St. Joe teaches Thai orphans ‘to be good’
‘Stay with these poor people if you can,’ urged Mother Teresa – and Father Joseph Maier does.
As his namesake looks on from a wall-mounted relief cradling baby Jesus, the Rev. Joseph Maier kicks up a leg in kung fu style, sending his white cassock flying.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“Have any of you been fighting?” The American-born Catholic priest, speaking in Thai, is quizzing his “parishioners.” A couple of boys, 7 or 8, giggle guiltily.
Sitting on the floor, 200 street kids, from 3-year-olds to teenagers, pack a narrow upper-story room that doubles as a chapel at his Mercy Centre orphanage.
“Let’s see the new kid in the house,” the priest, known to almost everyone as Father Joe, calls out to a 7-year-old boy. He’s just been rescued from the nearby streets of the “Slaughterhouse,” a squalid squatter compound in the notorious neighborhood of Klong Toey. It’s built from scrap wood over the pens where squealing pigs were once butchered for the city’s markets.
“Are you settling in well?” Maier asks. The boy nods shyly.
Then Maier calls on a blind girl with AIDS who was raised in a municipal garbage dump by her scavenger parents until they both died. Now she goes to a school for the blind and lives at the Mercy Centre. Her Braille reading and typing skills are improving, she tells “Khun Phaa” (Mister Father) proudly.
A teenager reads the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible before Maier launches into a sermon about the importance of self-esteem in rising above adversity by recounting the story of ... Kung Fu Panda.
Now tiptoeing on a foot, now pirouetting with hands raised mantis-like, the freckled priest, in late middle age, with a Buddha belly and the reputation of a rambunctious saint, imitates the signature postures of the animal warriors of the story. “To become a dragon master,” he explains, quoting from the movie, “you must overcome the ‘Furious Five’ ” – his shorthand for hardships and harmful habits.
This “gathering of the tribes,” as Father Joe, a Redemptorist Roman Catholic from rural South Dakota, calls the mass he holds every Saturday, isn’t exactly liturgy by the book. None of these children is Catholic, or even Christian. They’re Buddhist or Muslim, and he wants to keep it that way.
“Religion should be taught by grandmothers,” the priest insists. “What we must teach kids is to be good.” For children, he explains, the three cardinal sins are laziness, theft, and dishonesty. “If these children grow up [thinking] ‘God loves me; I don’t cheat, steal, lie,’ hey, that’s pretty good,” he says.
At the end of the service, a girl, once homeless and forced into begging, goes around with a rattan basket. She collects a nominal “tithe” of 1 baht (3 cents) toward a communal kitty for toys and candies. The gesture is meant to inculcate reciprocal charity in “the poorest of the poor.”
• • •
“To be very honest with you,” Father Joe declares, “I want to [expletive] scream.” The cause of his ire seems to be a minor infringement. A middle-aged Western couple have shown up uninvited in a playroom of his orphanage. It’s a price of fame Maier doesn’t like to pay. “People walk right in as if they owned the place,” he fumes. “They don’t come here to help us, but to feel good about themselves.”
The other day, he says, an evangelical Christian visitor was discovered trying to convert a dying Buddhist in the center’s AIDS hospice. “That kills me,” Maier explains. “Here I am a Catholic priest having to throw this person out.”
When President Bush visited the Mercy Centre last August, Maier says he told him, “Mr. President, I had to ask permission from the children for you to come here.” He adds, though, “This very important person came here to give our children honor and dignity.”