BANGKOK – When Christmas comes, Father Joseph Maier often tells children in the slums of Klong Toey in Bangkok that Jesus could have been born near the old train tracks that pass through this neighborhood.
For 47 years, the Catholic priest has lived and worked in the poor and dynamic community of Klong Toey, devoting himself to educating street children while writing short stories inspired by realities of sexual abuse, drugs, AIDS and hope.
“You can find Christmas in the slaughterhouse and in the drug area of blocks one, two, three, where the beauty is rough and real. And people can nod their heads and say yes, Jesus could have been born here,” Maier’s short story “The Nativity, As Seen in Klong Toey” reads.
Born in 1939 in Washington, USA, the priest arrived in Thailand in the late 1960s and worked with the Catholic communities in the northwest of the country and in Laos, where he subsequently had to flee due to the raging civil war.
In 1972, together with Sister Maria Chantavarodom, he founded the Human Development Foundation (HDF) Mercy Center in the heart of Klong Toey suburb, where he looks after and provides schooling to children experiencing poverty, orphans, immigrants and victims of human trafficking or those with HIV.
At the Mercy Center, dozens of preschoolers were singing Christmas carols on the basketball court before classes begin.
The clergyman acknowledged that although the children pray and attend mass, the center does not force the religion on minors, who are Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.
“How do you spell Jesus? B-U-D-D-H-A? How do you spell Buddha? J-E-S-U-S?” Maier said in an interview with EFE during which he was interrupted to address the everyday issues of the center, such as paying the bill to end a mouse plague caused by rubbish in the streets.
“If the children pray, with the incense, and kneel before the Buddha and say Ave Maria, that’s fine, they’re sacred words, too,” said Father Maier, who pronounced the last words in Spanish which he learned while working on the Mexican border.
He explained that Christmas is not a public holiday in Thailand, so the center celebrated a mass on Sunday, in which he recounted to the children who Jesus, Mary and Joseph were.
“You tell them that Santa Claus was a saint and he was a holy bishop a long time ago who helped the children,” Maier said a few minutes before the children took a lunch break for “khao tom,” a thick soup of rice with meat and vegetables.
The Mercy Center is surrounded by shanty alleys with cables hanging less than two meters from the ground and garbage in almost every corner, as well as some apartment blocks where struggling families usually live.
The small Catholic community in Klong Toey was settled around the pig slaughterhouse whose workers were mainly Christians, since it is a work rejected by both Buddhists and Muslims.
“The slaughterhouse has just closed down two or three weeks ago,” said Father Maier, who asserted that working with the poor is an “honor.”
Some of Father Maier’s stories take place around this slaughterhouse, such as the adventures of the street child called “Lion Tail Ben,” who used to sleep among the pigs, was abandoned by his parents and survived the brutality of the prison.
“Our Miss Chompoo is delightfully spunky and spicy – like Thai chili peppers. Even with HIV/Aids, she’s filled to the brim with life,” the priest wrote in “Brush with Death Brings out the Best in Our Children.”
In the midst of adversity and poverty, the stories of Father Maier also glean some victories and smiles from these little street warriors.
Some of his stories are published on the center’s website (www.mercycentre.org), as well as in several books such as “The Open Gate of Mercy” and “Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse.”
Mercy has 23 pre-school centers in Thailand, attended by more than 2,400 children from the suburbs, and a project in the Andaman Sea to help Moken schoolchildren, a community of nomadic or semi-nomadic fishermen.