Then I Began to Cry. By Father Gordon MacRae (from Prison)

Having built with pick and shovel a 150 meter walkway on a property he landscaped, Pornchai Moontri spent his 50th Birthday plowing and planting an acre of farmland.

I stumbled upon a late night TV movie recently — though I do not know the title — just as a young man was visiting his father in prison.

I was late tuning into the film so the plot was not immediately clear. It seemed that the father was innocent of whatever crime sent him to prison and his son was very anxious to prove it. I was riveted to the scene.

Through security glass where they conversed via monitored telephones, the father was urging his son to move on with his life and be free. The young man protested, “But I want YOU to be free!” His father replied, “My freedom is in witnessing yours.”

I pondered this for a few moments laying there in the dark of night in a prison cell.

And then I began to cry. That was most unusual. In nearly 30 years of seeing my life implode from false witness, I can count on one hand the number of times I have shed even a single tear. It just isn’t in my nature to cry easily. I wrote once that women seem to cry much more easily than men. Perhaps men do not cry nearly enough.

That night I could not contain what was spilling out from within me. I realized with an emotional collision of joy and sadness that a part of me now compensates for my loss of freedom by witnessing it unfold in the life of Pornchai Moontri with whom I spent 15 years surviving in a prison cell. In that time, a bond of trust grew between us in a place where trust is the rarest of commodities. We became each other’s family, and the basis of our connection was always fatherhood. Pornchai never had a father. I spent the last forty one years being called one.

I was 20 when Pornchai was born, and on September 10 this week, he turned 50, so do the math. Fatherhood in this case was not an event, but a process. Over time, while learning the entire story of Pornchai’s tragic life, it gradually became my own life’s mission to secure his freedom even above my own.

Overtime, we encountered mystical connections in this bond. They include Divine Mercy and the intercessory graces of a Patron Saint who also surrendered his life in this life to save another. I do not fully understand these connections, but I know in my heart that they are there. Embracing fatherhood makes men see their lives differently. As I quoted in a recent post:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. Now we see dimly as in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. Now I understand only in part, but then I shall understand fully even as I am fully understood.”

— 1 Corinthians 13:10-12

Three years after Pornchai’s deportation to Thailand, I still find myself, as any true father would, reveling in his freedom as though revisiting an inspired work of art that I somehow had a hand in creating.

This was perhaps evident in our recent post about the earliest days of this blog and the first posts I wrote back then. Some readers told me that it made them cry as well, but not just from sadness. I hope you did not miss “Maximilian Kolbe: The Other Prisoner Priest in My Cell.”

A Passage to India

The interconnectedness of our lives did not suddenly end because of time and distance. In his final years here, Pornchai and I were the sole figures offering assistance to other prisoners facing deportation.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about whatever offense brought them to this pass, deportation is often an inhumane nightmare impacting bonds within entire families.

One of the persons we assisted in navigating deportation was a young Cambodian man who was brought to the United States at age two. At age 22, he pled guilty to a petty crime without ever being told that doing so would result in his forced deportation. He spoke not a word of Khmer, the language of Cambodia. He was left in the city of Phnom Penh, and since then has disappeared.

One of our good friends here, Abishek, a native of India, had been in the United States for much of his adult life before some out-of-character and out-of-culture domestic dispute and breakup landed him in prison. As with most such situations, Abishek lost not only his freedom, but the entire infrastructure of his life. His close-knit family in India kept in contact from a great distance, but he leaned on Pornchai and me for moral support when he most needed it as the time of deportation approached.

In 2020, Abishek was understandably interested in the process Pornchai was facing because he knew he would soon face the same thing. He was alarmed to learn that Pornchai remained in the dismal custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for over five months at the height of the global Covid pandemic. I wrote of this ordeal in 2020 in “ICE Finally Cracks: Pornchai Moontri Arrives in Thailand.”

We hoped this process would be easier for Abishek once the pandemic receded, but that was not the case. He ended up serving six months beyond his prison sentence, but could not seek release because of the ICE hold on him.

After waiting six months for ICE to act, I helped Abishek write to Regional ICE Headquarters in Burlington, Massachusetts. Just two weeks later, he was suddenly gone in the night. That was six months ago, and for all that time we assumed that he was safely back in India adjusting to freedom, family and a new life. We thought no news was good news.

But we were wrong. A few weeks ago when I called Pornchai in Thailand, he told me that he received a call at 1 AM during the night before. ICE detainees without resources get one free five-minute call per week.

Abishek used it to call Pornchai in Thailand. It turned out that for six months since leaving this prison, Abishek was stranded just 50 miles away in a jail where ICE rents space for detainees awaiting deportation. Abishek was now one year past his prison sentence.

Pornchai and I were powerless to do anything directly so I sent an email message from the tablet in my cell in Concord, New Hampshire prison to Clare Farr, a trademarks attorney in Western Australia who helped Pornchai immensely.

She then called Pornchai in Thailand who gave what little information we knew about our friend’s plight. Clare contacted the Indian Embassy in Canberra, Australia and conveyed all that we told her.

The Indian Embassy in Australia then contacted the Indian Government which in turn contacted the Indian Consulate. Two weeks later, just days before I type this, Abishek’s odyssey came to an end. Thanks to the intervention of Clare Farr in Australia, Abishek is now reunited with his family in India.

The bizarre thread of this story is worth repeating. Indigent ICE detainees get one free five-minute phone call per week. From ICE detention in New Hampshire, Abishek called Pornchai Moontri in Thailand at 1 AM.

Pornchai then contacted me in New Hampshire. I contacted Pornchai’s advocate, Clare Farr in western Australia, who then contacted the Indian Embassy in Canberra. Then the Embassy contacted the Indian Government in New Delhi, who contacted the Indian Consulate in New York instructing them to prepare Abishek’s travel papers and fax them to ICE in Burlington, Massachusetts.

ICE then booked a flight for Abishek to get him out of ICE detention in New Hampshire. After a six-month delay, Abishek arrived in India two weeks after his free five-minute phone call to Thailand. We could not make this story up!

Chalermpon Srisuttor, Mayor of Phuviang, and Pornchai Moontri.

Pornchai Set His Heart on Plowing Furrows (Sirach 28:36)

As all of the above was going on, Pornchai sent me some photos of his finished, back-breaking work creating a 450-foot walkway on property he landscaped in Pak Chong, Thailand. I actually tried to talk him out of his next project, but as the quote from the Book of Sirach implies above, his mind was made up. Pornchai has not yet received any income from the work we described in “For Pornchai Moontri, Hope and Hard Work Build a Future.”

All his hard work is building hope for a future livelihood as Thailand builds a high-speed railroad with a depot in each of the places where Pornchai is working now. I have been sending him a small amount of money each month for food and expenses. It does not take a lot — $100 U.S. dollars equals about over 3,000 Thai baht at the current exchange rate.

It helps Pornchai manage food and necessities for a month while waiting for the tourism season and rental housing customers.

Pornchai is no stranger to hard work so he decided to take on another project while waiting. About 250 miles north of Pak Chong, where Pornchai now lives in the District of Nakhon Ratchasima, is the village of Phuviang (Pu-vee-ANG) . It is the place where Pornchai was born, was orphaned, and then was taken from at age eleven. There is a lot of pain there.

There is also a small house and piece of land that once belonged to his mother. The house was only half built when Pornchais Mother, Wannee, traveled to Guam to her death in 2000, an unforgettable story told in “Getting Away with Murder on the Island of Guam.”

Not far from that unfinished house is an acre or so of farmland that belonged to Wannee. Pornchai’s extended family cultivates rice nearby, so Pornchai decided to go up to Phuviang and plant a crop. It had to be something that he could plant and then leave alone. He chose to plant cassava, a crop that grows in Asian tropical zones and is self-sustaining until harvested.

The cassava plant grows up to about 8-feet in height and its edible roots are typically three inches in diameter and up to three feet long. The roots are akin to a sweet potato, and are a staple in some Asian countries. Ground into flour, cassava is also used to make sweet bread or cakes.

Growing cassava is easy, but planting it is an enormous amount of work. Cassava roots from a past crop have to be cut into smaller pieces and soaked in water for several days. The pieces are then planted along plowed furrows as in the photo atop this post. Pornchai is pictured there along with a local helper.

The photo above was taken by Chalermpon Srisuttor, the Mayor and Town Manager of Phuviang who has become a friend to Pornchai — enough of a friend to help him plow and plant an acre of cassava!

The planting was finished just in time for Pornchai’s 50th birthday. I now want to remind him that when he arrived in Concord, NH from a long stint in solitary confinement in Maine in 2005, I had just turned age 52 while Pornchai was 32.

He liked to circulate handmade birthday cards for our friends to sign for my birthday. They contained snarky little phrases like “Father G loves history so much because he was there for most of it!” and “Father G knows Latin because it was his first language!” Pornchai thought I was really old back then.

What goes around comes around! Happy Birthday, Max!

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Upper right: Chalathip Chiradomrong; Chalermpon Srisuttor, Mayor of Phuviang; and Pornchai Moontri. Lower left: Since Phuviang is very near to the Thailand headquarters of the Society of the Divine Word Order where Fr John Hung Le is local Superior, he stopped to spend an afternoon with Pornchai and even to pitch in a bit on the plowing and planting. Upper left and lower right: First signs of growth a few days apart.