Ugly American Evangelism in Haiti

I’ve been sitting on this one for several days, partly because I wasn’t sure what I thought about it at first, and then later because there is such an ingrained aversion in everyone on the progressive side of the aisle not to say anything which can be easily caricatured by conservatives trained in Luntz-style talking points as anti-American or anti-Christian. So many of us were called the vilest things imaginable simply for urging we slow down and think more about what we were doing before we invaded Iraq, or even Afghanistan, and so much political hay was made by the right wing out of yet again painting anyone who was not enthusiastically ready to turn America indefinitely into a Jesus-themed episode of “24,” that I think many of us learned over time what things not to say – even if we felt them – because they were too easy to spin into a false but easily-grasped narrative of liberal (or Democrat) = anti-American, soft on national security, Christian-persecuting, etc.

But this story just gets more truly disgusting with every new revelation:

A group of U.S. Baptist missionaries arrested trying to leave Haiti with a busload of children faced more questioning by a local judge, while an orphanage director said many of the children had parents….

At the SOS Children’s Village orphanage where authorities are protecting the 33 children, regional director Patricia Vargas said none who are old enough and willing to talk said they are parentless: “Up until now we have not encountered any who say they are an orphan.”

Vargas said most of the children are between 3 and 6 years old, and unable to provide phone numbers or any other details about their origins.

The Americans apparently enlisted a clergyman who went knocking on doors asking people if they wanted to give away their children, the director of Haiti’s social welfare agency, Jeanne Bernard Pierre, told The Associated Press….

“It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents. And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong,” [Haitian Prime Minister Max] Bellerive told the AP.

I’ll say they did. When I first heard this story, I was forcefully reminded of the reports from 2004, in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated coastal areas from Thailand to Sri Lanka, which stated that mostly US-based Christian missionaries in Banda Aceh and elsewhere were using their material aid to tsunami victims as a wedge to converting them to Christianity. There were also reports, at the time, of evangelical Christians trying to “rescue” young children whose lives had been shattered by that disaster…by bringing them to explicitly religious American orphanages, too. To be fair, there were also hardline Muslim groups at the time doing the same thing in some of the same regions, which is equally contemptible. But it’s still not quite the same, when you speak the same language and are from a church just up the road – or even the next province – as it is when you’ve flown thousands of miles and knew nothing about the country or its people prior to the disaster. And the story just seems to be repeating itself today in Haiti.

As Prime Minister Bellerive says, there is no question that people who attempt to drive in secret across an international border with a busload of children they have rounded up by going door-to-door in a disaster area without the government’s permission or knowledge, asking if any parents wished to “give away” their children, knew what they were doing was wrong. Had they not believed that to be the case, they would have worked through normal governmental channels, and/or through regular NGOs which deal with international adoptions. None of that was done by these Baptists from Idaho.

I think what keeps most people from an even stronger reaction of revulsion when they first hear stories such as these is the initial reaction that hey, at least these people’s hearts were in the right place – at least they were trying to do something. That, coupled with the certain knowledge in most people’s mind of the immediate storm of pushback which would be inevitably unleashed if people such as these missionaries (and their stateside defenders and fellow travelers) think they smelled even a hint of anti-Christianity, kept initial reports very brief, vague and non-judgmental. The Washington Post’s initial story, for example, was a bare two-sentence AP wire blurb, tucked away inside a page eleventeen story innocuously titled: “A glance at Haiti developments 18 days after quake:”

Ten Americans were detained by Haitian police as they tried to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic, allegedly without proper documents. The Baptist church members from Idaho called it a “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission,” meant to save abandoned children from the chaos following Haiti’s earthquake.

I would be surprised if the Washington Post maintains a permanent Haiti bureau; foreign news has been mostly ceded to the television cable and network news giants and the wire services, so perhaps it’s somewhat unfair to criticize them and other US media outlets for not having jumped on this story more fully and quickly. Also, I won’t pretend to know the content of other people’s hearts – especially people I’ve never even met – but even the above, bland depiction is – or should be – enough to raise the hackles and suspicion (if not the lunch) of anyone who reads it carefully. The consciously planned and executed actions of these “missionaries” from an Idaho Baptist church appears, from the facts in evidence, to be straight-up kidnapping by any legal definition, if not actually child-abduction or trafficking. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t say whether these “missionaries'” actions met the technical legal definition of those latter, far more-serious crimes – but there’s no doubt that they were close enough that the “missionaries” have been detained in a Haitian jail, while lawyers who do know the answer to such questions have been brought in to investigate further.

Now, we also hear that Idaho’s congressional contingent has swung into action, trying ostensibly to “monitor the safety of these Idahoans and to make sure they have adequate food, water, medical care and proper housing.” Admirable, but the Statesman’s report also concludes with the seemingly-in-passing remark from Senator Crapo that “we hope for their return to the United States as quickly as possible.” Let us hope that last sentence isn’t political code-speak for “we’re doing our damndest, as these people’s representatives, from the most powerful country on Earth, to simply use our leverage to compel the Haitian government to release these lawbreakers from the grasp of their country’s court system.” I, too, hope for these people’s swift return to the United States…if the very serious allegations against them are proven groundless. But it would be a travesty of both justice and mercy for officials of the United States government to throw their weight around with officials of a much smaller, weaker and recently-devastated country whom we are there ostensibly to help recover from their recent disaster, in order to secure the release of fellow countrymen who very well may have broken numerous serious laws. I hope Mr. Crapo’s closing sentiment was merely an innocent hope for a swift resolution of a problem, not coded language for “we’ll try to get ‘our guys’ out as fast as we can — by any means necessary.”

Beyond that, though, is the sheer ugliness of the calculations involved. Again, without attempting to positively divine what might be in any person’s heart, at what point are we forced to step back and recognize that even if a portion of the motivation of these Baptist “missionaries” was the welfare of children whose lives had been devastated, that there is no possible way that motivation alone would lead anyone to consider and execute a complex plan to remove children from their homes and parents, sneak them across one international border and then bring them, undocumented, to yet another country across the ocean, forever? There is something else at work there, something not as old as the urge to succor the helpless – especially helpless children – but much darker. The sense of entitlement involved in planning and carrying out such an exercise is evident, and it does not stem from a desire to help children in need. The whole world rushed (literally or figuratively) into Haiti to help those in need, especially the children. The whole world did NOT devise plans to pry Haitian children away from disaster-struck parents and bring them through the auspices of an explicitly religious organization (different from the religion of most of those children’s parents) to another country illegally. Only the Baptist “missionaries” did that.

The motivations of at least some of the people who dreamed up this misguided idea extended beyond the simple desire to help children in need. Theirs was the same motivation as the missionaries in Banda Aceh who sometimes insisted on distributing bibles with their material aid. And, stretching farther back into history, it is the spirit which launched the crusades, the desire to desire to tame – or hopefully, to convert – the benighted heathen for his own good. By no means do American conservative Christians have a monopoly on this kind of thinking. But I continue to hope for – and be disappointed by – the repeatedly demonstrated fact that here, in the most prosperous nation on earth, the more conservative and dogmatic denominations of our dominant religion haven’t managed to overcome those urges.

2 thoughts on “Ugly American Evangelism in Haiti

  1. Taking advantage of a natural disaster to kidnap vulnerable children is the highest order of ‘God’s work’, doncha know?

    There are those who believe that “the laws of men” are below “God’s Laws” and therefore anything they do in the name of God, including “saving souls”, is not only OK, but downright saintly. By this twisted logic, anything immoral by any normal standard is irrelevant. Hard to separate this kind of rationality from the logic employed by terrorists who kill for ‘God’. Religious extremism by any other name…

    1. What kills me the worst about this – and the reason I put “American” in the title of this post – is that we’re supposed to be better than this. It’s not as if this sort of crap – and worse – doesn’t happen around the world on a regular basis. It does. Our zealots don’t throw acid on girls as they try to go to school, for instance.

      But it’s the same (pardon the pun) goddamn impulse: use your religion to justify any amount of bad behavior in service of what you think De Lawd tells you to do. Or, usually, not even that – more like: use obscure passages of your religion’s text to justify behavior that you want to do…regardless of whether religious scholars would agree that your God sanctions such behavior.

      Maybe it’s ethnocentric of me, but I sort of expect this behavior more out of countries which were recently (or are still) third world nations, with a large rural population of people who still live not-all-that-differently from the way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. But you can’t really make that excuse for anyone in the United States or most other first world nations, and so I hold us to a higher standard of enlightenment. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do.

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