Fr Frank has been in Ranong for 18 months and shares a few stories of his journey. While in New Zealand I greatly enjoyed serving in schools, parishes and among the indigenous Maori people. But working among poor Burmese Migrants in the fishing town of Ranong has changed me inside.
It’s a bit like Jesus in the gospel of John taking off his ‘priestly garments’ and picking up a ‘towel and water basin’ to wash dirty feet; moving from the ordered priestly workbench of the altar to more muddy missionary pathways and streets.
I have been living as a marist priest among poor Burmese Migrants on the Thailand Burma Border for the past 18 months and I have never been happier. Even with the tiring daily heat of Asia and the different food, language, cultures, and feeling ‘foreign’, I’ve never felt more joyful and useful in all my life.
In this new place I get woken early each morning by backyard chickens fighting over the rice bowl outside my window. I see cute Burmese babies sit in their Mum’s bicycle baskets. I smell things in the morning fish market very different from a nice clean supermarket.
I see the daily slavery of oppressed workers stacked into trucks on the way to fish factories. Young men and women crammed into the back of utes moving to a construction site for a long hot day at work. Migrants always get the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs in Asia.
I also truly delight in seeing 200 children smiling and giggling as they arrive at our Marist School. I marvel at how clean and tidy they can be when I’ve seen some of the broken, wooden, soil floored, and frequently flooded homes.
I am humbled as HIV AIDS Patients allow me to enter their homes and lives and I treasure how the poor show their thanks.
Some days I feel I can almost touch the heaviness and burdens people are carrying as as I learn about how Burmese are forced away from their homes and families out of poverty. Trapped and vulnerable they become economic refugees and migrants, used and abused. Women into the sex industry. Men into the fishing boats. I stand before young students each day and my spirit thrills to see them so hungry to learn. To create a brighter future.
My heart and mind have been opened up like no text book or experience back home could have given me. My life is much richer for having become poorer. It actually feels really good deep inside doing real hard work and coming home tired but knowing deeply the day has truly helped build the Kingdom of God.
When in New Zealand I used to enjoy the simple pleasures of a coffee and read the daily newspaper. The newspaper is no longer possible. It will be some time before my Thai Language learning can read the paper. Although my 41 year old brain is growing in wisdom, it is decreasing in speed. I’ve both laughed and cried at the ups and downs of learning a language with twice as many letters and 5 tones.
But I still really enjoy a cappuccino and it becomes rather symbolic reminding me of the two different life-styles between ‘home’ and ‘here’. At home a coffee comes from ‘spare change’. Here in a poor community, ‘spare change’ is ‘a days wage’. It still does my head in that the price of a coffee in NZ is a days wages here to feed a family. I have a different knowledge about what $10 or $20 can actually do. Preparing our budgets to find sponsors I was stunned to realise 1 teacher salary in NZ could pay for all 13 of our teachers.
Most Burmese Migrants are poor. And when you are really poor everything becomes difficult. I still have a vivid memory of sharing with an elderly grandmother we found a sponsor to help her 2 adopted orphans come to school. $11 each per month. In fact its most likely saved their lives. They greet me each morning with a smile. Every time they do this I say a prayer thankful for those who have been generous in supporting us. I almost cry thinking about the good that it brings. I am learning about living more simply. I have made a decision never to complain again.
I reckon I’m the luckiest Marist in the team looking after the University Online Diploma Programme. Its a great balance. I do paper work in the morning and people work in the afternoon. And the afternoon work makes the morning work make sense. I see the smiles of a young man who has worked in the charcoal factory all his life and is the most hard working student I think I will ever meet. The smiles of young men and women wanting to be teachers to lift the young migrant children up from sadness and struggles they themselves have been through.
Each day I say a prayer inside my motorbike helmet that I may enjoy this day meeting my new brothers and sisters. Most of them are Buddhist and some of them Muslim and Christian. I hope our presence and witness of love and service may allow them to experience God’s love and care.
I thank God, my family and friends, my marist mates, and so many supporters who remember me, pray for me.