Father Alessandro Brai, missionary in Thailand
Father Alessandro Brai is a Xaverian missionary from Palmas Arborea in the province of Oristano, Sardinia and has been living and working in Thailand for some years.
Father Alessandro, how long have you been in Bangkok? What is your main commitment?
I have been in Bangkok for about five years. I arrived in Thailand about 8 years ago. After studying the language for a year, I took care of the young factory workers and I have been in the largest slum in the capital for five years, which includes 44 neighborhoods, the size of 44 towns. It is a city within a city, we are not far from the large hotels and skyscrapers in the center… My main commitment here is to follow, together with other confreres, the human formation of young people and also of adults. Our task is to visit the sick and the poor in the slum. We also pay visits to prisoners and give training in centers that welcome young people, human and missionary training.
What are the difficulties, not just material, that you face every day?
We are in a slum. We decided to stay alongside its inhabitants so we looked for a place that was in the slum where there are those inconveniences that we can easily imagine: it is not like staying in a structure designed for religious or priests with all the comforts and many other conveniences which are sometimes necessary if we think of elderly priests or priests who have to render particular services. We made the choice to stay in a simple structure. For the missionary, the first difficulty is that of language and integration into culture. One could tell me: you have been here in Thailand for more than eight years, you should have already overcome the problem ... But no, because the language and culture of the place are completely opposite to our logic and our way of thinking so even if you get to time to be able to speak the language, it is not taken for granted that we understand each other. Thai culture is very distant from ours, so sometimes inconveniences and misunderstandings are created especially when it comes to helping people to face difficulties. The greatest inconvenience we face here is the difficulty of changing reality for many reasons: there is poverty, sometimes there is misery, there is the problem of corruption, drugs, prostitution and there is a great discomfort at a family level for which, although we see progress in helping young people, children, families, sometimes you find yourself helpless in the face of situations that you cannot change immediately, but take time. Another difficulty we encounter is drugs which make our work much more complicated. In this poor reality like the one we live in, drugs are becoming increasingly popular. Many think that thanks to drugs we can solve difficulties more easily and make money in an easier way, but in the end we enter a tunnel from which it is difficult to get out. These are the daily difficulties, alongside the failures that we must accept in the face of situations of children and young people we want to help.
The pandemic: what is happening in the places where you operate? Can you tell us what the current situation of the people is?
The virus has hit the entire society on different social levels, the poor, the middle class and the rich, but those who pay the most are the poor. We already helped many people on a material level but with Covid we had to equip ourselves more because people have been without work and without food for months and months and this situation will probably continue, we do not know for how long. The most disadvantaged in the pandemic are always the last, the poorest, those who are already in difficulty. Thanks to the help of many Thai and non-Thai Catholic Christians, we organize the distribution of food, masks and aid for the poor, the sick and those who are alone.
What does being a missionary mean for you? What do you think are the challenges of the Missio ad gentes?
Good question… I think that today more than ever being a missionary means sharing life with others on a daily basis. We do not leave our Country to go and teach something to others but we leave to share our life and of course by doing this we share what is most important in our life, that is faith in Jesus Christ. And how is it shared? This is today's challenge… we do it through the time we give to people. We are neither experts nor handymen. We are people like any other but probably what makes us missionaries is the fact that we dedicate our time to the people we serve regardless of their religion, culture and social status. We live with them, together with them, trying to enhance the beauty and the good that we find in the people we live with. And there is an immensity of beautiful and positive things in the people who welcome us, even in the slums, where at first glance what strikes the attention is certainly the negative side. Clearly, and this comes to us from the Gospel, we must privilege those who are privileged by the Gospel, the poor and the last, because it is through this witness that we can announce the love of Jesus for all and therefore for the last. I believe that this is the greatest challenge of the missionary today, to come with the intention of sharing, living with the people, and therefore of sharing one's faith, which is the main aspect.
In the Thai language there is a word to indicate the missionary - sometimes the English term missionary is used - it is a word that means ambassador of religion, faith, values. I really like this way of translating the word missionary because in a certain sense we make ourselves responsible, even if no one gives us this responsibility as ambassadors, for a mission that is entrusted to us by Christ, the same mission that he received from the Father and that it then passed on to the disciples and that it reached us, so we feel responsible for this mission which is not ours, does not belong to me, to my congregation, but belongs to the Church. I therefore believe that this is the missionary, to feel responsible for the announcement that we are called to make in other parts of the world through the sharing of life. In concrete realities, the Lord will show us the ways that we must use: he can be like us in the slums or like others in the villages, still others in teaching in schools but all with the intention of being witnesses to God's love.
Thinking back to the Pope's Encyclical "Tutti Fratelli", a current challenge for us missionaries is to create fraternity, to break down the walls that give rise to division, which prevent a relationship of fraternity. To become builders of fraternity where we find ourselves above all in diversity, therefore the ability to create bridges and break down walls to create that fraternity of which the Pope speaks.
Another challenge is linked to globalization ... even in this reality which is predominantly Buddhist, we see this every day. It is a great challenge for us, as foreigners, but precisely because foreigners we sometimes find the advantage that comes from the comparison of different worlds, from mutual collaboration and from a common desire to grow.
Another challenge that I see very current is linked to self-centeredness. Even in Thai society, as probably in all, people are inclined to focus more and more on themselves. Ego is the center of everything, what makes fraternity and relationships with others difficult. The missionary's challenge, through the word of God lived in daily life, is to help people to come out of their own self to meet others with an evangelical spirit.