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Did U.S. Baptists Cross the Line Between "Good Intentions" and Child Kidnapping In Haiti?

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There's no question that the ten Baptist missionaries from Idaho, Kansas, and Texas who illegally loaded 33 Haitian children--ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years--into a bus, and tried to drive them across the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic on January 31st, had "good intentions."

It's even likely, as missionary Carla Thomson insisted, that they truly believe "God was the one who told [them] to come" to Haiti, where they reportedly planned to install the orphans in a 45-room hotel in the Dominican town of Carabete that they were converting into an orphanage.

Believing in the notion of "good intentions" is a time-honored American virtue. People expect their "good intentions" to carry significant weight when their actions are judged, especially when those actions involve the physical or moral welfare of children. This is where the sense of entitlement so starkly showcased in the 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary Jesus Camp, comes into full play.

It appears that a significant number of American evangelical Christians believe that the world outside the borders of the United States is little more than their personal Biblical coloring book, with God on one page and the Devil on the opposite page, and bright colors for everything.

Here's a hypothetical tableau: the Lord God Jehovah was just waiting for a planeload of Baptists from Idaho, Kansas and Texas to round up a group of orphaned children (in a country Pat Robertson told his followers had "made a deal with the Devil") and drive them across the border, away from their families and their decimated country, for a "new life in Christ," possibly to be adopted by "loving Christian families" in the United States. Aside from the questionable religious pretension, there's much humanity to be appreciated in that sentiment, at least on the surface. It has a certain CBN/Hallmark Movie Channel co-production fatalism to it.

The problem is, the children in question were not orphans and the Baptists had no right to take them anywhere. One of the children, 9-year old Benatine Poulimé was weeping hysterically and insisting she wasn't an orphan, and that she wanted her mother.

"I said I wanted to get off the bus," Poulimé said, describing how the missionaries told her that she had to remain. The little girl told CNN that the Baptists loaded her onto the bus just yards from her home. "I was crying. I said I wanted to go to my mother."

The 33 children are now at the SOS Children's Village in Haiti while aid workers try to find their parents and family members.

These missionaries, like western missionaries for hundreds of years, sincerely believe they're doing "God's will," and they believe that this fact should count for more than it has so far.

Back home, their pastors (who should have known better than to send them off as ill-prepared as they were, and therefore seem to bear at least some of the responsibility for what has happened) are pleading on behalf of their congregants. They feel that all should be forgiven and that the missionaries should be sent home on the next plane.

The Rev. Clint Henry, senior pastor with the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho told CNN

"We're waiting...and hoping and praying that the outcome will be the one that we're looking for, so the team that has been falsely charged will be vindicated, and that the whole world is going to know that we weren't here doing the things we're accused of doing."

Pastor Drew Ham, also of the Central Valley Baptist Church echoed those sentiments to CNN's Dan Simon on Monday night.

"Really, at this point, we're making a passionate plea to just simply bring our Americans home, where they belong."

This language and tone is traditionally employed in cases where Americans (often journalists, like Roxana Saberi, or Lisa Ling and Euna Lee) are held by hostile regimes on trumped-up charges.

The trouble for the ten Baptists is that the charges were not trumped up.

They put 33 Haitian children without proper documentation into a bus, even as some of them were crying out for their mothers, insisting they weren't orphans and begging to be allowed to return home. If (as is been reported) the desperately-poor parents of some of the children "gave" the children to the Americans, ipso facto they knew children were not orphans. Nor did the parents have any right to "give" them away in the first place, however tragic their own circumstances were, or however understandable the parent's impulse was to give their children a chance at a life.

For my part, I have no trouble believing the group's leader, Laura Sisby, when she tells the Associated Press that they were "just trying to do the right thing" in the wake of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated the tiny island nation in January. There's nothing I don't believe about the genuine bafflement in the faces of the missionaries as they talk to journalists about why they were there, or the shock they feel that anyone would think anything else.

"I can tell you our heart and our intent was to help only those children who needed us most," Sisby told CNN's Karl Penhaul.

What does seem stunning--really, stunning--is the hubris and sheer effrontery of starting an "orphan relief" organization in Idaho, jumping on a plane to Haiti, then chartering a bus to take children out of the country without knowing everything there is to know about the legalities and practical logistics of such an enterprise, let alone, apparently, realizing that the children needed passports in order to travel.

"We felt it was a very God-appointed meeting,"

gushed Sisby as she described her encounter with a Haitian pastor who helped set up the sloppy, irresponsible "rescue mission."

While the desire to "save" the children is admirable, and easy for anyone with a shred of human empathy to relate to, the execution of that impulse, in this particular case and fashion, plays into the most grotesque stereotypes of American arrogance abroad--the notion, however specious, that Americans go where they want, do what they like, and take what they please, be it land, culture, or even, as in this case, children.

In a country like Haiti, whose historical and cultural memory precludes a time when they were not enslaved, exploited, or toyed with by powerful foreigners (including the United States) these "good intentions" exacerbate a deep cultural wound. Worst of all, it's a wound that may have practical consequences, not only for the missionaries, but also for the orphans of Haiti.

What the Baptists have unwittingly demonstrated is just how easily foreigners with malignant objectives could land in Port-au-Prince, charter a bus, and scoop up children off the streets with or without the cooperation of their parents. While the Americans are clearly who and what they say they are, they could just as easily have been something else--child traffickers posing as missionaries.

Turn it around. Imagine a busload of foreign nationals--or even a busload of American missionaries from Idaho--landing in New Orleans after Katrina and rounding up 33 "orphans," loading them onto a yellow school bus, and trying to take them across state lines. Picture the popular, let alone judicial, response. Perception is everything, and this is how the Haitian judiciary may ultimately see the situation--as an attempted kidnapping.

"I don't know what [their motive was]"

Georg Willeit, the spokesman for SOS Children's Village, an aid agency working in Haiti, said to Wolf Blitzer on Monday night about the Baptists.

"And I don't know what [was] their intention. Clearly these kids did not have any papers. It's also clear that [one week ago] the Haitian government [forbade taking] children abroad. And this happened two days ago. And it's clearly against the opinion of the major child care organizations like SOS Children's Village, and it's against the opinion of the U.N. [...] I don't know why [this] happened, but [one has to be] aware of the danger of child trafficking. And this pressure for foreign adoption [also opens] doors to people who are not as good as they pretend to be."

Furious, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the AP on Monday,

"It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children had live parents, And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."

In the wake of the earthquake, Bellerive has frozen all Haitian foreign adoptions that had not been in the works before the catastrophe. Currently, any adoption out of Haiti requires his personal signature, an attempt to safeguard against potential child trafficking.

Ironically, it seems likely that the very earthquake that the Baptists came to save the children from will be their own salvation. With the Haitian legal system in disarray because of the earthquake, and the prisons in shambles, Bellerive is open to sending the Americans home to face justice. The Baptists will likely be extradited home to the United States.

What the results of a trial held on U.S. will be is anyone's guess, though it seems likely that their well-intentioned stupidity may be seen in a calmer light on home turf. In the end, the Baptists will likely soon be home in Idaho, Kansas, and Texas giving interviews to the Pat Robertson on The 700 Club about their ordeal.

Meanwhile, back in Haiti, the legitimate child welfare workers in Port-au-Prince will be trying to deal with the monstrous, genocide-level loss of human life, and the children will either live or die under the murderous Caribbean sun, in the holocaust that used to be their homeland.

CBS News reports that Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption, has called the Baptists' actions a "critical mistake" that could undercut efforts to expand adoptions.

If indeed there are further, harsher clampdown on legitimate foreign adoptions because of this case, the New Life Children's Refuge and the pastors of their respective churches can take some of the blame for the needy, legally adoptable children who may never find loving homes outside their broken country. The Baptists' misadventures will have been nothing more than a costly distraction from the real work at hand---a distraction no one had time for, or could afford. Least of all the children of Haiti, for whom time is literally running out.

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