In his scathing book-length essay about Mother Teresa — The Missionary Position — the late atheist rabble-rouser Christopher Hitchens noted with contempt that the sainted advocate of India’s sickly poor baptized patients on their deathbeds without their knowledge or regard for their religion.
In his book, Hitchens quoted Susan Shields, a former member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity organization who confirmed the practice.
“Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a ‘ticket to heaven’. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism,” Shields told Hitchens. “The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient’s head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptising him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims.”
Certainly, it could be argued that a little water or a wet cloth on the head won’t hurt anything in the grand scheme of things, but this misses the point entirely. Imagine, if you will, a devout Christian comatose and close to death on a hospital bed, and some Voodoo practitioners enter uninvited and proceed to dance, drum and play music to appease the wrath of angry ancestors through intervention of the deity Loas. Imagine if the family were to show up.
Such an invasion is a violation of something more universally sacred than any sanctified religious imagining: individual sovereignty of mind and body.
This is why atheists and the religiously uninvolved find intrusive evangelism so off-putting. It’s an unwanted and un-asked-for encroachment of self. An insult — an assault really — against human individuality.
With this in mind, consider what’s now happening in New York City’s Central Park, where Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organization last week began operating a 64-bed temporary hospital to treat overflow patients from nearby coronavirus-stressed Mount Sinai Hospital.
This pre-fab crisis facility has real doctors, nurses and other medical professionals tending to the sick and dying related to the current pandemic, and that is noble work to be applauded. The concern for detractors is the alleged heavy-handed evangelism and alleged bigotry of its organizer, Samaritan’s Purse, and the fact that only Christians who meet faith guidelines can work in the sudden hospital.
Considering, as New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio said last week, that a vast majority of the city’s residents are non-Christian, you can understand concerns for, say, Muslim or Jewish patients. De Blasio admitted he was “very concerned” about the facility and sent aides from his office to monitor it.
Also, considering that Samaritan’s Purse President and CEO Franklin Graham, the son of American evangelical icon the late Billy Graham, has a long history of slamming and shaming LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, those folks can be forgiven for having less than full confidence in how they might be treated at the Central Park pop-up hospital.
Jonathan Merritt in his op-ed last week in the Daily Beast, said people can be of two minds about the situation.
“[A] person can believe that the brave doctors and nurses currently deploying to Central Park to help combat this terrible virus are brave and necessary and also believe that the organization chosen to manage the work of these doctors and nurses is deeply problematic,” he wrote.
Mount Sinai Hospital was also so concerned about past questionable activities of Samaritan’s Purse that it asked the organization to “sign a written pledge to treat all patients equally,” Merritt reported.
Such past activities include organization’s “blurring of lines between church and state” by evangelizing victims while helping them in in concert with USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) after an earthquake in El Salvador.
“We are first a Christian organization and second an aid organization,” a Samaritan’s Purse spokesman said in response to criticism.
In America, though, religion should always be secondary to public health.
Another incident occurred in the first Gulf War, when U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf publicly criticized the Christian group “for trying to coerce American troops serving in Saudi Arabia to covertly distribute Arab-language Bibles under the guise of humanitarian work,” Merritt reported.
The charity’s past is once concern, but the immediate one involves the religious tests it requires medical workers to pass to participate in the Central Park hospital project.
Tests are part of the organization’s official 15-point Statement of Faith, which, among other Bible-based tenets requires hospital workers to accept that the Bible is “the infallible, authoritative Word of God” (a literalist interpretation); that God is tripartite (Father, Son and Holy Ghost); that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, was sinless lifelong and arose bodily into Heaven when he died; that immortal salvation is only possible through Jesus; and that God authorizes marriage only between “one genetic male and one genetic female” as the “basic structure of human society.”
How many medical providers might be turned away who don’t measure up, and how will LGBTQ and non-Christian patients be treated? These are fair questions when the need is great and the supply of medical specialists is finite, and when the directing organization has a history of bigotry and unbridled evangelizing.
Patients at the Central Park hospital should be confident that the quality of their care will always take precedence over the state of their purported souls.