Sunday, February 21, 2010

Haiti kidnapping

This article from the Idaho Statesman gives a good roundup of the various ways in which the cowboy mission program of the Central Valley Baptist Church of Meridian, Idaho, led by the shady businesswoman Laura Silsby, has been a fiasco: Experts: Laura Silsby and nine other Americans may have caused more fallout than they realize by Katy Moeller 02/21/10.

This Idaho missionary/kidnapping story has fascinated me from the start, both because it's like something straight out of a Law and Order mystery but also because it's shed some needed public light into some previously dark corners of the human-trafficking and adoption businesses, and the questionable ethics of missionary activities that involve adoption of "heathen" children as a goal. And as Moeller's article puts it, "The fallout offers a cautionary tale and a lesson for people who simply want to help." Real emergency aid is very different from disaster tourism.

Moeller's article focuses specifically on the problematic arrangement the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has with its local churches over international missions:

Any local Baptist church can plan and run its own relief project abroad - without training or approval from the Southern Baptist Convention's missions boards. But some church officials hope that the disastrous trip led by two Idaho churches will lead others considering such efforts to tap available training and resources.

The detention of the Baptists in Haiti, though, has the potential of making other countries wary of U.S. help.

"Clearly there is a concern that, because of the acts of this one team, our tremendous history of relief over the years would be tainted in some people's minds," Roger Oldham, vice president of Southern Baptist Convention relations, told The Associated Press.

On Wednesday, Morris H. Chapman, president of the convention's executive committee, told the Baptist Press that the detention of the U.S group for three weeks was "unfortunate for everyone involved - the Haitian people as well as the volunteers, their families and churches."

"Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder that there is no shortcut for proper training and orientation before embarking on short-term ministry trips," Chapman said. "I pray this will be a catalyst for more of our cooperating churches to take advantage of disaster-relief training offered through our North American Mission Board." [my emphasis]
To the extent our Establishment press notices things like this at all, they tend to let groups like the SBC slide to avoid being accused of being Liberal Press, which the Republicans accuse them of all the time anyway.

But SBC should be held to account by the press, by its members and by the law for its acts of omission which result in disasters like this. If I were a reporter covering this story, I would be asking questions about the extent to which the national SBC encourages local cowboy projects like Silsby's to get around restrictions that countries like Haiti place on the SBC's official mission activities. Although it was theoretically a local operation from an individual church (Moeller's article says the mission was sponsored by two Idaho churches, but I'm not sure that's correct), national SBC officials prominently defended Silsby's group, and not just in purely humanitarian terms.

The SBC isn't just the largest Protestant denomination in the country, it's also the largest fundamentalist organization, having gone through a bitter purge two decades ago to enforce a narrow, fundamentalist doctrinal conformity. The national organization can duck legal liability for things like local church staff committing acts of sexual misconduct, because the Church is organized so that assignment of pastors is handled by individual churches, not by the national denomination. They have used a similar argument to duck responsibility for Silsby's cowboy operation in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

But the SBC was more than willing to use its central power to enforce doctrinal conformity. Churches that don't toe the line can be denied the Southern Baptist franchise, i.e., kicked out of the denomination. Since it is the largest Protestant denomination, the franchise means a lot to local congregations. It could apply similar sanctions on international mission operations.

Given that the Silsby operation involved the Southern Baptist brand name in a child-kidnapping action with more than one dubious, sleazy or criminal character heavily involved (Silsby, Jorge Torres Puello, Jean Sainvil), the statements from SBC officials Moeller quotes in the segment above are surprisingly mild.

The Christian Science Monitor ran another lessons-learned piece on the case on 02/18/10, US missionaries: Lessons from Haiti adoption or 'child kidnapping' case by Sara Miller Llana:

“There is a universal urge to help children. That universal urge is so much more powerful when children are in a crisis,” says W. Warren Binford, an assistant professor of law and an expert on international children's rights at Willamette University College of Law in Oregon. But this case shows, she says, how “important it is not to act on those instincts, without considering the long-term consequences.”
Llana also quotes Christopher Schmidt, an attorney with experience in international child custody disputes:

"I think the real key to remember is that it is a crime, in any country in the world, including Haiti and the US, to go to a foreign country, even if intentions are humanitarian, and to take children without consent of both parents and the government," says Schmidt.
With the kind of recklessness this Idaho group showed in their actions, it's really hard to credit their supposed good intentions.

Frank Bajak also reported in a 02/20/10 article for the A********* P**** that All Haitian 'orphans' with Baptists had parents. He also provides some useful detail on the parents who agreed to send their children to the (make-shift) orphanage, thinking it would be a temporary arrangement.

He also inteviews Pastor Jean Sainvil, a Georgia-based Haitian who helped Silsby's group round up the 33 children they tried to kidnap. According to Sainvil in that interview, he first met Silsby on January 27. It's yet another sign of the irresponsibility (at best!) of Silsby's operation that she was relying on a man she had just met for such a task that was critical to be done honestly, legally and professionally. Bajak notes that Sainvil has left Haiti but "denied leaving out of fear he might be arrested".

The Texas member of the group of eight that were released, Jim Allen, appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show Friday: Jim Allen's First Interview The Oprah Winfrey Show 02/19/10. Oprah did a half-decent job interviewing him, asking him to describe what he saw of how the children were rounded up. He made it sound like the only children he saw delivered to the group were brought out directly from an orphanage. Ophrah didn't follow up to clarify whether that was consistent with the reports of how Sainvil rounded up kids from their parents. She could also have probed a bit more as to Allen's motives for going on this cowboy mission trip. He flat-out denied the report that several members of the group had signed a statement and passed it to the press saying that Silsby was lying about the case while they were all in jail in Haiti.

Since Allen still faces legal charges in Haiti, the value of such interviews is questionable. Only if he made a statement that would be obviously against his own legal interests would it have particular credibility. Which would be foolish for anyone in his position to do.

Another of the eight released, Paul Thompson, appeared on the Today Show. I couldn't find a transcript, but John Hanna and Caryn Rousseau reported on it in an A********* P**** story Freed missionaries describe experience in Haiti Denver Post 02/20/10.

"We're four guys — well, we're a group of 10 people — that are convinced that it's better to get up off the couch and go and help people than just sit on a couch and do nothing," missionary Paul Thompson said during a segment taped from Topeka and aired Friday on NBC's "Today" show. Thompson is from Twin Falls, Idaho.
Thompson's story quoted there had a kind of self-defensive whining that I didn't hear in Allen's interview with Oprah.

But I was struck in Allen's interview and with what I've seen quoted from Thompson's that they didn't seem to have any sense that they had done anything that called for some kind of regret. Or even some Christian humility that they might have approached things in the wrong way. Their attorneys may prefer that they not talk in public at all. But surely there's a way they could express regret without admitting legal culpability.


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