Chaos surrounding Haitian orphans

We have a very complex and ugly story developing right now down in Haiti, one than calls up the demons of all the tensions that exist in that nation between Americans and Haitians and, it must be stressed, between competing religious groups inside Haiti.

But before we get into that, the Washington Post needs to run an immediate correction on a mistake at the top of this story:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Ten American Baptists who tried to leave Haiti with 33 destitute children were stuck in legal limbo Monday, with Haitian and U.S. officials negotiating over whether the church members should be prosecuted in the United States.

The Americans, Baptist church members from Idaho and other states, said they were taking the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and deny any wrongdoing. But Haitian authorities said members of the group, who have little experience in international adoptions, did not have permission to leave the country with the children. On Monday, the church members were being held in a dank room at the judicial police headquarters, where they had not yet been charged, as Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and other Haitian authorities met with U.S. officials to discuss their fate.

Fortil Mazar, a prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, said members of the group face kidnapping and child-smuggling charges. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States is helping in the investigation but has not yet determined the “appropriate course” of action.

Now, if you know anything about the complex state of Baptist life in America, you know that there are American Baptists — as in members of the more liberal American Baptist Churches USA — and then there are Baptists who are Americans, which could mean that they could be members of the giant Southern Baptist Convention, members of hundreds of other Baptist bodies or simply members of completely independent Baptist congregations.

The lede says “American Baptists” — which is simply wrong.

The Post story does follow the trail, via the Internet, to the proper congregation. But the story does not pay attention to the status of that church, in terms of its national or state affiliations.

The Baptists said that they were simply saving the children, ages 2 to 12, in their care and that they had come from orphanages that had been devastated in the quake.

“The children were being taken to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic where they could be cared for and have their medical and emotional needs attended to,” said a statement on the Web site of Central Valley Baptist Church, which is based in Meridian, Idaho. “Our team was falsely arrested today and we are doing everything we can from this end to clear up the misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, the SBC’s wire service has some crucial information on the identity of these Southern Baptists, who happen to be from Idaho (far outside the South, in other words):

Members of two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho are awaiting word on what a Haitian judge will decide Feb. 1 when he hears the case of 10 Americans accused of unlawfully trying to remove 33 children from Haiti.

Five of the 10 are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and three are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, including Eastside’s pastor, Paul Thompson. Two others are believed to be from other states.

“Both churches are very missions-minded and have sent members overseas many times,” said Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention. “They went over to help. I really don’t believe they had anything less than perfect motives.” Lee said while he had been informed by email that the churches were planning trips to Haiti, the trips were not coordinated through the Utah-Idaho convention.

According to Clint Henry, pastor of Central Valley Baptist, the Baptists lacked one document at the Haitian border and returned to Port-au-Prince to get it, where they were confronted and detained.

For me, the most crucial information that is in the Baptist Press report — with credit given to the Associated Press — is in this section:

Henry said Laura Silsby and another member of his church started New Life Children’s Refuge before the earthquake as a way to help orphaned Haitian children. According to an AP report, given the living conditions for the children and the breakdown in government control, Silsby said she didn’t think about Haitian permission to take the children out of the country. She said they only had the best intentions and paid no money for the children, whom she said were brought to a Haitian pastor by distant relatives. …

Silsby and her team had been working with a Haitian pastor named Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries, AP said. The earthquake destroyed the orphanage facilities, and facing the chaos that followed the earthquake, the ministry team was trying to help Sanbil ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the children. Sanbil had made arrangements for housing the children temporarily in the Dominican Republic, and the team was working to help him transport the children there.

In other words, it appears — I stress appears — that the members of this Baptist team were working with a Protestant Haitian ministry called Sharing Jesus Ministries and that a Haitian pastor was working with them, including making some of the arrangements.

But one fact is not clear and it is crucial: Is “Sharing Jesus Ministries” actually an orphanage? In other words, were the Southern Baptists from America working with a Haitian pastor who was already in charge of the children in question, through connections in their families?

This is a crucial question for reporters, when investigating the hot, hot accusations of kidnapping and trafficking.

However, it is also clear that the religious tensions in Haiti between Protestants and Catholics, especially Catholics who have blended Voodoo practices into their daily lives, are at the heart of this story. As I have stressed all along (here is a crucial post to catch up), these tensions are powerful among the Haitians themselves, as well as between Haitians and American missionary workers.

Consider this passage in a USA Today blog post by veteran religion-beat specialist Cathy Grossman.

Are Haiti earthquake ‘orphans’ fair game for evangelizing? … Some critics say the race to remove Haiti’s children is culturally insensitive, if not downright illegal. Others are offended by the prospect of children from a Catholic culture being airlifted into evangelical institutions or families — losing their faith along with their families.

Valid questions, although it may be a rush to assume that all of the people in “a Catholic culture” are (a) Catholics or (b) practicing Catholics, a distinction that has been the subject of talks between Protestants and Catholics of good will for decades. The native Protestant presence in Haiti is rising rapidly, as has been mentioned in some press reports.

However, this time around there is a more basic question that must be asked first: Were the Baptists, in fact, working with Haitian orphans who had been brought, by their relatives or others, to an orphanage operated by Haitian Protestants where they were to be cared for and, one would assume, potentially adopted? In other words, had Haitians arranged this transfer of the children?

It seems that someone needs to talk to the pivotal Haitian figure in this story — Pastor Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries — pronto.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Judy Harrow

    I totally agree with Tmatt that the key question here is what religion the particular children were before the quake.

    There’s certainly no problem, apart from paperwork issues, with taking Protestant children to a Protestant facility. But if any of the children were actually Catholic, or Vodouissaint, or hybrid of the two (which is most common in Haiti), then I would want to know what steps were being taken to ensure that they received proper religious instruction in accordance with their own heritage. Anything less is a mild form of cultural genocide.

  • Peter

    I would argue the key question is whether Sanbil even exists and whether these people were pawns or active participant in a human trafficking scheme that preys on dogooders in US churches.

  • Jerry

    I heard CNN’s take on the story when I was exercising last night. They left a strong impression that the Americans were very naive but well motivated. The story indicated that many if not all parents had indeed given up their children but that the Americans had made only minimal efforts to contact the Haitian government but just left after a bit. The story also indicated that the Americans thought they were doing God’s will in their actions.

  • Paul Higgins

    Just to make it even more confusing, there are (at least) two groups known as American Baptist and neither of them is the American Baptist Convention.

    The denomination you mentioned (and provided a link to) is the American Baptist Churches/USA. They stopped using the name American Baptist Convention back in 1972.

    There’s also the American Baptist Association, a smaller and more conservative group, based in Texas.

    It appears the American Baptist Churches/USA is trying to get the press to stop using the wording American Baptist for this story. Here’s a notice on their website that appears to have been sent to broadcast news organizations.

    My local newspaper this morning carried an AP story that referred to U.S. Baptists (except for the American Baptists caption on the photo). But the Washington Post still hasn’t posted a correction.

  • Bob Smietana

    Doubt will see a Post correction on using “American Baptists” because it’s not a mistake. They are Americans, and they are Baptists–so it’s not an mistake. “Southern Baptists” would have been more precise, or just plain “Americans.” Maybe we’ll see a clarification, which might be in order. But not a full blown correction.

    Some Nashville Baptists spent last working with displaced and orphaned children in Haiti–taking them from hospitals to orphanages where they could be cared for until their parents or relatives could be found. Not surprisingly, they said the process was chaotic, with no one sure what documents they needed to move kid within in the country, never mind crossing to the Dominican Republic. The Nashville folks used an abundance of caution in the process–the Idaho Baptist apparently did not.

  • Peter

    Is American Baptist wrong, or imprecise? The AP stylebook says “American” is fine and “Baptist” is fine and doesn’t require “American Baptist” alone when talking about that grouping. So in a Haiti datelined story, it may be a little imprecise, but quite clear to the large majority of readers.

  • dalea

    Since the press usually is confused by the three main Lutheran bodies it is no wonder the myriad Baptists churches get mixed up.

    For weeks now the press has been reporting that the government of Haiti is gone, that no one is in charge. Now we hear of border guards, agencies issuing documents and a functioning police department. Which is it?

  • tipi tim

    i guess i’ve forgotten some things that mrs. miller taught me back in middle school and i get german mixed in sometimes but when i read “American Baptists” that makes me think of a specific baptist denomination, but when i read “american Baptists” that makes me think of Baptists from the U.S. with the lowercase “a” signifying an adjective rather than a proper noun. or does that only work in german?

  • Peggy

    My husband and I adopted our children from another country, as many Americans and other westerners do. I am quite concerned about the presumptuousness of missionary groups swooping in and apparently taking the children into their care. Even in a properly pursued adoption, respect for the child’s native culture and government’s rights to ensure the children are safely placed are vital and not to be trivialized. A number of families reportedly have adoptions in progress. I can understand the desire to complete those and get the children to safety, but the nation is sovereign and has a right to make sure all the usual issues are addressed. Is the government up and running enough to process the already-begun adoptions? The missionaries coming in and taking charge of children without authority is very alarming to me, regardless of their motives. The Catholic-evangelical conflict is part of the cultural issues in these cases.

  • http://biblebeltblogger Frank Lockwood

    You’ve got to have a few loose screws to think you can 1.) pick up kids who aren’t yours 2.) without the permission of the government and then 3.) take the kids out of the country 4.) without the permission of the government. Even in Haiti. Even after an earthquake.

    “But I thought God wanted me to do it,” isn’t a defense that is going to hold up in court. And “But it never occurred to me that I’d need permission from the government” isn’t going to go over well either.

    Haiti is, and probably should, make an example of these folks, so that nobody else tries this stunt.

  • Martha

    I agree with the opinions of Peggy and Frank Lockwood. It is extremely troubling that people untrained in foreign aid work, whether they be Americans or other non-Haitians, Baptists or not, could just jump into the current state of chaotic confusion in Haiti and go around taking children without without proper and careful documentation, transporting them out of their own country to who knows where. With the high awareness that exists of the dangers many of these Haitian children face of being kidnapped and smuggled out to be abused and exploited, these church members and their pastor should have understood that their actions could have been been interpreted as, at the very least, suspicious. These Baptists could have had good intentions but they seemed to have rushed into Haiti terribly unprepared and with little planning. Did the proper officials in the Dominican Republic know beforehand that this group were going to hastily transport 33 Haitian children into their country and set them up in a temporary hotel, as I heard reported on CNN last night? And what was going to happen to these children afterwards? Who was going to care for them? Were they going to be put up for adoption eventually even though as was reported some of them were not orphans at all, handed over by desperate families hoping for a better life away from their homes. Outside church/missionary groups just can’t go into Haiti randomly picking up children and then claim that they’re doing it because they want to help. There are other ways these kids can be helped without removing them from their country. There are still rules and regulations that need to be followed. Haiti is a sovereign nation whose sovereignty needs to be respected and well as her children.



    Who is an orphan? The answer is relative. According to the old testament the word orphan goes beyond the loss of a single or both parents.

    In fact if one lost parent but those parents had left behind a fortune for hm or her that child was not registered as an orphan, while if one had both parents, who had virtually nothing in place for his or her survival that individual was bracketed as an orphan.

    In Uganda the S.O.S Children Villages took over 30 students who had both parents from the Primary and Secondary School I served as a teacher and later a Principal for seven years.

    I together with the (PTA) Parents Teachers Association voted to let the children go to where they could access at least 3 meals a day than staying in my school and come to read while on 0.8 filled tummies.

    I and also their parents regularly visited the students until they finished their secondary education and three of them are now qualified teachers.

    If I were in Idaho with that Baptist church I would have gone with them and even now I am willing to provide support to their vision, with or without Haitian Children.

    There is no Charity that can claim the capacity to ameliorate the global plight of the needy world wide and each charity organization or agency regardless whether it is for profit or not for profit has a significantly different mission statement, and should not be suffocated by celebrity charities.

    Death, Accidents and Disaster do not make appointment.They are Forces of Natural Calamity what some one with strong sentimentality called “Forces of Natural Selection”

    It is a shame upon the people of Haiti to see that those Missionaries have been forced into forced housing call it custody when millions in Haiti have no where to sleep and even nothing to eat and sleep on and because of a weak Prime Minister innocent people who are helping out where formative and common sense bureaucracy has failed to provide for its own.

    The Haitian Prime Minister has all the tools of communication to consult with the U.S. Ambassador in Haiti to establish the existence and equity of the religious institution or church the missionaries were representing.

    The Lady Minister/Pastor must be having a congregation or home church and may be an offering was even made to help out these children regardless whether they are orphans or just from families that have absolutely lost anything.

    To go to a place of refugee regardless the causative factors sometimes you may not need well decorated paper work because even counterfeiters can make them.

    Even in most countries few people hold birth certificates and passports and to apply for one you will need several months of negotiating with corrupt officers and police to get through, that’s why the church took on the needy children who did not understand their needy situation as they were and sort them afterwards as long as their parents new where their children are going to be housed.

    Americans have responded with both empathy and sympathy to the Haitian disaster.There those who have donated the last penny they had to ensure that life is saved.

    To require them to have a registered orphanage or charity and paper work to the letter is to frustrate open ended assistance when people are dieing from the multiplier effects of the tremor.

    No one ever made a disaster proposal for Haiti and help came at a random from all circles even my home church has been still contributing funds to go to Haiti in aid of support services ranging from Nutrition, Health, Education, Adoption and just extended family support.

    Those thirty children who have been intercepted may never make it to high school.

    It is true they were crying for their parents because those taking them spoke an accent they did not understand properly, they are still having images of the dreadful earthquake.

    That trauma will haunt them for a very long time, though they had to fear the unknown, but the mere fact that their parents consented to their being taken care of this was not an Adoption and or an Abduction but a lee-way to an opened window of opportunity.

    The Haiti Prime Minister is owed a STRONG APOLOGY to the missionaries and other people of good sense who are and/or were trying to paint dignity to a small segment of the Haitian suffrage.

    The Prime Minister should not try to gain political capital out of adversity of his own people, by sacrificing the souls of those good intentioned Americans. He should appreciate an administrative vacuum in his country let go those who can receive support somewhere and concentrate on those folks who were dying before the earthquake and are still at the death ebb, without any hope for external guardian angels to relocate them temporarily or permanently.

    Churches have networks and it is now an open secret the American Congregation contacted their fellow parishioners in the U.S.A to support the project and other counterparts within the Dominican Republic and a facility was secured to launch a lambs shelter.

    To me that is a shovel ready project any sensible government, financier and volunteer can lend a helping hand even if they have not acquired the required formalism to be either an adoption agency, orphanage and/or a multi-purpose International School of Joint Parenthood, which admits children living under strenuous circumstances, whether orphaned or not.

    In fact it would have been Silly Strategic Planning on part of the “Central Valley Baptist Church” and Pastor Drew Ham to abandon a Motel they acquired specifically to turn it into a a residential Lambs Learning Shelter, and turn around to ask their congregation to raise funds to purchase land in Haiti and build another one while children are dying.

    Such a diversion of a strategic plan would be silly to conceive especially after seeing sadistic forces in Haiti asking the hungry to throw away nutritious foods brought in by the international donors claiming that they were expired and the prime minster did not criticize the deception and instead was quick to throw in prison charity bearing christian ministers.

    Yours truly, Simon Peter Kabala-Kasirye

  • tmatt

    Lots of interesting things said.

    Almost none of them about the central JOURNALISM points in the post.

    We do not know:

    * Were the kids at an orphanage? Whose orphanage?

    * What was the role of the Haitian pastor in this?

    * Is Sharing Jesus Ministries in Haiti an orphanage? It seems that the AP material used by BP says that it is. Is that true?

    * Is it “randomly picking up children” if this group was working with a Haitian pastor who runs an orphanage and they were working with children under his care?

    There are basic questions of fact her that need to be answered, no matter how out of line you personally think the actions of these Baptists were….

  • Darrell Turner

    The mainstream media, including AP and the Washington Post, have been very derelict in their journalistic duties to find and report the identity of the Baptists involved. It would have taken one or two phone calls to determine that the Baptists in Idaho were Southern Baptists. Whether the term “American Baptists” was used or only the term “Baptists,” these words may refer to more than 100 denominations and associations and countless non-affiliated congregations that call themselves Baptist.

  • Dave

    The PBS News Hour also said “American Baptists,” and I immediately wondered if they knew what they were talking about. Evidently not.

  • Joel

    Tipi Tim, both American and Baptist have to be capitalized.

    I really think it’s six of one, half-dozen of the other. We’ve referred in countless stories to “American Catholics,” but it’s clear that American is the nationality and not the denomination.

    While the American Baptists (in which I was raised) and the North American Baptists (to which I also have belonged) and the Conservative Baptists and the Southern Baptists can all tell each other apart, I doubt most other folks could, other than by the sign out front. “Baptist” seems like a good catchall term, especially since they’re kind of exotic to Haiti anyway.

  • Victor

    Gentleman, History shows that while doing good deeds without experience wrong can be attached to it or from it.

    Forget the Religion stupidity, if they rae Baptist or Catholic or Voodoists!!! they are children that needs help!!! but it needs to be done properly you just cannot take kids on your own and leave!!! I do not buy it they are linked in soemthing else.

    Churches that have been working in the Island ( Haiti and DR) have the knowledge and experience of how to do it, even the ilegal ways, so it is very strange what has happened, smuggling kids is against the law and they must pay!!!

  • Steve H

    The facts are not all know yet, at least not to us. Most of what I am reading either paints these people as some sort of religious/nutcase/mafia/crime-syndicate or as innocent do-gooders. For whatever reason, the press wants to hang them. I suspect it is their fascination with trying to destroy anything Christian related if possible. Nothing like a good Christian scandal.

    Unfortunately, there won’t be much press coverage on the millions of dollars and man-hours that Christian people are and will continue to pour into helping the Haitian people.

    Having said that, it would be wise for people with little or no experience in relief work to get some training prior to jumping in. Unfortuately, that didn’t seem to happen here. I say “seem” because I admit I don’t know the full story.

    The Chalmers Center (I am not affilitated with them) is holding a webinar called “helping haiti without hurting” in a couple of weeks. I don’t believe it is in response to this situation. They have been studying and training people in how to actually help impoverished people for some time.

    Here is a link to an article I wrote about it:

  • Bern

    If people do something dumb, stupid, and insensitive because they are Baptists from America–whatever branch they belong to–doesn’t make their methodology any less dumb, nor does it make reporting that motivation without the depth of detail that tmatt asks for some kind of media plot against Christians. It’s always the man bites dog isn’t it?

  • Paul Higgins

    Well, Terry, it appears that the Washington Post finally decided to print that correction you wanted to see.

    Actually, it’s not really a correction. They call it a clarification instead. And it only took three-and-a-half weeks. It’s good to see how responsive they can be to constructive criticism!