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Father Joe, as he is affectionately known, came to Thailand over thirty years ago and discovered Klong Toey a slum that is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The scene to the right of the rail tracks that run though the city is one of wealth and opulence, to the left the worst poverty Bangkok has to offer where poverty, drugs, gang violence and child sex abuse are rife.
Father Joe grew up in Washington State. The son of Roman Catholic mother and a Protestant father, who had a passion for whisky, Joe grew up a very angry man. When he saw the slum children of Klong Toey he wanted to help and, more importantly, he wanted the children not to hurt as he had done growing up. Father Joe was very quickly accepted by the residents of the slum and lived among them along side gangsters and thieves because, in his mind, that is where Jesus would be. In the 70’s the slums had many problems but there was one that Joe could do something about, education. The children of the slums had no access to education so Joe decided to start a kindergarten. Today there are thirty three pre -schools that teach over four thousand children. Over seventy thousand children have graduated from his school and many of them returned to teach the slum children. Joe can see no better gift to a child than being able to read and write, because it is something, once given, they will never lose. He feels that dedicating his life to the residents of Klong Toey has been a glorious way to live and the experience has taught him a great deal.
Father Joe came to Thailand with the original intention of being a missionary and converting people to Christianity but, in actual fact, he feels that the Buddhists and Muslims have converted him. Through them he has learnt peace, tolerance and calmness and how to be a true Christian. Although Father Joe is a priest, he is not exactly what you would call conventional. The children of the Mercy Centre he has created, pray to Buddha as well as Christ. Father Joe says he does not mind who the children pray too as long as they have enough prayers to help them navigate their way through their life. This philosophy is not shared by the church hierarchy who think of Father Joe as a wild card or a loose cannon, but this has done nothing to stop the incredible work that Father Joe continues to do.
As well as providing schools Father Joe has provided a centre that provides housing for children who have been rescued from abusive home lives or have been made orphans because of the AIDS crisis. He has also created a hospice for HIV positive adults and a safe house for girls who all come from tragic backgrounds. One little girl was sold for one hundred dollars by her mother. Joe also takes care of children who were born HIV positive. He calls them the Aids Brigade. These children come to visit Father Joe and his team after school, first for candy, then for the medicines that help them live a little longer. Joe knows that none of these children will survive long term but says that if you have HIV you have HIV and if you die, you die, but that is tomorrow what you have to do is live right here in the day and that is exactly what these children are doing. Joe has been with so many children in their dying hours to offer comfort and love. He has attended many Buddhist funerals, something else of which the Catholic Church does not approve, but Father Joe is undeterred, “What can they do to me?” he asks, “put me to live in a slum with people who kill pigs among AIDS victims?” he has done that voluntarily! Father Joe is not just a priest who perhaps breaks away from Catholic tradition, he is a local hero, a source of hope and inspiration and to the children of Klong Toey he is a guardian angel.
The Mercy Centre foundation spends over two million US dollars a year changing the lives of the people and children of the slum. Only a very small percentage of this comes from Church charities, the rest he has to raise by himself. If you would like to help offer a brighter future for these children visit http://www.mercycentre.org to find out ways in which you can help.