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.
“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.”
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“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.”
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.
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.”