Fr. Joe offers a cautionary tale to would-be missionaries

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special
  • August 7, 2008

{mosimage}The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok by Greg Barrett (Jossey-Bass, 336 pages, hardcover, $28.99 list)

The missionary tradition in the Catholic Church is centuries old. Missionaries left their own homelands to do good works and spread Christianity in far away places — most notably Africa, Asia and Latin American countries. Not all missionaries went to the poorer countries of the Third World. They figure prominently in colonial history in the North as well. In our country, missionaries had quite an impact on aboriginal peoples, as we were recently reminded during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to residential school survivors.

Mother Teresa may have been the über-missionary but there are many more missionaries who labour in relative obscurity. Fr. Joe Maier of the Bangkok slums is one — but perhaps not so obscure with Greg Barrett’s biography of him.

One journalist dubbed Maier “Mother Teresa with a twist.” Known locally as Khun Phaw Joe — “Mister Father Joe” — Maier grew up in poverty in the rich United States. In Thailand he founded the Mercy Centre, an ever-growing charity ministering to the needs of slum-dwellers. More than 250 children live in Mercy orphanages and safe houses, where they are protected from human trafficking and the sex trade. In addition, 4,500 others are provided with health care and education in 33 preschool programs. There are legal aid clinics, soccer fields and loans programs for mothers living in poverty.

{sa 0470258632}The Mercy Centre has also helped build or rebuild 10,000 slum houses and it established the first and largest free AIDS hospice in Thailand. Rather remarkably, all of this was done without land title or permission from the authorities. In fact, Maier is quite open about the need to bribe officials and hide ongoing construction under blue tarps. Seeing unmet needs all around him, he is nothing if not practical. He sits at the bedsides of children dying from AIDS and subsequently has condoms on display in his offices. In his disregard for Vatican dicta and his “devil may care” activism aimed at changing the status quo, he is indeed Mother Teresa with a twist.

Most of us have met priests like Maier. He calls people “assholes” — especially if they are fundamentalist preachers who will not feed the hungry unless they convert to Christianity. He is not adverse to giving people the finger. He openly defies the Thai police. He confronts thugs and plays the game their way if need be. He cries as a child under his care dies. He is proud when his kids learn to play Bach. Memorably, and possibly quite usefully, he tells preschool graduates, “If you don’t have shoes to wear, go to school. If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home, go to school. If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk, go to school. If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch, go to school. . .” In short, he’s a good man doing many good things but in this he has given himself a great deal of licence.

Author Barrett is a well-travelled American reporter who spent four weeks with Maier. In The Gospel of Father Joe, he set out to answer two questions, one of which was: why didn’t American kids “hop and skip at the same excited clip as the sick, dying, orphaned, abandoned, abused, neglected or otherwise broken children of the Mercy Centre?” He also wanted to know, “What did Father Joe know that I didn’t know?”

In the end he doesn’t really answer these questions. He would have to carefully analyse American society to answer the first. And in his Bangkok Post column, Maier himself says he doesn’t know what it means that children with AIDS “don’t fight each other like other kids, even when they’re feeling OK.”

There are limited discussions of the politics and the macro-economics that underscore poverty. For instance, Barrett cites a contradictory World Bank report that ultimately and ridiculously claims there is “virtually no poverty in Thailand.” But most of these references are American and there are countless mentions of 9/11. Thus, the book is weak on structural analysis; its emphasis instead is anecdotes and personal stories. We meet 16-year-old Pim, raised in the orphanage only to get dragged into terrible trouble. She eventually escapes with Maier’s help and is now on her way to a five-month study program in Canada. We meet Boi and Miss Grasshopper and many other children but, you know, in a biography of their patron the Thais are usually not much more than caricatures; this is very much a book about Maier.

I want to know what the long-term effect is when one person decides to take things into their own hands, even when they mean well and are apparently doing good? And what if this person is white? Male? From the First World? Carrying a respected title? What if everything remains dependent on him? If we are to be in right relationship with people living in poverty in the Third World we have to ask these questions — and we have to listen when people in the Third World ask them, as they do.

This book is breathlessly written, made more so by the frequent use of italics — "Woooords. . .words are real. Words are things. Words are actions” — and it is deeply flawed. Still, Barrett managed to score a prologue from retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which adds credibility to the text. For his part, the ever-diplomatic Tutu sees in Maier and the Mercy Centre only a story of optimism. We are, he notes, all “God-shaped” and “God-filled.” I suspect that Tutu wants us all to see the power within ourselves to do good and to change things. Tutu would know better than anyone that this ability is not limited to one or two great people. Unfortunately, this message does not get across well in a book filled with hero worship.

(Hanrahan is a writer, anthropologist/consultant in St. John's, Nfld.)

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