In January I flew into Ranong in southern Thailand with my wife Rose to visit our longtime friend and fellow Kiwi, Fr John Larsen SM. It was January and we had just spent two weeks in Cambodia where the warmth of the people somehow survives their violent history and impoverished circumstances. We flew into Ranong, situated across a river from the southernmost tip of Burma, courtesy of Happy Air.
Five years ago John walked the bustling, rather ugly streets of Ranong, trying to figure out how he could help the oppressed Burmese community. Ranong has an estimated 40,000 Thai citizens and 100, 000 Burmese, a permanent underclass of migrant workers. It is amazing to see what five years of commitment to the Burmese community can achieve.
We go for a tour around the projects set up by the Marist Mission Ranong (MMR), beginning with a community centre which includes a well-equipped computer room staffed by two Burmese computer teachers. Then we visit families who are part of the community-based HIV/ AIDS project, which focuses on those who are critically ill. Currently there are 70 patients on the programme.
Some of them will not survive but many will with the help of anti-retro viral treatment. The people from this community live in desperate poverty. We arrive outside a dilapidated warehouse which stands by the river, and somehow provides accommodation for a large number of Burmese people. Choe Aye is two months pregnant with her second child. Both she and her husband have AIDS.
Her first child died in infancy, most likely of AIDS. She has a framed picture of her little girl which she takes from a locked cabinet of her precious items to show us. We are sitting in a little room where the family lives on the top storey of the warehouse, alongside other families, in unbearable cramped conditions. The hallway is dark and dingey. A small cooker stands outside each room. An old lady is stationed near the entrance, ready to sound the warning if there is a police raid. When there is, people dash under the floorboards down at river level, where the police won’t follow. Many of the people have no legal status and their future in Ranong is precarious to say the least. Two kids play with fish in a bowl. Washing is strung up in the one little patch of sunlight that reaches the inside of this ad hoc dwelling. People sit around talking, waiting, watching. Beside the warehouse, the polluted river rolls on by. Fr John is an inspirational figure in this forsaken world, a flame in the darkness. He speaks Burmese fluently, buoying the people up, immersed in the dreadful circumstances of their lives. His genuine and practical care for them is a stunning gift that surprises and delights them. It gives them hope, the most precious of commodities. They are Buddhist, he is Christian. There is never any mention of religion. HIV/AIDS is rife in this community. Project workers identify people with AIDS, get them to the hospital, support them – some in their dying, others in getting back to something like a normal life. “They don’t come any needier than impoverished migrants, without rights, often without families and support, dying of AIDS in a foreign country,” says John.
We move on to the education initiatives which MMR has established. There’s a nursery and kindergarten, a programme for secondary students and, remarkably, a new distance programme linked to the Australian Catholic University. There’s also a child protection programme. In all, about 130 children are benefitting from MMR’s education mission. The emphasis is on quality, says John. “Our goal is to give an education that is worthy of the name to as many Burmese children as possible – an education that gets them to think creatively and that will open doors in the future.” The transformation is already stunning. The children are immaculately dressed in their uniforms and eager to learn. They ask us lots of questions, bright-eyed and curious about everything. It is hard to credit the dire home scenes they have come from.
Behind these initiatives lies a team of about 30 people and at the heart of this team is the MMR community. The core community is made up of two Marist priests, seminarians and lay missionaries, and families on mission. Volunteers have come and gone over the five years, at God’s bidding. It is a new model of Religious life, mixing lay and religious commitment – demanding in the extreme, based on prayer, committed to acting to achieve justice for the most vulnerable. “Without an intensive prayer life, we would be lost,” says John. “It is the source of everything. What we have achieved has been through the power of the MMR community and a reliance on God to provide in every sense. “It is our attempt to live the Gospel. And the truth is that a commitment to the poor and the fight for justice is at the heart of the Gospel.”
On our flight out of Ranong, from somewhere unbidden, comes the phrase ‘shoulder to shoulder’ which our Prime Minister John Key used in the context of the Pike River mining disaster which claimed 29 lives. On our behalf he said New Zealand stood shoulder to shoulder with the West Coast community in their grief and their need. I wonder. I have just experienced what ‘shoulder to shoulder’ actually means and it’s something very different. The Pike River mine has been closed down, jobs lost.
The media has moved on, the politicians are busy elsewhere. Funds to support the community have slowed to a trickle. In contrast to the MMR workers in Ranong, we don’t seem to be able to sustain our compassion. Our faith tells us that only the Spirit of God turns hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. In the words of the writer, Jean Vanier: “We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and hope, called together to change our world, one heart at a time.” That’s a challenge for all of us, not just the inspirational MMR workers in Ranong.