Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Spokane priest experiences CRS ministry in Cambodia
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 2, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Former Spokane Catholic Charities director Msgr. Frank Bach, now officially retired, recently spent eight days observing Catholic Relief Services (CRS) efforts in Cambodia.
As a member of a group called Global Fellows, Msgr. Bach preaches on behalf of CRS, which is the U.S. bishops’ overseas emergency assistance and development agency. The group’s members are encouraged “to go out and see actual projects” operated by CRS, “so that we have more of a conviction when we are preaching.”
There is perception among Catholics that somehow CRS is the same agency as Catholic Charities, said Msgr. Bach, “but Catholic Charities is the domestic program of the church for the poor and hurting, and so on. CRS has no direct services in the United States. They work in 99 other countries, although obviously they raise their money in the United States, and they’re headquartered in Baltimore.”
Although CRS began in relief work for post-war Europe, today the focus is on projects in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, Central America, and Mexico.
Msgr. Bach left Spokane May 28 and flew to Baltimore for a one-day orientation session, and finally to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for an eight-day observation tour in that country.
Among the areas visited by Msgr. Frank Bach (center, wearing a baseball cap) was this reforestation project in the town of Svay Reing, in Eastern Cambodia, accompanied by two of the Buddist monks and some of the village leaders, along with some of the members of the Catholic Relief Services trip from the United States. CRS trains and pays a few staff who recruit and train village leaders who do much of the work – not just for reforestation, but also micro-finance projects, potable water projects, and health projects. (IR photo courtesy of Msgr. Frank Bach)
“Starting in Phnom Penh,” Msgr. Bach said, “the main point of the whole trip was for us to see what CRS is doing in this particular country …. with relatively little money.”
Msgr. Bach recalls being touched by particular situations in which he found himself in Cambodia.
“These little kids being taught in the most primitive conditions. They are being helped to learn socialization, so they can get along with one another, so they can go into some kind of formal educational situation. They have trained volunteers who go out into the neighborhoods and invite kids to come to this program, two hours once a week.”
CRS partners with other non-governmental agencies, among them the Maryknoll Fathers and the United Nations’ World Food Program. The agencies help one another – one might train personnel who would then work in another agency’s clinic, and so forth. “There are a lot of combinations,” he said. “Cambodia is 95 percent Buddhist, so CRS also works with the Buddhist monks.”
HIV/AIDS is a huge problem in Cambodia, Msgr. Bach said. “Cambodia has the highest percentage of HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia, and they didn’t want to admit that the disease was there. The biggest focus after the Pol Pot regime was on land mines, and there are still people who are getting their arms or legs blown off, or they’re being killed, so whatever minimal medical services they had in the country were pretty much all allocated towards that. CRS has come in now and has a tremendously large drug program for victims of HIV/AIDS,” which treats thousands of people, he said.
Most of the CRS work is done by the Cambodians themselves, he said. The entire country boasts only three non-Cambodian CRS staff members. “The rest are either Cambodians or people from other countries who have come in. One of the program directors is from Bolivia. But basically they are all Cambodians that CRS has been training, and then they train these volunteers in the different villages.”
Something as basic as safe drinking water is a major issue in a nation that is largely agricultural.”Only 15 percent of the people in these villages have drinkable water, potable water. So one of the other emphases that CRS has is developing water systems, wells, latrines, and so forth.”
A teacher works in a “street school” in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The teacher sets up shop on the side of the street and gives instruction in good health practices, especially, in this instance, how people contract HIV/AIDS. They meet for two hours once a week for three months. The teacher goes on to another location in the afternoon and then on to other places the other days of the week. The education effort is funded by Catholic Relief Services. (IR photo courtesy of Msgr. Frank Bach)
“The other fascinating thing for me,” Msgr. Bach said, “maybe because of my Catholic Charities business background, is that microfinance has become a big part of CRS work over there. It’s amazing how many of these small loans they give out, small loans, $50 to $500 max, and they have one year to repay. They use the money to improve their lives, so it might be buying better rice seed, or fingerlings for fish farms. For an outsider it looks like two-thirds of the country is underwater, so it looks like you could just throw the fish out there and away they go. But the problem is that they do have a dry season, and they have not learned the irrigation techniques. So they lose a lot of the fish unless they move them into a pool.
“But they have 61,000 borrowers, and they have $8.8 million out in loans. Interest is charged, and it’ll blow the American mind because the banking system there is so different, and the interest rate is so much higher there. I almost dropped my teeth when I heard that they charge 22 percent interest. But the banks charge even more! And furthermore, in these little villages there are no banks. One woman took out a loan so they could buy a bicycle so her husband could go around and sell ice cream. It could be a sewing machine so they could do craft work in the village. Very often they have a committee in the village to decide whether you’re reliable or not, whether you can get a loan. They have a lot of small group work, and CRS staff train village volunteers how to run small groups. The elders in the village, they come together and make the decision, so there is a lot of self-determination in these programs. I’m very impressed.”
Out of the 14 million people in Cambodia, there are fewer than 70,000 Christians; of those, perhaps 40,000-50,000 are Catholic. “We went to a church and a Vietnamese Jesuit priest conducted the Mass in Khmer, which is the Cambodian language. You sit down, and you have your shoes off, and he had an alb and stole on – it was hot as the dickens – in this small, thatched roof church. But the priest spoke English, so after Mass he thanked us for coming, and we spoke to him a little bit. But proselytizing in Cambodia is really a tough sell.”
Msgr. Bach said that he was extremely impressed with the determination of the people working for CRS in Cambodia.
“I would have been totally discouraged if I were working in those little villages, and I had to say, ‘Yes, I’m doing this work and I’ve affected 250 people.’ Well, 250 people in that little area is important! The other big thing is, it makes me so grateful to be in the United States. How lucky we are, and how much we take for granted compared to those poor folks who work so very diligently and have blessed little to show for it. They don’t have water, they don’t have sewers, the medical care is a disaster, and their schools! One of the ambitions of a lot of the people in these villages is that they would like to work toward having as many services in the villages as they have in the cities. But the stuff in the cities is a disaster. So that says something about how bad it is in the villages.”
In the end, it is the dedication and hard work of CRS staff and volunteers that stand out. “Many of them volunteer for five days a month, for $5 a day,” he said. “Well, that’s quite a commitment to help their brothers and sisters in need.”