Kong Toey,” Father Joe proves ambidextrous in his skills as both a priest and a writer.

For example, in a story titled “Miss Pim Gets Second and Third Chances,” he recounts the struggles and ultimate triumph of a Mercy Centre child with whom I’m familiar from my own book’s research. He writes:

Miss Pim had been with us for nine years. She was sixteen, third in her high school class, gentle as gentle can be, with a smile to warm the hardest of hearts. One Sunday morning about a year ago, she handed me a wrinkled piece of paper, a note she had written in her own hand. Pim’s note and her story are important because she is a “throwaway” orphan kid who made it. Lots of kids, but especially these so-called throwaways, need to be walked through the bad patches, not just once but many times before they reach adulthood.

Although I’d told the story about Pim and her miraculous niece, Miss Grasshopper, in The Gospel of Father Joe, my version doesn’t compare to Father Joe’s. His is better. He lived it.

On that Sunday when she handed me the note, I knew the contents were grave. Pim had that limp, wilted, beaten-up look of a teenager in mourning at a temple cremation, standing in front of the furnace when the temple manager zips open the red plastic body bag in the coffin to offer one last glance at a dead friend as the monks are chanting their final chant. Grieving for someone who has died before their time. Utter despair. Absolute misery. It was that kind of look she gave me. If you’ve seen it once, you never forget it.

I’ve never met a preacher, priest, rabbi or imam who’s not also a good writer. The talent comes with the trade. Or is it vice versa? Before most sermons are delivered they are reported, written, edited, and rewritten. And then, often, rewritten again. But Father Joe’s prose and preaching are notches above anything so rehearsed, edited and practiced. Exactly like his loaded cannon of a personality, his writing sounds candid never canned.  It’s as if he’s locked us into a conversation, and together we explore the nooks and crannies of slum life. Readers like myself, living on the consumption side of the economic divide, are taken on a tour of Klong Toey’s underbelly without having to assume any of its dangers and deprivation.

This is where Father Joe’s writing is both a blessing and a curse.

Reading about the slums of Klong Toey is a good start to understanding what life is like in third-world slums. But that’s all it is. A start, a glimpse, and maybe a nudge or shove to learn more. If we close the book or flick off our Kindles and Nooks, and then all we do is return to our iPhone lives, nothing much is achieved. To really understand the deep-rooted miseries caused by economic imbalances we have to go further along the journey. The start that Father Joe gives us needs to startle us awake.

So, at its worst, The Open Gate of Mercy, could serve as an enabler. Its stories allow us to stand off at a distance believing we see, hear, smell, touch, taste the slum life. Father Joe’s writing is that good. But we can’t see, hear, smell, touch, taste. We really don’t have even the first clue.

At its best, the book awakens us to that fact— and arouses our empathy. So in this election season when we American voters demand to know how Washington and Wall Street will improve our standard of living, let Father Joe show us the bigger picture. These stories filed from the other side should serve as an antidote to our myopia.

Through him, and through the people who spring to life in The Open Gate of Mercy, we can point to something far larger than ourselves.

For more on Father Joe and his charity visit www.mercycentre.org.

A younger Father Joe standing outside one of his first homes in the Slaughterhouse district of the Klong Toey slums in Bangkok. Photo by Jim Coyne, 1983.