Thailand: Land of Contrasts
By Sr. Fernande Barnabé m.o.
Pagodas are everywhere, decorated with glittering lights and flowers. Buddhist temples with gold trimming shine in the sun. This is Thailand: a land where the elephant is a symbol of strength and work; a land where food is plentiful; a land God has graced with the beauty of endless beaches, of palm trees, flowering trees and tropical plants; a land that can boast of having never been conquered.
Yet, shortly after my arrival in Thailand, I was introduced to the harsh reality of its suffering people. I was deeply touched by the work and the humility of the missionaries in the cities of Bangkok, Rayong and Pattaya.
I came to Thailand with Scarboro lay missioners Scott McDonald and Dorothy Novak. In our first weeks here, Dorothy and I visited the worst slums in Bangkok. There we met a missionary by the name of Fr. Joseph Maier who lives in the slums.
Fr. Maier started the Human Development Centre that manages a number of projects to improve the life of the people. As we approached the place, some construction was going on and we could hear the children in their classroom. We saw AIDS patients-especially heart breaking was a five-year-old girl sitting on a threadbare blanket. Fr. Maier went down on all fours and kissed the child and said a few words to her. To me it was a gesture of great significance that will remain with me always.
Later, Dorothy and I were driven to the edge of the slums. We then walked about ten minutes before reaching a school called The Slaughter House, so named because the building had been used previously as a slaughterhouse. It was a learning experience to see the conditions in which these people live.
In Rayong, we joined a group who were making a documentary film about Camillian Father Giovani Contarin who has a ministry to the poor and the homeless who are affected with AIDS. We visited Fr. Giovani at the Camillian Social Centre that he founded. The centre offers medical care as well as focusing on information and prevention. Fr. Giovani showed us a video about the spreading of AIDS in Thailand and how the country refused to recognize the problem until 1992.
On our arrival in Thailand, we stayed for two weeks at the Redemptorist Centre in Pattaya. The Centre has a school for the handicapped on its premises. Scott will be working there along with Scarboro lay missioners Georgina and Paddy Phelan. The story of how this Centre came about is interesting. After finding two abandoned babies on his doorstep, Fr. Raymond Brennan started an orphanage. He then opened a school for the handicapped. He now has a school for the blind, the deaf and the orphaned. A little outside of Pattaya he has started a place where street kids are protected. The place has been shot at twice. Those who make money exploiting these children are obviously not happy.
In Pattaya, the Sisters of Good Shepherd have two centres called Fountain of Life One and Two. A third centre is being built and the Sisters are praying for funds not only to build, but to maintain it. I admire their faith in Providence.
In Centre One, which responds to the needs of children, a van picks the children up from their homes in the morning and drives them back at night. The Sisters not only teach the children, they also feed them and look after their health needs. Three of the Sisters are Thai and one is Irish.
At Centre Two, where I will be working after language school, there is great respect for the dignity of everyone who comes there. The Sisters emphasize that the Centre should not be identified as a place for women in prostitution, but rather as a Centre to help the exploited.
I look forward to beginning my work with the women at the centre, teaching them English and French. My cup of compassion holds these bruised and exploited women and children. I hope that my work will help them in some way as they struggle to overcome injustice and realize their human dignity.
Sr. Fernande Barnabé is a Scarboro missionary serving in Thailand.