Somewhere in Port au Prince, Haiti, there are ten white American Evangelical Christians sitting in a jail cell, wondering how they came to this fate. The American “Missionaries” from New Life Children’s Refuge were charged Thursday with child kidnapping and criminal association for trying to take 33 “orphans” across the border into the Dominican Republic; they’re also exhibit A in the trial of colonialism, evangelical fervor, and designer adoption chic.
The whole incident becomes even more startling when you consider that the bulk of the group are not seasoned missionaries, but just regular church folks who felt “called” to get involved. These laypersons, who have never gone on a real missions trip and have no formal training, belong to churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention whose missionary work in recent years has been suspect. Their case has taken over news of earthquake relief efforts; indeed, you can bank on ten white Americans Christians in a Haitian jail receiving more press than the 200,000 estimated dead in Haiti, plus the millions still trying to get fresh water, food, and a roof over their heads. Even more trying is the fact that after all the media hoopla about violence in Haiti, who ends up in jail? Ten white American Christians. The irony is epic.
Better Yet, Stay Home
The misplaced missionary impulse to save the heathen children and impart “civilization” by loading a bunch of Haitian kids in a bus and heading for a resort with a swimming pool, to share the “good news” and be adopted, is simply ludicrous. No reputable missions organization works that way. Still, despite the group’s irresponsible and crude behavior, I suspect that many in America thought that the missionaries would be on a transport home by now.
Frankly, if anyone in the group had even bothered to read Haiti’s Wikipedia page, they might have thought twice about a plan to take black children out of the country without paperwork. By disregarding even the most basic history of slavery, missions, or colonial activity in Haiti, their missionary impulse failed them miserably. With all of the missions already on the ground in Haiti, what made them think they could just take children out of the country? The ignorance and naïveté of this group is staggering, except when considered from the perspective of the evangelical imperative of Go ye into all the world. Last time I checked, however, that scripture did not mean take children and make them Christians by spiriting them away to be adopted by other families.
Unfortunately, Missions history shows otherwise. In the United States, and many other countries, families of non-Christian groups were subjected to Christian missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who took children away for adoptions or at the very least to attend church schools. Many were never reunited with their parents, and some came to hate their parents as a result of the indoctrination. Haitians are well-attuned to missionaries, as several missions’ organizations have been in the country for more than fifty years. So before the Haitian government is criticized for arresting the New Life group, remember: they understand what it is like to have the United Nations and many religious relief organizations operating within their country—and they know what’s legal.
If the New Life Group had really wanted to help these children, they could have done it right there on the spot, rather than going to the remote community of Calebasse and taking children into the Dominican Republic. Better yet, send money and stay home; let professionals handle the situation. It wasn’t as though Haiti was bereft of missions groups.
Moreover, the leader of New Life Children’s rescue, Laura Silsby, has had serious legal problems in the past, most recently losing the house she bought for the ministry to foreclosure at the end of 2009. The fact that neither of the churches involved with the missions group vetted her thoroughly before leading a missions trip will open them to lawsuits, above and beyond the legal fees and costs incurred from the current incarceration. Silby’s motives are also suspect in part because she seemed to realize what she was doing, stating in an interview on Monday that the group did not intend to offer the children for adoption. “We intended to raise those children and be with them their entire lives, if necessary,” she said. It also seems that a plan was in place for an orphanage long before the earthquake occurred.
In addition to the missionaries themselves, the Southern Baptist Convention should be held accountable for the colonialist statement put out by Morris H. Chapman, who stated in a press release that “The Haitian government and the international community immediately interpreted their actions in the worst light possible, alleging that they were trafficking in children. As the story has unfolded, it has become more and more apparent that these ten individuals were driven by the true selflessness of altruism. Moved with compassion, they acted.”
If altruism is an attempt to grab a busload of kids by showing them pictures of a luxury hotel with a pool, I’ve got some swampland to sell the SBC. All I have to say to Mr. Chapman is, 19th-century Baptist missionary Lottie Moon would have known better. She lived among the people she served, and did not offer them hotel and a pool in exchange for Jesus.
The real crux of the issue is this: these ten do-gooders walked into the trap many well-meaning white evangelical Christians fall into: those poor brown/black/yellow/red people need My help. Jesus wants Me to help them. To much of white American Evangelical Christianity, the We often means Me. It’s what God Called Me to do. It’s what God would want Me to do. The problem with the Me mentality of much of conservative Evangelical Christianity is that they often can’t see the We—the people of Haiti—who love their kids so much they’re willing to let some white people who claim to be “Christians” take them away to what they promise will be “a better life.”
The focus on Me takes away from the real ways that people in disasters can be helped without the insertion of well-meaning, clueless interlopers into their story. The New Life group is now finding out what living in an impoverished and earthquake-ravaged country is like. Perhaps now they will begin to understand what it means to live alongside the poor, as opposed to swooping into a disaster for a quick “feel-good Christian moment” designed to make them feel better about themselves. Hopefully, other groups will rally to do the real work that is still so urgently needed, and make a long-term commitment to bring life and stability to Haiti and its children who are in desperate need of it.