Bangkok, the Capitol of the Kingdom of Thailand, is a city of about 8.5 million people. In Thai, the great city’s name is almost unpronounceable to the Western World, and the longest name of any city on Earth at 156 characters. I don’t expect you to memorize it, but in the Thai language Bangkok’s name is:
Krungthepmahanakorn Amornrattanakosin Mahintrayuthaya Mahadilokpob Noparat Rajataniburirom Udomrajanivej Mahasatharn Amornpimarn Awatarnsat Sakatadtiya Wisanukamprasit. For daily use in Thai, the name is simply abbreviated to “Krungthep” which in English means “City of Angels.” Our friend, Pornchai Moontri, and I met one of those angels a few weeks ago.
It’s a complicated story, but it’s an amazing story, and it meanders down a long and winding road. It begins in a New Hampshire prison cell and threads its mysterious connections all the way around the globe. In the end you may find any lingering doubts about Divine Mercy falling away. Divine Mercy has opened an impenetrable door for Pornchai Moontri.
I’ll begin at the beginning. If you have read “Divine Mercy and the Doors of My Prisons,” Pornchai’s very widely read guest post at Holy Souls Hermitage just before Divine Mercy Sunday last April, then you know that Pornchai has been in prison for 21 years, more than half his life. You also know that Pornchai was moved to the NH State Prison where we met and became friends just over seven years ago. Pornchai told that story powerfully in his HSH post.
We had another friend in this prison named Luis. Luis came to the United States from the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras as a teenager. He lived and worked here for more than 20 years. Luis married, raised a family, paid taxes, and then, at age 38, was accused of a crime he insists he did not commit. Luis could have left prison in less than five years had he admitted to the crime, but he served fourteen years because he would not admit to something he says he did not do. At the end of that fourteen years, Luis was deported to his native Honduras, a country he had not seen since childhood.
For his entire 14 years in prison, Luis and I lived in the same place, and we were friends. When Pornchai arrived here seven years ago, Luis readily welcomed him. Luis was an accomplished chef having worked in culinary arts as a merchant marine for many years. In prison, he got a job working in the kitchen, and because he worked extra hours each day, he was allowed to prepare his own meal and bring it back to his cell on Sundays. Luis always cooked more than he could eat, so each Sunday evening he shared his meal with me and Pornchai.
A few years ago, Luis was released from prison and taken immediately into custody by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. We missed Luis a good deal. Weeks after he left, I received an urgent message sent to a friend of mine and read to me via telephone. It was from Luis’ 17-year-old son who grew up living with an aunt in Boston while Luis was in prison. He told me that Luis was flown to Tegucigalpa,the Capitol of Honduras, and left there. I was shocked to hear that Luis was left utterly stranded in a country he had not seen in over 30 years. He was simply dumped – with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, and without a dime in his pocket – 500 miles from the only village he knew. Fortunately, I had some old contacts in Tegucigalpa and was able to reach them. Within a day, they mobilized to get some funds to Luis and assist him to start life anew in the country of his birth.
We learned an important but scary lesson from what happened to Luis. It was at about this same time that the Department of Homeland Security began proceedings to order Pornchai’s deportation to Thailand at whatever point he is released from prison. Since Pornchai was brought to the U.S. as a young child, and has no known family or contacts in Thailand, the experience of Luis chilled me to the core. I became determined that Pornchai will be ready to cope with the cultural, geographical, and personal trauma of such upheaval when the time comes.
We knew this would take some planning. It was five years ago when I told Pornchai that we must find and build contacts in Thailand. But how could two men living in a prison cell in New Hampshire with no resources, no on-line access, and a severely limited budget find and connect with people on the other side of the world?
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Pornchai told me dismally. “I don’t even know how to learn about Thailand.” I knew I had to start writing, but this was two years before the idea of These Stone Walls was even conceived of. A day in the prison library produced some addresses. First, I wrote of Pornchai’s situation to Catholic Charities in my diocese. They are, after all, a global network. No response, but no real surprise there. Then I wrote to the national office of Catholic Charities. No reply. Then I wrote to the Office of Immigration and Refugee assistance sponsored by my Diocese. No reply. Then I wrote to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network at Boston College. No reply. I knocked at the door of every official Catholic agency I could find. No one answered. I knocked, and I waited, and I knocked some more.
I cannot convey in words the utter frustration of writing repeatedly only to have my overtures met with total silence. I decided that the problem wasn’t Pornchai’s plight, but my own. I told Pornchai that we will have to write all these letters again, but coming directly from him. So we redrafted all the letters under his name. More knocking; more waiting. More silence.
When Pornchai’s letters were also relegated to the netherworld without replies, I took it less personally, but I knew we needed a different approach. I asked Pornchai to candidly write his life story – which is an amazing story in and of itself – in as few pages as possible, and let me send it to the few Catholic contacts I had who did not ignore my letters. One of them was Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Once he read “Pornchai’s Story,” he wrote back immediately asking if he could publish it on the Catholic League website. From there, it slowly made its way around the world. We knocked and knocked, and waited some more.
Father Richard John Neuhaus – a courageous Catholic writer and editor – sent Pornchai a personal letter to tell him how very important his story is, not only for Pornchai, but for the Church. Father Neuhaus promised to pass the story along to others. This was a year before Father Neuhaus’ untimely death from cancer in January, 2009, an event directly related to the birth of These Stone Walls as you may deduce from our “About” page. More knocking, and more waiting.
TO THE WORLD BEYOND THESE STONE WALLS
In July of 2009, These Stone Walls came into being thanks to the urging of Avery Cardinal Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus and their posthumous inspiration, and thanks also to the suggestions of Suzanne Sadler who came to us seemingly out of the blue with the idea of TSW and an offer to be its editor. Since Pornchai and I are trapped in a prison cell in a world limited to 96 square feet of concrete and steel, there isn’t a lot to talk or write about. Pornchai helped in the planning of some TSW posts, but I was concerned early on that I might run out of things to write about. So I wrote a few posts about Pornchai, about his conversion and the inspiring way he turned his life over to grace.
In April of 2010, a few weeks after Pornchai was received into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday, I wrote “In Honor of St. Maximilian Kolbe: Patron of Prisoners, Priests & Bloggers.” In that post, I described Pornchai’s conversion experience and what that Divine Mercy Sunday was like just weeks earlier. In the weeks to follow, as comments were printed and sent to me, I was struck by the fact that people around the world were talking about Pornchai and his conversion. It was only then that I knew without doubt that the door we were seeking would one day be found and opened. But sometimes it seemed that we clung to mere threads of hope.
In early May of 2011, Pornchai and I decided to Consecrate ourselves and our imprisonment to Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s movement, the Militia Immaculata, and as Knights at the Foot of the Cross. The result was a post entitled “The Paradox of Suffering: An Invitation from Saint Maximilian Kolbe.” This was something that gave deeply felt meaning to the story of my imprisonment, but also to the story of Pornchai’s future and its overwhelming challenges. We were still knocking, and still waiting.
A MESSAGE FROM THE CITY OF ANGELS
Then, suddenly, came an overture from Felix Carroll, an author and terrific columnist who was writing a book on conversions inspired by Divine Mercy. Felix wrote an article entitled “Mercy – Inside Those Stone Walls” published at the Divine Mercy website. The article “lit up our site with visitors and comments,” Felix said, so in the 11th hour he decided to pull his book from the publisher and add a new chapter. His deeply inspiring book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions, has a chapter about Pornchai Moontri that knocked on doors around the world. I highly recommend this book, and featured it in a post entitled “In the Company of Saints and Villains: A Divine Mercy Story.” We kept knocking, but I knew in my heart by then that Divine Mercy was at the threshold of a door for Pornchai.
Then the door opened. It opened so quietly we barely noticed, but once it opened we found just the person God sent to us standing on the other side. It came in the form of the first of many messages and exchanges with Yela, an emissary of Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand, the City of Angels. Yela heard the knocking, and opened this door for Pornchai:
“URGENT MESSAGE: Greetings from Bangkok, Thailand. May I introduce myself. My name is Yela Smit. I’m the Deputy Director of Divine Mercy Thailand. Praise the Lord! We have received the very touching piece of writing, “Pornchai’s Story” from Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC Massachusetts. Fr. Seraphim was one of our guest speakers during the Asian Apostolic Congress on Mercy organized by Divine Mercy Thailand last October 2012.
Through Pornchai’s story, we could all see the everlasting love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Pornchai’s story is a real miracle. We were so immensely moved how God has been working in Pornchai’s life. Our hearts go out to him, and we want to tell you that we, Divine Mercy Thailand, are now his new family that he can count on. With our full hearts, we embrace him and will welcome him to be a new member of our Divine Mercy family here in Thailand when the time of his freedom comes. We will take care of him in everything that he would need to start a new life in his own birthplace: accommodations, work, legal documents, etc. By God’s grace and Pornchai’s willing, we trust that his prayers to be God’s instrument to serve in a ministry to troubled youth here in Thailand will come true. We all believe it is in the Lord’s plan and we have to help fulfill it because Pornchai’s beautiful story is yet to continue . . . Our Divine Mercy group calls this mission, ‘Bringing Pornchai Home.’ “
* * *
Divine Mercy has led Pornchai Maximilian Moontri, Knight at the Foot of the Cross, to a long sought door, long closed. From the other side of the world, Pornchai knocked, and a door has opened in the City of Angels.
“Between points A and B – between being a person ‘lost’ and then ‘found’ – are infinite permutations, boundless possibilities through the gift and subsequent hazards of free will, that only go to show how much God loves us . . . We offer this book to illustrate that no matter what we’ve done . . . God will embrace us when we turn to Him with repentance, trust and love . . . Consider this book a pilgrimage in reverse – from the foot of the Cross backwards and into the broken lives lived far away from Him.” (Felix Carroll, Preface, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions, Marian Press 2013)