Scott Murray recently had the chance to sit down and talk with one of the most colorful and charismatic people in Thailand, Father Joe Maier, the Director of the Human Development Center in Bangkok. In recognition of his years of dedication to the poorest of Bangkok's inhabitants, Father Maier has been awarded the Most Noble Honor of the Crown of Thailand, Fifth Class, which was conferred by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Father Joe Maier
Can you tell us
a little about where you are from and how you got here?
I was born in Longview, Washington in 1939. It was a lumber town between Seattle and Portland.
I was ordained as a Redemptorist priest in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin but I was assigned as a young priest to come to Thailand. Basically they wanted to get rid of me (I think it was because I liked Crosby, Stills & Nash and I thought that Woodstock was a great happening.) When I first came to Thailand, I learned the language and went upcountry to work in Loei.
I ended up coming back to Bangkok and started working in the slums because one of our priests was having alcoholic problems and I began covering for him more and more. He finally went for treatment and that left me as the Slaughter House Priest, and soon, it became full-time.
What are your
views are Christianity in Thailand today?
We are going through a bad time now. Institutional Christianity here in Thailand has given up the high ground. It is lost in schools, buildings, and money. As a well-respected person said recently, "Christians here have become too involved in the world of business." We mustn't forget that people have problems, and that people are our main concern.
What can you do
to make Thailand a better place?
The only thing I can do is walk through the slums, sit down and say hello to people. That's how I can change the world, and that's what I am happy doing. I just try to say hello to everybody. Just a little while ago I had a fabulous discussion with this woman while I was in Pattaya. She was a leper and she was begging by the side of the road. She goes begging when she is short of cash, and as this was the beginning of a new school term, and everyone in Thailand was broke, she came out to earn some money for school supplies for her grandson. I asked her why I did not see many people with AIDS begging, and she said, "They got no staying power. They are not like us lepers who are really in the business and know how to do these things."
When should one
give and when shouldn't one give to beggars?
Whenever you see a crazy on the street you should give him five or ten baht. Always!! Because they don't have anything. You have to be willing and ready to give to the unworthy and unrepentant poor who may use your money to buy glue, drugs and booze. I saw some beggars in Patpong recently who had clean feet. They had come in a taxi so I said, "What's this clean feet? - You are going to give begging a bad name, and you're ruining it for the poor."
How have you and
the Human Development Center tried to help
people with AIDS?
The biggest thing is you have to be kind to people with AIDS. As I say in a lot of my lectures this is the first time in Thai history that Thai people are abandoning other Thai people. So who is going to take care of them? Father Joe can't do it. I can't solve the problem. Many religious groups act superior and righteous and forget people with HIV AIDS are just ordinary folks who are sick. There should be no moral implications and judgments that these folks with HIV AIDS are bad people. They are not. Jesus never judged. Why should we? What arrogance...
We just say that AIDS is a community problem. The Thai community, and the Thai society, the slum society, and the slum community have to work and walk together on this problem. AIDS is a terrible burden for this society, and we must all shoulder this burden. It is also important that as this is Thailand we have to come up with a Thai solution to this problem.
The medical profession can't fix
the problem either. We have to downgrade medicine when dealing with this problem, there
simply aren't enough nurses and doctors to go around. We have to bring in the "granny
brigade" to take care of people at home. Little old ladies in the slums can do this.
Also who better to take care of people with AIDS than other people with AIDS.
Many people in Thailand are going home to die with this disease. Everyone knows they are there, but they don't talk about it. The people who take care of them do so in their own way, the Thai way. It may not be perfect, but it is the best they can do.
More and more people are dying and the numbers are only going to get larger. The temples can't handle the number of people who are going home to die. The crematoriums are starting to creak and groan. The cement can't stand the stress of the constant temperature changes from hot to cold. The molecular structure of the buildings are also collapsing, and there is also a shortage of wood to fuel the furnaces.
We have a center for AIDS victims but the community doesn't want us to call it an AIDS center so we don't. People come and stay with us for awhile and then we send them home to get better. If their families don't visit them while they are here we send them home.
People have to go the temple, and the church, and the mosque, and grieve and they have to pray for their dead and perform the religious rites of the dead. If our little Center for the Sick accepts the responsibility for grieving and praying and burial or cremation of the dead, then we become part of the denial and our actions thus say to the community at large, "Oh, it's all right for you to deny the fact that a member of your family had AIDS."
We won't be part of that
denial. I can't do that. That's terribly wrong. The denial is wrong. I can not be
part of that denial. The families and the neighbors and the community must somehow, in
some way grieve and be healed. We try to help people die well, and at peace which is
an important precept in both Buddhism and
Christianity. It is very important just to be there for people while they are dying.
A while ago I met a young woman of about twenty-four or twenty-five who was dying of AIDS. She also had a baby who had just died of the disease. It had been very important for her that her baby die before her, so that she could give it the proper burial rites. She was convinced that her baby had gone to hell, and she was certain she was going to end up there as well. She had caught AIDS from her husband who had been fooling around (they call it getting the "jackpot" here), and it was very sad. She didn't have any self-respect left, nor any dignity, or face or self-worth. In Thailand, men don't take care for women dying of AIDS, but women take care of their men.
It is so unfair that people like this woman are dealt death, and destruction with this dreaded disease while we blame them and remain in total denial about the whole problem.
Can you tell us
a little about the street kids that you do so much work with?
Street kids are cool. They are very ethical and they have a very strong code of morals,
however unorthodox they may be. They are very loyal, fearless, unafraid of pain, and they will do anything for their friends. They have to know how to steal, and they must be quick on their feet to survive. They also know all about drugs, sex, and alcohol.
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM STREET KIDS HAVE IS ADULTS.
Especially the ones who tell them
what they should or shouldn't do, when
they have no idea what it is like to be street kid. In Bangkok kids are not supposed to beg on the streets, nor are they allowed to sleep on the
ide of the street. As a result there are several thousand kids in jails in Thailand. There is not much we can do as it is their struggle, but we can at least be there for them.
I had a bunch of kids the other day who tried some of our leftover pizza for the very first time. They had never had a chance to taste it before, and they were so looking forward to it. But they couldn't stand it, they thought it was awful.
We have thirty-one pre-school kindergartens in and around Bangkok... all of them in the slums, with about 4000 slum kids attending these schools. These are kids of bagmen, and ragpickers who normally wouldn't have had an opportunity to go to school.
Who are some of
the people that you admire?
I knew a junkman who died recently and I admired him a lot. He was one of my heroes. He was an old guy who drove a tricycle around every day. He worked hard, and had his own business, his own vehicle and he was self-employed. A real entrepreneur, he helped the community, and helped keep it clean as he picked up everything that wasn't nailed down.
And the folk singers. The Carabao Group has been a social conscience in Thailand for the last two decades. I know they'd laugh if they heard me say that, but they have reminded us all in Thai society of what's important. Even though their medicine is a bit bitter at times, but what's the saying..."Sweetness is wind...is air, and medicine is bitter." American Todd Tongdee (from Scranton, PA) has also done a lot of good things, especially with his orchestra of 150 handicapped people.
I admired the Thai monk Putthattat Pikkhu from Suanmok in Nakhon Si Thammarat. He's dead now but he was a great man. I also admire the Cardinal Archbishop of Thailand for putting up with me through the years because I too need direction and encouragement. And, of course I like the Grateful Dead, but that goes without saying.
And finally there's a lady in the Slaughter House: she's a widow. They used to call her husband Professor Convoy, because he was a lorry driver; you know those 18 wheel rigs. She's raised her four children, and lives poor as a church mouse. She spends her time helping children, and the poor and the lame and the halt... and what's most important, she really cares.
What is a
typical day for Father Joe?
I slept on the floor in a mosquito net for the last twenty years, but now I have a house with air-con and a few other amenities near the slaughterhouse. I come to the center every morning and say prayers and meet Jesus. Then I just go around meeting folks, and trying to be nice to people. It's a good life.