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Originally published Friday, April 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Gospel of Father Joe": rescuing Bangkok's exploited, unwanted children

"The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok" by Greg Barrett The stories of the hardscrabble, complication-weighed lives of youngsters living in Bangkok's dirtiest corners and the dedication of the U.S.-born Catholic priest who single-handedly has built an institution to support them will not only make you feel spoiled and guilty, but uplift you, too.

Gannett News Service

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author's Web site:

www.thegospeloffatherjoe.com

"The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok"

by Greg Barrett

Jossey-Bass, 319 pp., $25.95

The next time you're feeling down on the world, pick up a copy of Greg Barrett's new nonfiction book, "The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok."

The stories of the hardscrabble, complication-weighed lives of youngsters living in Bangkok's dirtiest corners and the dedication of the U.S.-born Catholic priest who single-handedly has built an institution to support them will not only make you feel spoiled and guilty, but uplift you, too. This part biography, part journal of life philosophy will give you an immediate attitude adjustment, especially when you see that all the characters in this real-life story possess an overabundance of joy — in spite of their surroundings.

At the center of the book is the Rev. Dr. Joseph Maier, known as Father Joe — or Khun Phaw Joe — a Longview, Wash., native who came to Bangkok as a young man to work with the poor. In the more than 35 years that Father Joe has lived in the Klong Toey slum in Bangkok, he has built the Mercy Centre schools, orphanages and hospice for youngsters dying of AIDS. Today, he has evolved into somewhat of a global icon.

In one scene in the book, Maier storms through the dining hall of the Mercy Centre and taps fists with the children as he shouts, "The AIDS brigade, the AIDS brigade!" The AIDS-stricken children giggle and show no expressions of the doom that others might see for their lives, Barrett writes.

Barrett, a former Gannett News Service journalist, first met Father Joe in 2000 and was taken with his presence. As Barrett writes, Maier is one of those people who carries a sense of good that spreads around him.

"Beyond the palm trees, rain trees, and indoor plumbing that made his Mercy Centre schools, hospice, and orphanages a shaded utopia in the middle of desperate poverty, there was something else," Barrett writes. "A palpable, powerful something else ran through the small campus, breathed a sense of joy into children dying. Although I couldn't fully capture and define it, I felt it. That ineffable 'it.' "

Five years later, Barrett would return to delve into that ineffable "it," traveling to Bangkok four times to spend weeks with the father. They became friends. The book is partly a story of the two men's friendship, part biography and part a detailing of Father Joe's beliefs about life and the world. It is boosted along by Barrett's writing, which is clear, thoughtful and devoid of clichés. Barrett presents a well-rounded picture of Father Joe — compassionate, ornery and, in the opinion of some colleagues, an eccentric.

The reader gets to know Father Joe as an impish man with a penchant for telling muckety-mucks exactly how he feels, and who hands out coins to the children of Klong Toey. The reader learns the father's frustration with a Bangkok economy of haves and have-nots, with many of the latter forced into lives of prostitution with customers who demand no condoms.

The reader learns of Maier's frustration with a place in which airlines approaching the Asian city — in an attempt to ward people off of Bangkok's burgeoning child-sex trade — feel it necessary to show passengers a short film of a young girl who informs viewers she is not a tourist attraction. There are portraits of Maier's young friends — friends like Boi, a stick-armed teen at the hospice who wears headphones to a radio in which the batteries have died to steal moments of privacy.

As for Barrett's main subject, Maier is no stranger to hard living. The priest grew up in the slums of blue-collar Longview. While attending theology school, he came across an ad for working abroad. On a whim, he applied for the program and was shocked when he learned he'd gotten the assignment. Once in Bangkok, he became obsessively enamored of the people, even insisting on living alongside them in a shack.

Mother Teresa visited the Klong Toey slum shortly after the release of her 1971 biography. For three days, she toured the squalor with Father Joe. Afterward, she told him, "Spend your life working with these poor ... if you can."

Father Joe said, "I remember thinking to myself that if this is what a Christian-Catholic saint is all about, I could and would spend all my life trying to imitate her," Barrett writes.

In the book, Barrett relays a poignant moment in which the father explains his core belief system.

"My first promise ... is to the people. When some folks hear me say that, they get upset. 'What about God? You're a priest, for Christ's sake — He comes first!' " he said, feigning hysteria. "But God is the people, and the people is God, don't ya see?"

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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