Madeleine Teahan talks to Fr Michael Shea, a straight-talking American priest caring for the children of Aids sufferers in Thailand
A young woman lies dying in the north east of Thailand. Her body is ravaged by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the deadly virus commonly known as Aids. She contracted the illness after her husband returned home following a few months working in Bangkok. He is already dead and leaves her alone with their baby son.
The dying woman has begged her parents for help but they turn away, too afraid of contracting the disease and too ashamed that their daughter carries it. If they adopt their grandson, the villagers would ostracise the family so much that they would not even be allowed to use the local well for water. They fear threats and intimidation. They fear being burned out of their own home.
The only peace that the dying woman can salvage is the knowledge that someone will take care of her baby when she is gone.
Fr Michael Shea says that when he faced his first young mother dying from Aids he made her a promise that he was unprepared for.
“I did not feel confident at all,” he recalls. “But it was just, you know, you have someone who is dying and has nobody. But I was confident that somehow I would be able to find people to help me to help them. So that was pretty much just how it worked out. It was desperation. I did not have a plan or any idea what I was getting in to.” He starts to laugh and continues: “I don’t know if I would have done it if I had known what I know now. It sort of exploded on me.”
Fr Michael was raised on a farm in Wisconsin in the United States and arrived in Thailand in February 1966, aged 28. A newly ordained Redemptorist priest who struggled with the language, Fr Mike disliked the food and felt incredibly homesick. “It was a rough beginning,” he admits.
A country boy at heart, Fr Michael was not at all keen when after over 30 years of missionary work across rural Thailand he was offered a transfer to the Thai capital Bangkok by his local bishop. Fr Michael insisted that he would find more solace in rural Thailand supporting men and women suffering with Aids than in the bustling metropolis inhabited by 15 million people. Although he had only been exposed to Aids sufferers a year before, it was his new-found devotion that would lead to the creation of six new homes for Thai children orphaned by the disease. These homes enabled Fr Michael to make that precious promise over and over again to dying mothers.
“I didn’t think it was gonna wind up to be anything, you know,” Fr Michael says in his distinctive Wisconsin accent. “But they just kept coming. It got really big really fast.”
With six houses scattered across the region, the project employs 50 people who work as farmers, administrators and cooks in support of the different houses. Philanthropic projects can often focus on one particular age bracket, sex or condition. But Fr Michael’s homes open their doors to orphans with and without Aids from birth and they remain open throughout the child’s upbringing.
Fr Michael tells me that a lack of education in Thailand concerning Aids has inflamed prejudices, leading to stigma and abandonment. For a man with indiscriminate compassion, he describes himself as, “kind of judgmental”, but he “learned real fast that these people needed respect, help, compassion”.
He explains that, since anti-retroviral drugs have been available in the last six years, not one child has been born with Aids where the drugs have been administered appropriately to pregnant women and their babies. He does add, ruefully, that the medication “is really hard on their little livers”.
I feel apprehensive about my next question. It is one that he has probably grown sick of given the media’s infatuation with the Church’s position on condoms. But before I even finish my sentence, Fr Michael chimes in: “We have a Redemptorist bishop in South Africa, Kevin Dowling, who supported the use of prophylactics to prevent Aids from crossing to the unaffected partner. People say prophylactics don’t work and that’s not true. They do work. But then Rome came out and said couples couldn’t use them.”
He adds approvingly: “Bishop Dowling wrote a blistering open letter to his fellow bishops in Rome saying: ‘What are you talking about? You are just condemning people to death”.
Although Fr Michael’s views do not completely accord with Rome’s there can be no doubt that his work has saved lives. He tells me that abortion is readily available in Thailand but his outreach projects means that doctors and nurses have refused to assist in abortions until the mother had gone to see him first.
Fr Michael’s voice betrays a lump in the throat when I ask what the saddest moments have been during his ministry.
“Every time a child dies,” he replies. “When a child dies that’s really, really rough. A child is dying, we’ve been kicked out of hospitals and we have brought them home to die.
“They’re still dying,” he adds wearily. “Last year we lost two. It really hurts you and you see little kids and their friends who are improving and other kids who are just slipping slowly down the ladder. Their kidneys fail and their livers begin to fail. Watching them is a terrible feeling because you can’t help them and all you can do is be there for the child and hold them at the end. That’s the roughest part.”
But what about the obvious question? Where is Fr Michael’s loving God when an innocent child dies of Aids in his arms?
“It’s not God’s fault, it’s the fault of the system,” he says. “Diseases mutate and that’s a natural thing in a flawed world. Terrible things happen to good people.”
I am now used to his pauses, which mean he is thinking and not that he has concluded his answer. He promptly continues with typical frankness: “You know, I remember talking to this guy with lung cancer and he said: ‘Why did God do this to me and not anybody else?’ I said: ‘How many cigarettes did you smoke a day?’ He said: ‘I smoke three or four packs a day.’ I replied: ‘And you’re blaming God?’”
It is hard to envisage practically how Fr Michael manages to interact with so many children spread across six different houses. It is hard to envisage the interaction between orphans who have Aids and orphans that don’t but he insists that they play together without prejudice or segregation.
He concedes that it’s difficult to see the children every night and, due to other priestly duties, he cannot be with them before school. But he makes a special effort to visit in the evenings when he can. But his weekends are wholly dedicated to taking the children out and entertaining them. “We got kids here who came in who were unable to eat because they had thrush so bad from the Aids virus and they’re at high school now. We got kids that came in so traumatised by what happened to them that they wouldn’t communicate and one of those girls is going into college next May.
“To have a kid who was once so traumatised and then they come running up to you and they’re just like everybody else. It makes you feel good. But I am always wary about feel-good stuff because then you start congratulating yourself, which sucks big time.”
When I ask him how he remembers all their names he replies dryly: “They don’t all come at once.” With a laugh he adds: “Sometimes I go over to visit, see a kid and I say: ‘Who the hell is that?’ because they grow like reeds. A little girl will come up and she’s tall, slim 15 and you can’t believe it. You’ve got a young guy talking and his voice is breaking every other word you know and you realise…”
His voice trails off and he says pensively: “I think I am blessed.”
Fr Michael Shea who is supported through the Thai Children’s Trust UK, urgently needs help to grow crops to feed his flock. To find out more or to donate visit here.