Divine Mercy and the Doors of My Prisonsby Pornchai Moontri
April 7 is Divine Mercy Sunday, and my third anniversary of becoming a Catholic. When my friend, Father George David Byers asked me to write a guest post for Holy Souls Hermitage, I thought of all sorts of things I would like to write, but I don’t know how to write about Divine Mercy because it is a total mystery to me. I know that I am here writing this because of Divine Mercy, but I do not understand it at all.
Last year about this same time, my friend and fellow prisoner, Father Gordon MacRae [about], asked me to write a guest post for These Stone Walls, so I wrote “The Duty of a Knight: To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Father Gordon is the person who lives in this prison cell with me, but I know him as just “G.” That is not disrespect for I respect him very greatly. It is just that in prison there are no titles from our past life, just names and numbers, so here he is just Gordon or “G” as most call him.
In “The Duty of a Knight,” I wrote about how G and I became friends, and I also wrote about that in “Pornchai’s Story.” It was published by the Catholic League as the Conversion Story of 2008. There is a part of my story that I want to explain more about, but when I wrote it I was not able to see the whole story myself. I see it better now. It is the story of that big mystery, Divine Mercy.
Sometimes Divine Mercy shows me its presence in my life. The latest example was today. It was over a week ago that Father Byers asked me to write, but I had to wait for my friend G to finish his Holy Week post for These Stone Walls before I could use his typewriter. As I began to type this today, G asked me what was the date that I lost my freedom.
We both looked at the calendar on our cell wall and I saw with a shock that it was this date, March 21, at the very moment I sat down to begin this post. It is 21 years ago this very moment that I took an innocent man’s life and then lost my freedom. It is so strange that on this of all days, I am writing of Divine Mercy and my conversion.
So let me go back to the beginning, long before that awful thing happened. I am sorry if reading some of this might be uncomfortable for you. It is not easy for me to write it either, and some of it you may already know, but the Divine Mercy part of this story does not make much sense without it, so here goes.
When I was very young, I lived on a farm in the north of Thailand. I raised water buffalo, rice, and sugar cane.
When I was 11 years old, I was taken from there and brought to the United States to live in Bangor, Maine. I was brought here by my mother who had left me when I was two, and who I did not even know. She was with a man who was to be my stepfather, and together they took me from Thailand.
I did not understand English, and in Thailand I never went to school. Like most boys in Thailand then, I was sent to study for a year at a Buddhist monastery, but that was my only schooling. I have very cloudy memories of the Buddhist monastery.
When I was taken from Thailand, my head was filled with all sorts of hope about what my life in America would be like. It’s hard to explain, but my memory of my life in Thailand is on the other side of a very dense fog. I only remember a little of it.
I remember being asked what I would like to eat when I come to America and I remember feeling hopeful at the question because food was scarce in Thailand. I remember hearing that when I was two years old, when my mother left me, I was treated for severe malnutrition. As a result, I was small for my age.
The first three years of my life in America replaced all my memories of childhood in Thailand with the memories of living in a nightmare in Bangor, Maine. I was forcibly raped by my stepfather, over and over, and if I resisted, I was beaten.
Not long after my arrival, my new home became a prison of physical violence and sexual abuse. The story of sexual abuse is an awful story, and I know today that I must learn how to live with the ongoing trauma of it. The first and biggest loss was trust. I lost my ability to trust another human being. Recovering the ability to trust has been a lifelong mountain to climb. It was the first thing taken from me, and the most painful to restore.
I also lost the ability to laugh or smile, something that has only come back in the last few years. But the most powerful effect of those years of abuse was a life of constant anxiety and panic. When I was living in that house, I fled again and again, only to be brought back each time, sometimes even by the police who could not understand why I would run from such a good home. My captor was a respected member of the community, and in everyone’s mind I was just a kid he saved from a life of poverty in Thailand.
When I was sent to a delinquent school at age 14, a counselor there learned of what happened to me. It was reported to the police, but my stepfather’s story was believed and mine was not even listened to. So the “Gook-kid” just ran away again into a life on the streets.
I spent the next four years as a homeless teenager on the streets of Bangor. Sometimes at night my mother would bring me things where I was living under a bridge, and in the winter friends took me in here and there. Sometimes they would sneak me into their homes after their parents went to sleep, and I would sleep on their floors.
Then, on March 21, 1992, when I was 18 years old, I took a man’s life. He was 27 years old, and we struggled as I tried to flee from him. He was much larger than me and he pinned me to the ground. I was told that in rage I stabbed him, but I have no memory of it. That night I was taken to jail, and the next morning the man died. I never again saw freedom. My sorrow for what I had done crushed my soul.
I was broken, and when I was put on trial I could offer no defense. Nothing of my prior life came into the trial. My silence was seen as angry defiance, but it wasn’t, and my public defender did little to help. In my trial, the court heard from everyone but me. At 19, I was convicted of the crime of “murder with deliberate indifference to human life,” and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
My stepfather came nowhere near the trial, but he asked my mother to visit me in jail before my trial, and ask me not to say anything about my past life with him. Being young, ashamed, and afraid, I did as she asked. Several years after I was sent to prison, my mother was murdered. That crime was never solved.
The news media described me as a monster. The judge said America gave me many opportunities to turn my life around. I said nothing. When I went to prison, I was cut off from everyone and everything. I remember that a young woman my age came to visit me in prison just after my trial. She told me that she was in that parking lot that day and saw what happened and said it was not at all like what the police and newspapers were saying. She said that when she went to the police with the truth, they sent her away. I sent her away too. I remember that I just thought, “What’s the point?” I thought my life was hopeless.
THE PRIEST IN MY PRISON
At about this same time, about 200 miles away in Keene, New Hampshire, Father Gordon MacRae was accused by a man who as a teenager had accused at least three other men of sexual abuse. In an almost total reversal of my story, Father G was condemned from the start, with no investigation at all. His story of being falsely accused was believed by no one. The man who as a teenager had a long criminal record, and waited until age 27 to make the accusation, was believed by everyone in spite of having a constantly changing story. Father G was declared guilty even before his trial, and even by his own Bishop. A lot of money changed hands and Father G’s freedom and priesthood were taken from him.
His accuser ended up with $200,000 from the Catholic Church and Father G ended up in prison with a longer sentence than even mine. Most people know he could have served only a year or two if he would plead guilty, but he just wouldn’t. If he had taken the easy way out, he and I would never even have met and my life would have been very different. That part is the great mystery of Divine Mercy.
Back in my prison, I was an angry young man who fought with everyone. There was a reason for my fighting that I kept secret from myself. The sexual abuse I suffered made me feel weak and helpless. I was determined to prove to myself and everyone that I was not helpless, that I needed no one, that I could defend myself.
As a result of all the violence in me and around me, I was kept in solitary confinement for many years. I was treated like a dangerous animal kept in a cage away from the rest of the human race. Sitting in solitary confinement in anger and rage and hurt, I knew nothing of Father G and his trial in the next state over. I had no idea we would ever meet and our two stories would one day collide.
After 14 years, I was transferred from solitary confinement in Maine to a prison in New Hampshire. Not much inside me had changed. I went right into this new prison’s solitary confinement unit. A year later I emerged and ended up sharing a cell with a man convicted of sexual abuse – a Catholic priest no less. Can you just imagine this twist of fate? Can you just imagine how someone like me viewed this situation? Can you just imagine this priest, falsely accused and treated like a dangerous rapist, suddenly sharing 96 square feet of cell space with an angry, hostile victim of sexual abuse?
It was not long before I knew with absolute certainty what I suspected the moment we met. This man is innocent of that crime. How do I know this? Like most people who have endured what I have endured, I have a powerful radar for predators. I knew never to trust, and when I am in the presence of such a predator my radar tells me to fight or flee. I especially know sexual predators. Prison is filled with them, and the great scandal of this story of Divine Mercy is that no one here – absolutely no one – believes Father G to be one of them. For almost 19 years of his being in prison, often with young men still in their teens, there has been not a single hint of anything dark or twisted in him. We cannot say that about any other prisoner.
This priest that accusers and their money-hungry lawyers and even the Catholic Church all declared to be a monster became the only person on Earth I could trust. He saw the truth of my life long before I did, and drew the deepest pain of it out of me like extracting poison. He set me on the path to freedom, the path to Christ, and taught me how to walk through this valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, for Christ, like Father G himself, is at my side.
SAINT MAXIMILIAN KOLBE IN OUR PRISON
This was all the work of Divine Mercy so it is no mystery that I was brought into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday. I once thought that was an accident, but there is no way that it was. When I decided to become Catholic I wanted it to be a surprise to Father G, so I planned to be Baptized on his birthday, April 9. That was a Friday in 2010, so then I found out I had to wait until the following Sunday – which just happened to be Divine Mercy Sunday.
And it just so happened that on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010, Bishop John McCormack was coming to the prison for a Mass. So the prison Chaplain, Deacon James Daly, sent the Bishop a copy of “Pornchai’s Story,” and told him he would be giving me First Eucharist. In his sermon. Bishop McCormack said that my life was transformed because I learned to trust one single man. He did not mention who that man was even though that man was sitting right next to me in the prison Chapel. The Bishop told me after the Mass, “You have a good friend.” I replied to him, “You have a good priest.”
There is someone else living in this prison cell with us. He is another prisoner and a man we were both led to by Divine Mercy. He is Saint Maximilian Kolbe. I took his name as my Christian name because I met him through Father G. He is on our wall and also just above the sink and mirror where I wash and shave. I do not go through a day without seeing this Saint, this good friend, and this fellow prisoner who gave his life for another at Auschwitz. I honored him by taking his name because I see him so clearly in Father G.
There is a very good book that helped me so much in my long road to recovery from sexual abuse and childhood trauma. It is a book by Dawn Eden called My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. I was so happy to see Dawn write of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. She wrote of how she began speaking to Saint Maximilian as she would to a friend. So do I. So does Father G. Her book opened my eyes to the truth that trusting Divine Mercy is my only hope. [[On Amazon: HERE]]
Here in our prison, for Father G and for me, Saint Maximilian is our friend, and we cope with prison in his company. Every Sunday night before Mass, we ask his prayers, and those of Saint Padre Pio, our other friend, that our lives may be worthy of this gift of the Eucharist. Father G and I are both Knights at the Foot of the Cross, a movement founded by Saint Maximilian’s order calling on us to offer up our suffering and our imprisonment for the good of others.
So this is my story – from Thailand, to abuse, to prison, to despair, to the farthest place down that my soul could go, then to the light of Divine Mercy, the light of Christ. It is to me a miracle story, and its twists and turns have led me to the only path to freedom there is: the path to Christ. Jesus, I trust in You.