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 22 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 injustices. 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 40 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 American voters demand to know how Washington and Wall Street will improve our standard of living, let Father Joe show us the bigger picture. His stories 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.