St. Joe teaches Thai orphans ‘to be good’
‘Stay with these poor people if you can,’ urged Mother Teresa – and Father Joseph Maier does.
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Maier is overprotective with good reason. “His” children have been abused, betrayed, or let down by the adults in their lives. Many have endured domestic violence and sexual abuse, or been used as “horse walkers,” peddling cheap amphetamines in crime-ridden slums.Skip to next paragraph
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Those orphaned triplets there, he points, were sold as domestic slaves at age 3 by their drunken grandfather for two crates of whiskey. “This here is Master Ohh,” Maier says, indicating a 6-year-old boy scampering around barefoot with a slight limp.
“Dad is a night watchman who fell on his son in a drunken rage with a machete,” almost severing the boy’s legs at both ankles. Until Ohh was nursed back to health, he was sometimes carted around in a red toy wagon by “Cookie Crumb James,” a 9-year-old HIV-positive “double throwaway dead-end kid” with a scarred face, a lopsided grin, and a sweet tooth (which earned him the nickname). “A hero in Klong Toey,” Maier notes, “is a soul beaten up but never beaten.”
The Mercy Centre is a $3 million shelter built by a Catholic philanthropist from Atlanta. It has airy dorms and well-stocked classrooms. During the priest’s midmorning walk around, bubbly boys and girls emerge from left and right for hugs and gentle fist bumps with their guardian in mischievous camaraderie.
Maier stops at a breezy playroom where, lying splayed on the cool tiles, their limbs entwined, several children are immersed in drawing and games. “This, my brother, is how it’s supposed to be,” he says, visibly pleased. “Life’s never gonna be the same without Mommy and Daddy, but this is neat, isn’t it!”
Maier’s mantra for street children – wisdom he learned from the hard-working single mother who raised him and his siblings – is “No matter what, go to school, go to school, go to school!” Thanks to him, more than 4,000 children do every year at his 31 preschools across Bangkok’s slums.
The priest has also put up playgrounds, sponsored after-school soccer teams, and rebuilt thousands of slum homes after frequent flash fires. His Mercy Centre, staffed by Catholic nuns and local Buddhists, runs a street child outreach, a center for legal aid and protection from human trafficking, and a credit union.
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In 1971, Mother Teresa came to Klong Toey. A fresh-faced young priest newly posted to Bangkok’s Holy Redeemer Church – a single-room shack squeezed under a bridge – showed the nun around the jumble of squatters’ huts tottering on stilts above refuse-strewn swamps and filthy canals linked by rickety catwalks. “Stay with these poor people if you can,” the nun urged Maier.
He has done so. Until recently he slept every night on a mosquito-netted army cot in a tumbledown slum shed near a municipal sewage pump. The people of Klong Toey have long since embraced as one of their own their teddy-bearish benefactor with the explosive laughter and sudden mood swings.
One week Father Joe weeps at the Buddhist cremation of a garbage scavenger who “died 3 baht in debt,” leaving three orphans behind. The next, he chuckles heartily at the street smarts of a newly arrived girl who pinches fluffy toys from the orphanage and sells them down the street. Several of his protégés have earned scholarships to the US and Europe; others he’s lost back to the street.
“I used to pray that I become a saint,” Father Joe says. He’s just patiently soothed a 12-year-old orphan who flew into an uncontrollable rage in class. He’s also just joked with an elderly maid. She’s wearing a shorter skirt than usual today, and he’s told her she has nice legs.
“Now,” the priest continues, “I simply pray that I don’t become a large obstacle to the will of God.”