Slum Priest in Bangkok


My always iconoclastic grandfather intrigued me by insisting that he wanted to go to Hell. It might be unpleasantly hot but the people there would be interesting and would have a sense of fun. The virtuous people who went to Heaven were not people he wanted to spend a lot of time with.

I recently met a man in Bangkok who is clearly en route to Heaven, and who could make it fascinating and fun.

Father Joe Maier has spent the past 45 years in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok, a rather notorious slum community. A Redemptorist priest born in Seattle, Father Joe walks the streets of his neighborhood each day, finding solutions for the constant problems that people face. For years he lived in a shack, either above a busy slaughterhouse or by a foul-smelling waterway. Today, he presides over the thriving "Mercy Centre", a buzzing haven right in the midst of the slum community. There children live, learn, and play in safety, surrounded by love.

Mercy Centre combines many functions: orphanage, kindergarten, center for HIV and AIDS programs, child protection and legal aid, support for housing, and base for children who live on the streets. It has developed organically over the years, from a very small beginning as a makeshift child care center to a substantial organization that is blessed by Thailand's royal family.

Father Joe has managed to build his haven despite the fact that he is a foreigner and, as a Christian, part of a small minority. His success is part raw grit and persistence, part vision, and part force of personality.

The grit takes the form of a determination to keep at it, day after day. Father Joe accepts the faults of those he works with and he works within the system. There are few saints in the slums and every small action for good takes compromise. But Father Joe sees possibilities and solutions where others see hopelessness and corruption. He is a man who never gives up. He does not accept that something he thinks is right is impossible.

The vision is above all about the children. The centerpiece of Mercy Centre is the network of 33 kindergartens, where children spend three years. And at the end they dress in graduation robes, as does Father Joe, and he speaks gravely to them (and to their relatives). His message: "Go to school. Go to school. Go to school. If your Daddy is a drunk, go to school. If your Mommy is a card shark, go to school. If your Grandma is on drugs, go to school." He places his faith, in short, on education and on the chance that it offers to overcome even the worst start that life can offer. Mercy Centre has successes, too: graduates who have gone to the United World Colleges and who have impressive degrees and career paths. Many teachers at Mercy Centre are graduates from long ago. The vision, then, inspires people around him.

Another part of Father Joe's vision is that peace is grounded in a broad spirituality, rather than any specific dogma. He works with the Muslim imams in the area as well as the Buddhist monks. If there is ever trouble in the area, he says, there is a tacit pact that the Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists will support each other, with food or whatever else is needed.

But much of Father Joe's achievements come back to sheer force of personality. There's a well of outrage that is obvious and bursts out on occasion, an outrage that comes from seeing raw injustice and suffering all around. But there's also hope and love that win out. Father Joe seems able to find real good in everyone, as well as humor. He takes problems one at a time and he simply will not give up.

Today's news is full of Thailand's military coup and political stalemate. What's happening there has a lot to do with the divisions between the haves and have nots. Thailand's booming economy transformed the country in many ways but it has left many behind. It seems hard to believe, picking one's way through the drains and smells of vast slums that city dwellers are better off than many in the rural areas, in terms of health and nutrition. In the city hope always seems somewhere within reach and the magnet draws many in. But daily reality is harsh and it seems cruelest for the children caught in the vortex. It is simply impossible to explain or justify a society where some are so rich and so many are so poor, and where predators are a daily fact of life.

So Father Joe walks the streets, greeting everyone as an old friend, goading them to act, taking a child on if no one else takes care. He tells stories, talks about the "fookin'" bureaucrats in his way or the demons that plague him, and laughs at himself and his colleagues. People love and admire him because he is so human but also because they sense the deep courage, care, and faith that drive him.