I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope by Pornchai Moontri
As an abuse survivor, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri finds healing and hope in a Catholic faith inspired by true believers witnessing to Christ in a hostile world.
There are not many Asians here in the New Hampshire prison, but the few who have been here have been my friends. In the unit where G and I live, there are now four Asians besides me. One is Koji, from Japan. Koji was mentioned in G’s post, “A Feast for Ordinary Time.” There is also Uno, an older man from South Korea, and Chamrouen from Cambodia. Over the years, I have had other friends here from Cambodia, Korea, Laos, and Indonesia.
My good friend, Jeclan Wawarunto was a young prisoner from Indonesia who first introduced me to G almost eight years ago. Felix Carroll wrote about that first meeting with G in “Mercy – Inside Those Stone Walls” last year, and on Ash Wednesday, G wrote about it too in “With the Dawn Comes Rejoicing.” There’s a lot they both left out, but I will get back to that.
Our friend, Jeclan was taken from this prison to be deported to Indonesia about six years ago. G and I always hoped we would hear from him, but we do not know what became of him. Some friends of G tried to search for news of Jeclan in Indonesia but no success. A few weeks ago, our new friend, Benny, came into this prison and was moved to the place where we live. Benny is a very quiet and respectful man, and he is also from Indonesia.
I have been thinking a lot about my new friend, Benny, and about what it has cost him to follow Christ in a world growing hostile to Christ. Many people look down on us in prison, but even in spite of our pasts and our mistakes, there are some men of honor here and Benny is one of them. G is another, and I want very much to be in their ranks. I am inspired by Benny’s faith and his commitment to Christ. G and I welcome him as a friend and we look out for him as best we can. This morning, on the day I write this, Benny came to Mass with me and G and our friends Mike Ciresi and Michael Martinez, and Jesse Pickard. G wrote about some of them in “With the Dawn Comes Rejoicing.”
SURRENDERING THE PAST
This Lent, I have also been doing a lot of thinking about my own new faith as a Catholic which will be four years old this coming Divine Mercy Sunday. A lot has happened in those four years, and sometimes it has been a struggle to live my faith day to day in the most hostile world of all, prison. This week is especially hard for me, and a time when I think about my past life.
Twenty-two years ago, on the night of March 21, 1992 I took another man’s life during a fight on the streets of Bangor, Maine. I was 18 years old, and now I am 40, and for every single day in between I have thought of the life of Scott McDowell. He was a single man, age 28, whose only crime was that he tried to stop me when I was fleeing someone chasing me.
There is nothing I can do to bring back Scott McDowell’s life, but my friend G has taught me that in faith I have one thing that I can share with Scott McDowell still. I pray for his soul, and for the forgiveness of his sins, and I pray for his forgiveness of me, and for his spiritual friendship with me. I do not remember all of what happened that night 22 years ago, and that makes it even worse, but I am deeply, deeply sorry.
I suppose it has been the work of Divine Mercy that my reaction to reliving March 21 has changed. When I went to prison at age 18, I faced this day only with hatred of myself and my life. In the prison I was in, there was a lot that fed my self-hatred and I bought the entire message about me that was fed to me every day. That message was that I was not worth anything as a human being. I believed it. I sank to the very bottom in solitary confinement in a supermax prison for year after year, and any thought of redemption was like a fairy tale.
I believed there was no Christ. The world was evil, and no one in it could ever be trusted. Today as I look back, I see that even then in the darkness of solitary confinement, Christ was calling me out of the dark, but I did not know this then. I believed that my life was over, and I had no hope in anything. Hope was just another part of the fairy tale that I knew could not be real.
When I was dragged from my supermax cell one day, chained up and stuffed into a prison van, I had no idea where I was going and I pretended I didn’t care. When I got out of that van inside the walls of the New Hampshire State Prison, I was all alone in this world. I had no family, no friends. I quickly got into a fight and ended up in that same old place, alone in a cage being treated like the dangerous animal I thought I was.
When I came out of yet another stretch in solitary confinement in this new prison, I was placed in what is known here as “The Gladiator Pod,” a huge room surrounded by cells containing 96 of the worst badasses in the prison. I arrived there in June 2006 with nothing but hatred in my eyes, ready to fight anyone who even came near me. It was just a matter of time before I sank back to the bottom where I had spent so many years – the bottom where I thought I belonged.
Also living on that pod was Jeclan Wawarunto, the young Indonesian who approached me because I was the only other Asian there. Jeclan was a nice kid with a heart of gold, and he was totally immune to my look of hate and anger that I spent so many years practicing and perfecting.
Then one day in the prison chow hall soon after I got out of the hole, this balding, middle-age white guy was walking by with his tray of prison food, and without even asking me, Jeclan yelled, “Hey G! Sit here with us!” G sat down across from me. Jeclan said, “This is my friend, Ponch. He wants to ask you something.” I was looking as mean as I possibly could, and I said coldly with daggers in my eyes, “I just want to know how I can get moved to a prison in Bangkok, Thailand.” I did not know it at the time, but G had just finished reading a book called 4,000 Days about the horror of living in a Bangkok prison. G said, “I won’t help you do something that will only destroy you.” “Who is this jerk?” I thought.
Before long, as happens in prison a lot, I was moved, and then moved again and again, and finally ended up on the same pod G lives on. It was in early 2007. On the day I got there, I remember G coming up to me and saying, “I’m glad you’re here.” Well that made one of us because I sure wasn’t! My memory fades at this point. I can’t exactly tell you when or how it happened, but somehow I went from trusting and respecting no one at all to trusting and respecting no one but G. More than any human being I have ever known in or outside of prison, my instinct told me G had something I wanted very badly. That something, I know today, was faith and hope.
You already know that when I came into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010, I took the name Maximilian as my Christian name. It was because G had a strong connection to Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and that connection was passed on to me. I wrote about how this conversion took place in “The Duty of a Knight: To Dream the Impossible Dream.” There was a lot that happened between meeting G in prison in 2007 and my conversion, however, and it changed the way that my life was influenced and dragged down by my past.
One of the things that G tried very hard to get across to me is that I am responsible for my mistakes, but also that our lives are not just one unrelated event after another. I see, now, that our lives are a process, and the days of our lives influence all the days to come after.
For a long time I was not able to face the truth of what happened in my life. Some of what happened to me in childhood caused me to have great shame and anxiety, and the cost was the loss of my ability to trust. It was the terrible burden of shame that G helped me to see and bring out into the open, and face it. The effects of what happened after I was brought to America at age 11 are not gone and never will be gone. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that was very destructive and toxic and nearly destroyed my life. That statement is very important for me. At age 11 to 13 I was a victim. Today I am a survivor, and there is a big difference.
How strange it is, today, that after all the bad news about Catholic priests, I have found redemption and the graces of healing and hope in the Catholic Church because of the witness of a priest who I know should never have even been in prison. My friend, Father B told me once that God sometimes uses irony. Only now do I know what this means.
For six years, I have lived in a prison cell of 96 square feet with a man I know without a doubt could never harm another. There can be no secrets in a place like this. Nothing can stay hidden for six years in a prison cell. Most prisoners can’t stand their cell mates and just barely put up with them. G snores a little, but he is a messenger of grace and hope and freedom in the spirit of Saint Maximilian.
In her wonderful book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints, Dawn Eden has a chapter called “The Love that Radiates.” Dawn Eden is a Jewish convert to the Catholic faith. Early in her conversion she learned that Saint Maximilian Kolbe organized a shelter to protect 3,000 Polish refugees from the Nazis, including 2,000 Jews. “He had risked his life to save people who might very well have been my relatives,” Dawn Eden wrote. She also wrote of how she came to know Saint Maximilian:
“That led me, inevitably, to Mary, because Maximilian never ceased to praise the woman he lovingly called ‘The Immaculata.’ ”
Something happened three months ago that told me how much I have changed inside. Father G was talking on the telephone with our very good friend, Father B. It was after G wrote about our Consecration to Mary in his post, “Behold Your Mother!” Father B said to G, “Be sure to give my blessing to Super Max.” He meant me. When G told me this, I was shocked! I was shocked because I understood it right away to mean my life in friendship with Saint Maximilian Kolbe, my namesake who pointed me to our Blessed Mother, and not a reference to that hell-hole place of suffering that for so many years consumed my life, and contained my self-hatred, and kept it going. By what miracle am I free from that past?
Please pray with me this week for the soul of Scott McDowell, and pray with me and Father G that like our friend, Benny, we will grow in courage to always face the world’s denial of Christ by lifting our crosses, and carrying them.
It is no surprise to me that Divine Mercy brought me to the place Saint Maximilian always points to: the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the only place today that I can now call home.