We met Fr. Dion in Bongao on the island of Tawi Tawi. By then (1970) the late Joseph Dion, OMI, had more influence with Muslims in the area than any other Christian. He was also instrumental in creating the Christian-Muslim Peace Movement, an effort that failed after his death. A simple man with a big heart he earned respect through simple acts of courage and kindness. He was a teacher and a priest. He taught at the Norte Dame School of Tawi-Tawi in Bongao and served as perish priest on Siasi, a perish that extended way beyond the two islands.
Without minimizing his accomplishments as an Oblate, his greatest impact came from his interpersonal relationships. He showed respect for everyone regardless of his or her beliefs, and he was respected for his sense of fairness. Moreover, he withstood many pressures from inside and outside the church and carried on in spite of threats. In spite of them, he never seemed concerned. Nothing stopped Fr. Dion, and he never seemed to be in a hurry and approached life with a great deal of serenity. It was nothing less than extraordinary. To understand the importance of Fr. Joseph Dion and the peace movement, you have to realize that after his assassination we wouldn’t have been able to travel throughout the Sulus the way we did.
We met Fr. Dion after we heard about him, and we sat with him on his porch in Bongoa. His house was a western-style house, one of the few on the island. Fr. Dion, a rather lean-faced gentleman (in blue jeans, a black shirt, and a white reversed collar), who spoke English with a French-Philippine accent, invited us to dinner before another Oblate arrived, wearing the same garb and acting just as friendly. This was Fr. Stacy, and he greeted us when he came in. He gave Fr. Dion a small package, sat down across from us, and said, “The boat you were on brings our mail,” and indicated the package.
“It’s nice to be remembered,” Fr. Dion said. “It was my birthday a month ago, and I still have a sister in Quebec, who cares for me.”
Nick and I heard of Fr. Dion on Basilan, and now Nick asked him if he, as a priest, felt uncomfortable over the unrest there.
“When I was on Basilan several months ago, I learned that some of my old high school students were creating considerable noise in the jungle,” Fr. Dion said. ”Several of their fathers admitted to me that they were disappointed in their sons. Maybe they said that for my benefit … I don’t know, but the ones I knew best worked with me on the Peace Movement project. They’ve all been students of mine, and I don’t think they’re hostile towards me. In a way I can understand. There aren’t many saints in the Philippine government.”
I asked him if he ever felt afraid and unsafe.
“Well, I’m human. But I rely on local people and the shield of God,” Fr. Dion said. “I’ve been in the Sulus for a long time. I know many people. I have connections. I’m rarely around strangers. I’m always running into former students or children of former students. Muslims … Christians … I’m always invited into their homes. I don’t proselyte. I only serve. I’m just as comfortable in a mosque as in a church. I’ve lived here for more than thirty years, surrounded mostly by Muslims, and we are friends.”
“What was it like when you first came here?” I asked.
“I don’t remember it being terribly difficult,” Fr. Dion said. “You see, I was on a great adventure, and Bongao seemed as far as away from a dairy farm in southern Quebec as you could get. I felt a bit confined, a bit isolated, a bit bored and alone, a bit out of sorts. I never lived on an island before, and I didn’t know how to swim.”
I asked the Friar then whether he was afraid of water, and instead of replying he said, “You see, I had to learn how to walk on water. I had just received my divinity degree, when God called me to the Philippines. And I learned to walk on water. . Kidding aside, I have an affinity for boats, and there isn’t an island in the archipelago that I haven’t explored. So, when someone says something has happened somewhere…no matter how remote … I can generally find out what really happened.”
I asked whether he missed Quebec.
“As God willed, this is my home,” Fra Dion said. ”It is where I will be buried.”
Nick said he had to stretch his legs and excused himself. Later he said he’d reached a set of assumptions and was surprised by Fr. Dion’s popular support.
Fr. Dion concluded, “I don’t have time to sit still. There’s always more to do. When I’m praised, I say I don’t have time for it. God calls us to do more rather than less. There’s too much to lose, real losses, loss of what we’ve won and what God calls us to do, loss of ground, loss of hope. I don’t want to lose sight of why I came here in the first place.”
Elpidio had been a student of Fr. Dion. He left Bongao to attend Mindanao State University in Marawi, and there for the first time became convinced of the virtue of Jihad, yet because of Fr. Dion’s influence he lacked focus. The kindness shown by his teacher had an affect, such as gifts that helped pay for his education. Fr. Dion saw Elpidio’s potential right off the bat. Whereas other students struggled with reading, writing, and arithmetic, this boy had a foundation in all three before he entered school. He had gotten help from someone. Fr. Dion suspected it was from the boy’s mother. Even as a small boy Elpidio, according to the friar, had an inquisitive nature and asked questions “about everything under the sun.” This when other boys his age were more interested in swimming. It took everyone who knew Elpidio by surprise, especially Fr. Dion, when they found out that the boy they knew had taken “a rightful position” that led him to waging Jihad in the jungles of Basilan. Actually, Fr. Dion could never see the astute, gentle boy he knew ever posing a threat to anyone. In any event, when Nick and I told him about the contact we had with the rebels on Basilan, our host smiled and said the secessionists were in “enlightened” hands. This, Fr. Dion said, gave him hope. In fact, he thought he could walk into the jungles of Basilan and find a friendly Elpidio.
I began to wonder, without being aware of it, if Nick and I had run into Fr. Dion’s student (a tip off may have been the books in the nipa hut of the leader we met on Basilan). He had been friendly enough. And he seemed to know a great deal about the Meranaos of Marawi.
Now when Fr. Dion learned that Nick and I may have had contact with him, he questioned us thoroughly about the encounter. Elpidio, during his four years at Mindanoa State University, when he was figuring out what he was going do, stayed in close contact with Fr. Dion, and, as he struggled, he thought about converting to Catholicism. Surprisingly, the friar discouraged him. Much later, after Elpidio dove into the jungles of Basilan and his separatist activities, Fr. Dion wondered what would’ve happened had his prize student converted to Christianity. What would it have meant for the peace movement? He tried to make sense of the contradictions and explain how such a gentle boy could become ultimately a threat. But remember all of his sources, though reliable, were secondhand.