Pornchai Moontri passes through a final purgatory to begin life anew in Bangkok, Thailand where the earthly life of Thomas Merton ended in 1968.
The last month behind These Stone Walls was consumed by a valiant effort to spare my friend the last abusive indignity inflicted on him in America. There were some glimmers of hope early on that he might be spared the one-size-fits-all purgatory as a detainee awaiting the ICE deportation process. Because he was a victim of crime in America, and was brought here as a child victim of human trafficking, there was a chance that he could be spared that last tribulation. Some human trafficking groups got involved, and so did the office of a U.S. Senator from Maine, but in the eleventh hour it was to no avail.
Pornchai is gone now. During the fervent efforts of the last month of trying to prepare him, I neglected to prepare myself. As one reader wrote in a recent letter, “I know you have been putting a brave face on it.” I was so occupied with the details that I had to set feelings aside. The deportation of someone who has lived in America for 36 years is traumatic, and not only for the person being cast out.
On September 8, the Nativity of Mary, having served his entire sentence imposed by the State of Maine, Pornchai Moontri was taken away. It was a very sad morning for us. I was able to learn through sources that they took him to the Maine facility where he is in quarantine. He cannot make a phone call for six days but I suspected he would not be there longer than that. Pornchai feared being there for weeks. In the end he was released to ICE after just three days. The ICE experience is not a pleasant one, but I knew it would be the final deprivation he must endure. Even though that living situation will be much worse he will at least be able to communicate with us. Our priority now is getting him moving from ICE to Thailand. I am brainstorming anything else we can do to prevent his case from falling into the cracks.
Pornchai’s parting from me was incredibly sad, the saddest thing I have ever experienced in life, but it was almost one of the most hopeful. What a collision of emotions! When we parted he had a lot of anxiety. We had been unable to contact the Consulate in New York. His travel permission to enter Thailand was unclear. We heard that he could be in ICE detention for months due to Covid-19 and border closures. I prayed daily, placing him under the mantel of our Mother who seems to have special care for him. And then suddenly in just the last few days there was an explosion of activity between our advocates, the Thai government, and ICE. The Thai Consulate General became involved and graciously secured for us a plan for moving Pornchai through the ICE system in record time. We now expect him to arrive in Thailand before the end of September.
I am much indebted for this to Clare Farr, the Western Australia trademarks attorney who for some years has been our contact person with both the Thai government, the State of Maine, and, now, with ICE detention. Clare has amassed some experience with moving this along. She was our mover and shaker when our friend, Chen, was in the same place Pornchai is in right now. I wrote that story and its outcome in “Dreamers of Home: The Slow ICE Deportation of Kewei Chen.”
My last glimpse of Pornchai was watching his back from a long distance high up where we lived as he passed through a gate. I was able to shout from the distance, “Sawatdee khrap,” the traditional Thai greeting. With a bag of his possessions over his shoulder, Pornchai turned and shouted it back. It struck me then that barring a miracle, I will never see him again in this life. I could only recall the words that Stephen King gave to Andy Dufresne’s left-behind friend, “Red” in The Shawshank Redemption: “The empty place where you live is somehow more drab and empty for his absence.” I returned to my cell and wept.
There is always an upside. At least Pornchai didn’t have to crawl through a half mile of sewer pipe, Andy Defresne’s route out of Shawshank.
A SOFT LANDING IN THAILAND
I have sadly amassed much experience with the plight of other ICE detainees awaiting deportation. I know deportation is necessary for those entering the United States illegally. It is the blind one-size-fits-all execution of it that jars a sense of fairness or compassion. Even though those in prison have committed crimes (or at least most of them have) there are individual differences that immigration judges overlook as they rubber stamp the removal orders.
A young man I knew here was brought from Cambodia at the age of two. At age 18, he committed a petty offense that constituted a burglary charge. A friend talked him into entering a house with him claiming that he knew the occupants and it was okay. They each took a can of soda from the refrigerator and ended up being charged with burglary and home invasion. They both got a year in prison but only one of them faced deportation. I lost all contact with Chamrouen as he was absorbed into the streets of Phnom Penh at age 20 with no comprehension of the language or culture.
Thanks to the readers of These Stone Walls, Pornchai will have a much softer landing than that once he gets there past the harsh passage of ICE and a 18-hour flight.
Even in Thailand, the tentacles of Covid-19 have altered the landscape of repatriation. You may recall that a few years ago the Thai government was placed under military control in a coup. Unlike many such scenarios, this one proved to be beneficial for the Thai people. The country is stable and prospering. The Thai economy is the healthiest in all of south Asia, but Covid-19 has hindered one important industry: tourism. Thanks to the government’s international travel bans, the entire nation has had only 3,400 documented cases of Covid-19 and only 58 deaths. Among Asian countries, Thailand is a nation on the rise and I am deeply moved by the steps Thailand has taken to restore Pornchai to his rightful home.
Upon his arrival, Pornchai and all other repatriated Thais are required to be placed in quarantine for 14 days in a hotel room at government expense. Pornchai will not be permitted to leave his room under any circumstances – a last reminder of solitary confinement, though not quite as harsh. Our contacts there in Divine Mercy Thailand have said that they will deliver a Samsung smart phone to the hotel for his use.
This turned into a humorous discussion about using a smart phone. Neither Pornchai nor I have ever even seen one let alone use one. I read a lot about smart phone technology so we have a standing bet on how long it will take to master it. At any rate, I will be able to call him each day in quarantine to ease the transition.
IN THE CITY OF ANGELS
If you have been a long time reader of These Stone Walls, or a newer one who has valiantly perused all our past posts, then you may be struck, as I have been, by the irony at work in our lives. I and others have written multiple posts about the characters who have come into our lives in mysterious ways. Among them were Saints Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio, and Saint Michael the Archangel. Most powerfully was the Blessed Mother, a story told in “Our Lady of Guadalupe Led Pornchai Moontri from His Prisons.”
There is another figure who has strangely touched both our lives. It is the great Catholic spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton who neither of us had ever met. I wrote once of how I left home and ventured to the Isle of Newfoundland when I was 16 years old in 1969. While there, I discovered Thomas Merton’s conversion autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. It was long and ponderous and even tedious, but it led to my reversion to Catholic faith and practice at age 16 – just as most others my age were running in the opposite direction.
Pornchai began his life as a Buddhist, like most people in Thailand. He had little experience of Catholicism until he met me in prison in 2005. After These Stone Walls began in 2009, a reader sent Pornchai a prayer by Thomas Merton. He read it, and then showed it to me saying, “This is the story of my life.” It became important to him, and was posted by his bunk for many years. Ryan MacDonald wrote of the prayer in “Thomas Merton and Pornchai Moontri: A Prayer for the Year of Mercy.”
It became even more important to Pornchai when he learned that Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest of the Cistercian Order, had traveled to Thailand in 1968 to attend a Buddhist-Christian dialogue, the very path that Pornchai had been born into. Thomas Merton died in Bangkok that year from accidental electrocution. In Thai, Bangkok is called Krung Thep which means “City of Angels.” Here is the prayer which now remains on my wall where it will stay long after Pornchai is gone. I have just sent him a copy.
- “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, You will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton, 1968)
I miss my friend more than I have ever missed any other human being. When Pornchai is safely in the City of Angels, only then will I grieve.
And now I will pray this prayer, and make it my own.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Just days before departure, Pornchai finished work on his last ship featured atop this post and in detail below. His work is stunning and he hopes to one day teach this skill to students in Thailand. The readers of These Stone Walls have been very supportive of Pornchai and for that I am most grateful.
You may also like these related links at These Stone Walls:
- Pornchai Moontri: Hope and Prayers for My Friend Left Behind
- Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok Thailand
- Father Seraphim Michalenko: On a Mission of Divine Mercy