During the George W. Bush administration there was a great deal of talk, some of it contentious, concerning ‘faith-based’ social programs.  The amount of heated comment this caused came as a surprise to me because we had regularly used such associations in our Peace Corps programs in the Philippines during the 70s (and very likely during the 60s) without anyone thinking it inappropriate or controversial.  (For those needing clarification, ‘faith-based’ means channeling U.S. government assistance through organizations whose primary identity comes from their affiliation with a specific religious entity.) 

While most PC/P volunteer programs were administered in conjunction with Philippine governmental institutions at the federal, provincial, or local level there were more than a handful of volunteers working directly with religious groups.  Sometimes the volunteer assignment was official, but more often it was the result of a recognition on the part of both parties that the volunteer mission and that of the religious organization were complementary, although not exactly the same. 

One such assignment that comes to mind is that of a volunteer working with a Dutch Catholic missionary who was ministering to a group of near stone-age indigenous people (the Mangyans) on the island of Mindoro.  Remote and primitive, the Mangyans were accessible only by a long trudge up a mountain.  Volunteers lived in straw huts and welcomed the unusual challenges and opportunities they encountered as they worked with a group of people deeply interested in becoming modern.  For Father Postma the primary point was saving souls, but that was mixed with a genuine passion for social and economic development.   Postma’s religious affiliation was unmistakable, but flexible.  (He reworked his religious observances so that they contained elements of the local cultural traditions.)  He and his non-Catholic volunteer worked together very effectively on those mutual concerns and left the others for another time.  All of this with full support of the Peace Corps.    

On the Protestant side volunteers often worked with representatives of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a long-established organization of Bible translators who travel the world translating the Bible into local languages.  The SIL folks were always well provisioned by their U.S. headquarters; volunteers had access to the community that the short-term translators lacked.  The value of what each could give the other was readily apparent.  Volunteers made it easier for the translators to become part of the community; SIL shared their greater resources with the volunteers for their own projects.  The cooperation between Peace Corps and SIL in the Philippines continued for years.  (Perhaps it still does around the world?) 

Far north of Manila in the rugged hinterlands of Luzon a group of Catholic friars had established a central maintenance and supply post to service their missionaries working with another of the many indigenous Filipino groups, the Ifugaos.  One of their frequent ‘customers’ was the Peace Corps regional director for northern Luzon.  Our man could ‘destroy’ a jeep faster than anyone could imagine.  His specialty was breaking engine mounts as he sped up and down the dreadful mountain roads.  The friars repeatedly stopped what they were doing, replaced the engine mounts and sent the regional director on his way.  They and the Peace Corps knew instinctively that both organizations were doing the same thing:  one might emphasize religion and the other creating friendships and understanding, but there was considerable overlap.  And it goes without saying that without the help of the Christian brothers the dozens of volunteers working in the far-flung north of Luzon would rarely have seen their regional director.  

Members of this same group provided ‘institutional’ support for the Peace Corps by regularly including us in their radio and TV broadcasts, which reached large audiences throughout the country.   ‘Father Bob’ once spent nearly the full hour of his TV program showing photos of PCVs at work … and giving them ample accolades.  There were no adverse consequences for our being associated with a Catholic priest and even Peace Corps can use good PR!

At the other end of the Philippines, on the island of Jolo, we found ourselves working with Muslims.  One of our PCVs, an American Muslim from Michigan, was stationed there and became deeply involved in the community - and that means deeply involved in Islam.  He worked as a community organizer specializing in health and nutrition.  The Peace Corps staff was a bit taken aback when he announced that he was marrying a young local Muslim teenager, which while shocking to some of us was well within accepted local practices.  He later went on to get his MD in the Philippines and last I heard he was practicing in Jolo and had raised a fine family there.

PC/P’s close and productive relationship with Muslim universities on the island of Mindanao went back at least 10 years at that time.  One day Phil Lilienthal and I had good reason to be thankful for that.  During Ramadan, as we approached a small university town where we planned to spend the night we discovered that the one hotel in town was a burning hulk.  Insurgents - in the Philippines there always seemed to be active insurgents, especially in Mindanao - had destroyed it earlier in the day.  The university president, a Muslim woman, opened her home to us, fed us, and ushered us away to our room while she and her family gathered and broke the Ramadan fast.

Sister Sylvia was an American nun who left her convent in Pittsburgh, joined the Peace Corps, set up shop in a Filipino convent, and taught at a local Catholic university.  Her letters home to her former colleagues offer some of the best descriptions of volunteer life - both its highs and its lows - that I have ever read.  (They are now in the JFK library in Boston.)  As far as I know it never entered anyone’s head to question the appropriateness of this ‘faith-based’ activity.

I don’t think that PC/P was unique in working with faith-based groups.  Mike Tidwell tells a wonderful story in The Ponds of Kalambayi about his own attempts to engage the faith-based community in solving a drainage problem with one of his fish ponds.  He has never accepted the fact that the problem was solved by his reluctant attendance at an Africanized Catholic worship service, or by his equally reluctant attendance at an animistic healing service featuring fire-walking priests.  He insists that it was the clay bottom later installed in the pond that did the trick.  This, despite the fact that some of his neighbors believed whole-heartedly that the work of the faith-based communities deserved credit.  Tidwell also had reason, personally, to thank the presence of medical missionaries nearby when he was struck by bilharzias, a very serious tropical disease. 

And how could volunteers working in South America not become involved with, or at least sympathetic to, ‘liberation theology.’  (Liberation theology has as its central idea the need to eliminate the rigid class structure that impoverishes most South Americans.  It is a favorite whipping boy of Glen Beck these days.)  USAID dispensed a goodly amount of its ‘do-gooder’ funds through agencies like Catholic Relief, Save the Children, and similar organizations, many of which helped and supported PCVs and their projects in countries around the world.  Surely, all of this was happening throughout the Peace Corps world in the 70s.   Is it still happening?       

There were some problems, of course, with working closely with religious organizations.  Volunteers working in health and nutrition programs were often asked for advice on family planning, and this was troublesome.  We all knew that the government of the Philippines, the powerful Catholic Church there, and even the U.S. government forbade providing such information.  Officially, I shut my eyes to all that, and volunteers did as their consciences dictated.  Some of the literalists among the Protestant groups were preaching theologies some of us found misguided, but we managed to set our personal theologies aside and concentrate on the far more important benefits of cooperation.  And Islam was so new to us that we just didn’t think about it, let alone wonder whether there might be things to worry about.  (Remember, this was the 1970s, not the twenty-first century.)    

All in all, I’m comfortable with the many religions in the world being able to hold in peace their own separate creeds.  There is no rationale for Peace Corps to formally endorse any of them, or, equally, to disparage any of them.  But, when it comes to ‘Making a Difference,’ I say all hands are welcome, and the ‘faith-based’ organizations have proven their worth many times over!