I have followed the unfolding story of ten Americans, all Christians from Idaho who were arrested for trying to take children out of Haiti after the earthquake struck, with great deal of interest. What has made this seemingly unique story so intriguing to me is that numerous non-Christian journalists and radio talk show people here in Chicago have reacted fiercely against the Haitian government. Their stridency on this issue is rarely seen in defense of Christians from Idaho. While this story has been unfolding I have generally have "felt" that there has to be much more to this story than most of us really know and understand. Then I read an article by my good friend Jim Tonkowich and saw why I was unsettled about this story. With permission I reprint Jim's story and urge you to also read it. It is, as Jim originally titled it, a story of missionary zeal and practical wisdom. I think the story represents a common problem found among many conservative Christians in America. Our zeal is genuine, our knowledge is often limited and, at times, our passion to do what we believe is right is without proper balance. As I feared, this seems to be the case in Haiti.
"Natural disasters increase individual vulnerability and break down rule of law, key factors exploited by human traffickers," explained Gary Haugen who heads up of International Justice Mission (IJM), a group that helps victims of human trafficking, slavery and other forms of oppression. "Unfortunately," he went on, "in such situations, children are the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation…. The situation in Haiti is ripe for a tragic acceleration in the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable children, and the world must stand vigilant against it."
UNICEF and others echoed Haugen's warning. This is, after all, Haiti.
According to IJM, 250,000 Haitian children are reported trafficked inside the country each year. As Tim Padgett reported in Time, domestic slavery is commonplace:
Most fall into these straits because their penniless parents give them up to more affluent Haitian families, who are notorious for keeping them illiterate, heaping grinding labor on them and subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse.
No doubt most poor Haitians believe that they are doing what is best for their children. They have nothing and so they offer them to those who appear to have everything. A verbal agreement is struck and the child is taken. It's all illegal, but then the rich control how the laws get enforced.
Since domestic servants under the age of 15 need not be paid in Haiti, most trafficked children spend their 15th birthday homeless and adapting to life in one of Haiti's gangs of street children.
According to the US State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report:
Haiti is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Haitian women, men, and children are trafficked into the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, the United States, Europe, Canada, and Jamaica for exploitation in domestic service, agriculture, and construction.
Commenting on the Dominican Republic, the report says, "Haitian nationals, including children, who voluntarily migrate illegally to the Dominican Republic may subsequently be subjected to forced labor in the service, construction, and agriculture sectors." It also mentions that seaside resorts in the Dominican Republic are popular child-sex tourist destinations.
Our government has been putting pressure on both Haiti and the Dominican Republic to provide tangible proofs that they are reining in these reprehensible practices.
Against this backdrop, ten well-meaning but naïve American evangelicals from Idaho drove into Haiti from the Dominican Republic. They were led by the New Life Children's Refuge (NLCR) executive director and founder, Laura Silsby.
Their plan is sketched out in a document posted online: fly to the Dominican Republic, hire a bus, drive to Haiti, "gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages," and drive back to the Dominican Republic where a leased hotel would be converted into a temporary orphanage.
The group, the document explains ". . . is in the process of buying land and building an orphanage, school and church in Magante on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon our hearts the need to go now vs. waiting until the permanent facility is built." On January 22, the team flew into the Dominican Republic (DR). The next day they rented a vehicle.
In Haiti at the border, they met Jean Sainyil, a Haitian who pastors Gospel Assembly Church in Gwinnett, Georgia and returns to Haiti regularly as a missionary. The Lede Blog reported:
According to Karl Penahul of CNN, the team's leader, Ms. Silsby, said that a Haitian pastor her group had met by chance after they arrived in the country the week before had helped them gather the children, "and we felt it was a very God-appointed meeting."
Before driving back to the Dominican Republic, Ms. Silsby visited Carlos Castillo, the Dominican Republic's Consul General in Port-au-Prince to inform him of the plan to transport the orphans. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal Mr. Castillo informed her that she did not have the necessary documents to transport the children.
"I told her I could authenticate Haitian documents but she had no Haitian documents of any sort. She told me she would try to reach the border in order to cross. I told her not to do that without the necessary documents because she could be accused of trafficking children."
After being stopped at the border with 33 children, the group apparently returned to Port-au-Prince to obtain the necessary documents. There they were accused of trafficking children and arrested.
Writing at Christianity Today Jedd Medefind, President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans said, "Although details are still emerging, the story thus far suggests a potent mingling of good intentions with ill-advised plans."
Many of the "good intentions with ill-advised plans" center around Ms. Silsby. Here's what Joel Millman, Jeffery Ball, and Mark Shoofs wrote about her in an article entitled, "Missionary Stumbles on Road to Haiti":
For Ms. Silsby it was the latest in a series of wrong turns on a road her parents and others who know her in Idaho say was paved with the best intentions. Yet in her long-stated desire to help orphans, she has left a trail of business and personal debts, as well as unheeded warnings about the intricacies of taking children out of Haiti.
I don't pretend to know the details of Ms. Silsby's story, why she made the decisions she did, what motivated her, how she made plans and sought to execute them. But, despite my Augustinian convictions, I am willing to believe that she had nothing but good intentions to serve God by helping needy children. Nonetheless, she seems to have lacked that prudential judgment that the Bible calls wisdom.
Zeal is a vital part of Christian missionary work. And God, at times, directs us through inner promptings, feelings, and providential meetings. But over all of these and holding them together is wisdom.
A great deal of money is required to help the Haitian people—adults and children, orphaned or in families. Yet Proverbs 3:13-14 tells us wisdom is more important:
Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
I have drawn three conclusions from this story of the ten missionaries from New Life Children's Refuge.
First, their story leaves "the impression of sloppy do-goodism" as Jedd Medefind put it. Assuming the impression reflects the truth, we should pray that the Haitian authorities drop the charges against the Americans and release them from prison where they sit today. Focusing on the very real trafficking problems that plague their country would be a far better use the Haitian legal system.
Second, wisdom is a primary means of God's leading. Compassion for the needy and the desire to help are strong emotions that we ought to encourage. God uses them to lead us and strengthen us in his service. But strong emotions can run away from us and cause us to act foolishly. Compassion, desire, and zeal must be tempered by wisdom. Proverbs 19:2 says, "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way."
Third, I am in awe of people who drop whatever else they're doing and rush across the world to jump in and help those in need. The Bible enjoins us repeatedly to take care of widows and orphans—the people who have no one to turn to for help and protection. The ten New Life Children's Refuge missionaries may have had zeal without wisdom, but as I sit comfortably in my study I can't help but remember that it was not the excessively zealous whom Jesus called repeatedly to repentance, but icy cold Pharisees who knew, but did nothing.
Copyright 2010 James Tonkowich. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article was published on Crosswalk.org on February 8, 2010.
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The late Ralph Winter, who founded the U.S. Center for World Mission, frequently bemoaned the amateurization of missions. This incident in Haiti is a classic example of this trend. I wish so much that people who don’t know what they’re doing would link up with those who do, rather than naively striking out on their own. All too often, far more harm than good is done by such people, and they make evangelicals appear foolish to the rest of the world.
Thanks, John, for helping us get the whole story.