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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