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Peter Clothier

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It's the Humanity, Stupid!

Posted: 03/26/08 07:10 PM ET

Okay, so I'm a bleeding heart liberal, and my heart is bleeding all over again.

I have just finished reading The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok by Greg Barrett -- a book that has allowed me to put a human face on much that I have read and heard about only through news media before. Nicholas D. Kristof, for example, in his New York Times op-ed columns, has been tireless in bringing the issues of poverty, malnutrition, slavery and child prostitution to the public eye.

It sometimes takes a book like this one, though, to make it real. This Gospel, set as its subtitle suggests in the slums of Bangkok, paints a markedly different picture of this Buddhist land than those of us who have learned from Thai Buddhist teachings might like to fancy. That image would be one of mutual compassion and tolerance, enlightened care for people of all kinds: Barrett shows us the greed and exploitation, the devastation of drugs and alcohol when mixed with abject poverty, ignorance and destitution. He shows us the children racked by hunger and disease, farmed out to the sex market by diseased and desperate parents. He shows us the filth of the slums with their rickety, rat-infested shacks and waste-filled gutters and streams...

But wait... this is really NOT what Barrett's book is about. It's there, unavoidably, a grim social background against which the story of the book takes place. It's important for us to believe in its reality, to "get it" at a gut level -- as Father Joe, the central figure of this narrative, insists the author do. Having consented to have his story told by this journalist from far-off Washington, DC, this worker-priest demands no less than up-to-the-eyeballs immersion in the challenges he deals with daily in his dedication to the poor -- and particularly the children -- of this too-easily forgotten corner of the world.

No, the book is really about salvation, about hope amidst the hopeless, about compassion -- not as some kind of religious imperative but as lived experience. Meet Father Joe, then, larger than life, tough-minded and outspoken, the Redemptorist-trained Catholic priest who embraces with catholic (small "c") enthusiasm the teachings and practices of the Buddha and Islam where they square with his own passion for human justice. Alternately jolly and outrageous, loudly intolerant of all hypocrisy and cant, no matter whether it emanate from the Pope himself, he does endless battle with the prevarication and rejection of accountability that allow such slum conditions to prevail. He is ruthless in the face of greed and evil -- and soft-hearted enough to melt with human compassion for the sick and undernourished children he takes under his protection.
Father Joe runs his Mercy Centre with boundless energy and tireless dedication. The story of his work in the pitiless back alleys and shanties of Bangkok is a remarkable one: as a result of it there are today more than thirty preschools offering shelter, protection and -- most importantly, in Fr. Joe's view -- education to some 4,200 otherwise neglected children. No less a selfless slum-worker, surely, than the better-known Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he earns every bit of the praise lavished on him in the foreword to this book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- and the recognition from Thailand's Queen Sirikit herself.

Based on his own meetings with Father Joe, his keen observer's eye, and on numerous early-morning interviews in Bangkok's Lumpini Park, where the priest engages in his daily run, Barrett tells his story sometimes with the objectivity of the experienced journalist he is, but also often as a poet, deeply stirred by the poignant contrasts between the deprivation of the slum-dwellers and the material excesses of the contemporary developed world in which he and his family live. As a skilled story-teller, he leaves until the very last the discovery of the source of Father Joe's love for these children in his own history: "Any success I've had with damaged children," the priest confesses to the writer toward the end of the book, "is because I was a damaged child myself."

What makes the book particularly engaging for me, however, is that Barrett writes also as a truth-seeker on his own behalf. We realize before too long that it is not just Father Joe and the slum children that he's writing about; he's engaged in the search for his own humanity, his own soul, his own understanding of God and the role of religion in his life. One of the key questions facing the religious mind today, I think, is how to justify the belief in a benevolent, all-powerful God who permits the existence of so much evil and cruelty in the world. Barrett finds his own answer in the slums of Bangkok and the heart of Father Joe: it's in the persistence of hope, the boundlessness of compassion, the practice of human mercy.