Sunday, January 31, 2010

In Never Never Land

When I heard about the American Baptist missionaries who have been arrested for trying to take allegedly orphaned Haitian children out of Haiti, allegedly to a new institution in the neighboring Dominican Republic, I remembered an incident that occurred here in Bloomington in the 1970s. A local evangelical church sent its Sunday School bus around to some local playgrounds, including one near University married housing, where many foreign students lived. The idea was to invite children to come to its Sunday school, where they would be exposed to the Gospel and find hope of salvation. To the church's great surprise, many parents thought that they should at least be consulted before their children were whisked away by strangers. The church's leaders maintained their good intentions, their purity of motive, and plaintively lamented the outsiders' inability to understand that they only wanted good things for these children. Who, they protested, could object to a child's going to Sunday school?

It was hard for me not to see their defense as disingenuous. At the very least, if the children's parents -- and therefore the children -- already had a non-Christian religion of their own, they might very well object to their children's being taken away for indoctrination by Christians. The parents might just as easily have been Christians, though evangelicals often do not consider non-evangelical Christians (or even evangelicals of different flavors) to be Christians. The most obvious response to the church leaders' arguments, I thought, would be to ask them how they would react if the local synagogue or mosque -- or for that matter, one of the Roman Catholic churches -- had sent a bus to the local Christian schools to round up children for perfectly innocent visits to their institutions of spiritual instruction.

I'd still like to know how they would answer that question. I imagine they simply did not regard parents from competing sects as having any rights at all; as I remember it, they never did acknowledge that parents of other religions might have legitimate objections to what they were doing. Not that I think they were especially malicious -- I just don't think that people outside their church were real to them. (Readers may remember the time a Christian college student asked why heterosexuals shouldn't decide that homosexuals were not fit parents and take their children from them, so I asked her how she would feel if Protestants took Catholics' children from them on the same ground, or if mainline Episcopalians took evangelicals' children from them. Unable or unwilling to see the analogy, she became quite upset at me, accusing me of religious intolerance; so did the graduate student teaching the class in which our panel was speaking.)

Something similar seems to have been going on in the minds of those Idaho Baptists in Haiti. I'm sure their intentions were pure, and that's the problem: they were so pure in heart, mind, and spirit that reality never impinged on their mission plan. It's apparently been established that most of the children had living parents or other adult relatives who had not given up their claims on their children. The Austrian children's aid charity SOS Children's Villages told the Guardian that "According to a 12-year-old girl, she and her family had been told she was going to a boarding school in the Dominican Republic."

The Telegraph's religion writer, the amusingly named Will Heaven, splutters:
So, bearing this in mind, why don’t we listen to the version of events from the Christian group? Laura Sillsby, one of those being held in Port-au-Prince, said: “We had permission from the Dominican Republic government to bring the children to an orphanage that we have there.” And where did the children come from? “We have a Baptist minister here (in Port-au-Prince) whose orphanage totally collapsed and he asked us to take the children to the orphanage in the Dominican Republic,” she replied. “They accuse us of children trafficking. This is something I would never do. We were not trying to do something wrong.”
Of course we should listen to the version of everyone involved. Unfortunately, Mr. Heaven doesn't seem to be interested in listening to the children's version of events. Notice, too, how he refers to the missionaries' side as "the Christian" one. Most Haitians are Roman Catholics. The children and their families are Christians too. So why not listen to the other Christians' version of events?

The Associated Press also tried to divert attention from the real issues, with a story that reports parents in one Haitian "tent camp" saying that they saw nothing wrong with giving their children to foreigners, in hopes they would have a better life in America or Europe. Fair enough, but I don't see why the Baptists preferred to take children with living families who had not chosen to give them up for adoption, when so many other children and parents were (literally) going begging. The AP story admits, though, that "The church group's own mission statement said it planned to spend only hours in the devastated capital, quickly identifying children without immediate families and busing them to a rented hotel in the Dominican Republic without bothering to get permission from the Haitian government." Given the history of US interference in Haiti over the past two centuries, the group's lack of interest in dealing with the Haitian government seems high-handed, to put it gently.

And I'm sure that the good Baptists were not trying to do something wrong; the trouble is that they have a rather distorted version of what is wrong and what is right, as their conduct shows. They're members of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose record on many social issues leaves something to be desired. Back in Idaho, the senior pastor of the missionary's home church told the AP that they acted "because we believe that Christ has asked us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, and that includes children." Again, it seems not to have occurred to them that Haitians, as Catholics, would already have received the gospel of Jesus Christ; Baptists aren't terribly fond of Roman Catholicism anyway. Nor does it occur to them that they could bring the gospel to Haitian children without spiriting them away from their families -- but then, their families were Papists (or worse), and probably would have objected to their children's being saved. The missionaries simply followed the teaching of Christ that a Christian's real family is not flesh and blood, but "whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mark 3:35).

"Abduction" and "stealing" are strong words. These Baptists seem to have thought that Haitian children could be plucked from the trees, that as Christians and as Americans they could do whatever they wanted. To do something wrong implies that they saw other people as, well, people, with interests and wishes of their own; this doesn't seem to have occurred to them at all. Only their motives and wishes mattered. I'd like to think that their experience in Haiti will give them something to think about, but so far they seem to be too busy shutting down their minds as they protest their innocence to do any thinking.