Mercy — Inside Those Stone Walls
Pornchai Moontri remembers he was carrying his knife, and he remembers struggling to get out from under the weight of a man much heavier than he. He doesn't remember much else other than that he was out of his mind from years of rage and a night of alcohol.
But this is what authorities in Bangor, Maine pieced together: Pornchai, a native of Thailand, stumbled into a Shop 'n Save supermarket in March 1992 and proceeded to take a bottle of beer from the refrigerator, open it, and drink from it. When confronted by a store manager, he tried to flee. Outside in the parking lot an altercation ensued, and a 27-year-old Shop 'n Save employee who had pinned him down on the pavement was killed with a knife wielded by Pornchai.
Pornchai was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was 19-years old at the time. He's 39-years old today. As far as authorities at New Hampshire State Prison are concerned, Pornchai is not much more than a number in a crowded prison. He is inmate # 77948. But God's numbering system bears no resemblance to such cold calculus. God numbers every hair, as we learn from Scripture (see Lk 12:7), so how infinitely He must cherish every single one of His children, including — and most especially — the most broken, those in most need of His mercy.
It took Pornchai years of self-righteous anger, years of misery and hopelessness, before he was graced with the realization that God is real and that God is Mercy Incarnate. This realization culminated when, in the prison chapel, he received the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation on April 10, 2010. The following day — the Feast of Divine Mercy Sunday — he received his First Holy Communion from the Most Rev. John McCormack, bishop of Manchester, N.H.
The date was no accident.
In a series of revelations to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s, our Lord called for this special feast day. "On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open," He promised. "... The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day are opened all the divine floodgates through which graces flow. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet (Diary of St. Faustina, 699).
In a recent phone interview, Pornchai said, "In the course of my life, what I have done and what has been done to me, I do need God's mercy, and He has given it to me."
What the Jury Didn't Know
That speaks volumes coming from a man who has spent more than half of his life behind bars. At his trial, he was defended by a court-appointed attorney who said nary a word about the life Pornchai led before that fateful evening when he murdered a man. Nothing was said of the victimhood he withstood long before his crime was committed.
Nothing about how, two years after his birth in northern Thailand in 1973, Pornchai's mother abandoned him. Nothing about how he never attended grade school and never learned to read or write until years later. Nothing about how his mother re-emerged with a new husband when he was 11-years old and took him to the United States against his will. Nothing was said about his assertion that his stepfather repeatedly raped him over a period of three years. Nothing about how in the racially monochromatic Maine of his youth, he was called "gook" by his classmates who did everything they could to make him feel different and stupid because of his broken English.
Nothing about how, at the age 14, anger was all he had, and by then he inflicted it upon anyone and everyone.
He left home and lived on the streets of Bangor. He was placed in a school for troubled teens and promptly kicked out for fighting. He went back to living in the streets and felt it prudent to carry a knife for self-protection.
By the time he got to prison, it wasn't self-protection he sought. Rather, it was self-destruction. He was remorseful for the murder of an innocent man. He could hardly bear to think about it. Just so the pain could end, he did everything within his power to provoke fellow inmates into killing him.
"Really, I wanted them to beat me to death or stab me with a homemade knife" he says. "To me at the time, I had no reason to live."
Because of his violent tendencies, Pornchai was placed into solitary confinement many times for a combined six-plus years. It was there where he learned of the murder of his mother, who had by then relocated to Guam.
"I was now alone in my rage," Pornchai says.
When he was released for a final time from solitary confinement and placed within the general prison population, his urge to commit violence had subsided. He was eventually transferred from a prison in Maine to New Hampshire State Prison where he formed a friendship that has changed his life.
It was with a Catholic priest.
Pornchai Meets Gordon
Through a fellow inmate, Pornchai met the Rev. Gordon MacRae, a down-to-earth spiritual man and prolific writer who seemed to have a lot of answers to a lot of questions. Is there a God? Who is He? How can we be sure?
Father Gordon, 59, was convicted in 1994 on five sexual assault counts that have since been called into question, including by The Wall Street Journal whose two-part series in 2005 brought national attention to Fr. Gordon's case.
Pornchai and Fr. Gordon's first meetings were not particularly transcendent. They were all business.
"I was real hostile, and told [Fr. Gordon] I just wanted him to help me get transferred to a prison in Bangkok, Thailand," Pornchai says. "'Be careful what you ask for,' he said. 'I won't help you pursue something that will only further destroy you.'
"I didn't care," Pornchai recalls, "so why on Earth should Gordon care? I was hostile to him for a long time. I had mastered the art of driving anyone who cared away from me, but in Gordon I met my match. Over time I was able to see that under my anger was a lot of hurt and pain, and he saw it and helped me to see it, too."
Within a few months of meeting Fr. Gordon, Pornchai was moved into the same unit as his. The two became quick friends and eventually cellmates.
"By patience and especially by example, Gordon helped me change the course of my life," Pornchai says. "He is my best friend and the person I trust most in this world."
The two share a 96-square-feet cell that serves as living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath. On the walls they have religious images, including of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Divine Mercy.
'By the Force of Grace'
Pornchai says Fr. Gordon never pushed him into becoming Catholic.
"He never even brought it up," Pornchai says. "I was pulled to it by the force of grace and the hope that one day I could do good for others."
Since then, Pornchai has immersed himself in religious studies. He earned his Graduate Equivalency Diploma. He's fluent in math. He is excellent at detailed carpentry, including building model ships. He lives a life of prayer and performs deeds of mercy. He laughs when he describes the reaction he gets now from prisoners who knew him back before his conversion.
"They don't even recognize me as the same person," he says. "They now see a man who, despite the pain and difficulty of being in prison, is at peace."
He looks to St. Maximilian Kolbe as his spiritual guide. Saint Maximilian knew what it was like to be imprisoned. He knew what it was like to be stripped of his humanity and dignity. Yet St. Maximilian never gave up hope, and he proved as much in 1941 at the Nazi German concentration camp of Auschwitz, when he gave his life to save that of another man.
"For me, he is the saint of prisoners," says Pornchai. "He teaches us how to serve our time here with courage."
Pornchai says, "For the past 20 years now, prison is the only world I know. I'm surrounded by many people who think only of themselves. The majority of people are, 'What can you do for me?' But when I read about St. Maximilian Kolbe and how selfless he was, I knew I needed to take the name 'Maximilian' as my Christian name."
With St. Maximilian as his model, Pornchai reaches out to fellow prisoners who are having a difficult time, including those in danger from other inmates. Some prison guards now steer vulnerable inmates toward Pornchai and Fr. Gordon.
"They know that we'll show them the ropes and how to do the right things to avoid creating hardship for themselves, for other inmates, and the guards," says Pornchai.
For Fr. Gordon, Pornchai has been an inspiration, a blessing from God that has helped him on his own difficult journey.
"I have never met a man more determined to live the faith he has professed than Pornchai Moontri," wrote Fr. Gordon in a recent post on his website, thesestonewalls.com, which is administered by a friend outside of the prison. "In the darkness and aloneness of a prison cell night after night for the last two of his 20 years in prison, Pornchai stares down the anxiety of uncertainty, struggles for reasons to believe, and finds them."
In less than two years, Pornchai will be eligible for a commutation or reduction in his sentence. He prays for his release. It would at least give him enough time to start a new life at a relatively young age. Still, when released, he is to be immediately deported back to Thailand, a place he hasn't been to since he was 11. He doesn't even remember how to speak the language. He has no connections there.
In Thailand, he hopes to serve in a ministry helping troubled youth.
"From age 11 to 32, I always felt I was alone, that no one cared and no one loved me," he says. "I want to be able to help those who are struggling like I did. I ask in my prayers every night that God use me as an instrument. That's what I look forward to."