The horrific destruction and human suffering in Haiti exert an almost irresistible pull on U.S. Christian missionaries eager to help. But as the jailing last week of 10 missionaries from a small Baptist church in Idaho illustrates, best intentions don’t always translate into good deeds in the chaotic aftermath of the monster earthquake.
Many mission groups provide essential services for Haitians — indeed some have evolved into key service providers, working alongside nonprofit groups and the U.N. to fill gaps that the Haitian government can’t fill.
But other missions, even when well-meaning, risk running afoul of Haiti’s culture and laws.
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“There’s an issue that is coming up a lot right now,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor of history and romance studies at Duke University and an expert on Haiti. “It’s the difference between wanting to help and being able to do good. Most don’t speak any Creole, or have the cultural knowledge. … (As a result) they are going to be very surprised by what they see in Haiti.”
Patrick McCormick, a spokesman for UNICEF, said that in the case of the Idaho church members, naiveté apparently blinded them to the legal implications of their actions. They were charged with kidnapping after being accused of trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border to the Dominican Republic without proper documentation.
“Just because there’s a natural disaster, you don’t start cutting corners on a serious and complicated process like international adoption,” he said.
Haiti has been a popular destination for missionaries at least since 1804, when Haitians threw off French rule. Catholicism, which had been imposed on them by the colonial power, was left on an uncertain footing, and the country became a spiritual battleground. Various Christian denominations and sects aimed to win converts and prevent Haitians from reverting to Voodoo, a religion adapted from the beliefs of their African ancestors.
“Every church and mission group has a presence in Haiti,” said Wendy Norvelle, spokeswoman for the International Mission Board, which supports foreign missions for the Southern Baptist Church. “It’s very, very, very saturated with those who would want to go and share God’s love and do hands-on ministries providing humanitarian relief.”
There’s no comprehensive count of missionaries in Haiti, because they are dispatched by so many different groups, and the number is always changing.
Before the earthquake, there were about 1,700 long-term, professional missionaries in Haiti, according to Bert Hickman, research associate at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He said that number is about average for Latin and South American countries with populations similar to Haiti’s 10 million.
But that count doesn’t include the thousands of American missionaries who go to Haiti each year on trips that last just a few weeks or a few months, drawn by Haiti’s extreme poverty and its proximity, just a two-hour flight from Miami.
Some of these missionaries go on their own. Some are sponsored by churches or denominations, or through groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, which sends college students all over the world. Since the quake, there has been another wave of trips thrown together by churches to help needy Haitians and to check on mission properties supported by their churches.
What they do
Their missions vary. Some are there exclusively to evangelize and “plant churches.” Indeed, even small villages in Haiti will sometimes have six or seven churches built by missionaries of different denominations.
Others prefer to convey their faith though deeds rather than words: digging wells, filling teeth or teaching soil conservation, for instance.
This is the spirit espoused by members of Lifechurch, a nondenominational church profiled by msnbc.com last month when members rushed to Haiti to check on the orphanage they run in Port-au-Prince. The Allentown, Pa., church regularly sends congregation members on missions to the developing world to install water filtration systems and build school cafeterias, playgrounds and clinics.
“Our main focus is to … show the people we really care about them,” said church business administrator David Jones. “If we have time to talk about Jesus then we do it. (But) our philosophy is that you cannot effectively evangelize if you don’t show you care by dealing with people’s real needs.”
The desire to help the most vulnerable of Haiti’s earthquake victims — its children — is especially strong.
U.S. churches run and support hundreds of orphanages and schools in the country.
Even before the quake, an estimated 15 percent of all children in Haiti were said to be orphaned or abandoned. About 200,000 of these children lived in institutions, and the rest were fostered, living with relatives or living on the street. That number has risen sharply since the quake, though it is not clear by how much.
The huge population of vulnerable kids makes them susceptible to abuse, including the trafficking of Haitian children into the sex trade and slavery.
Missionaries, aid workers and U.N. peacekeepers have been implicated in such crimes. In a U.S. federal court on Feb. 2, a Colorado missionary who has worked at a school for Haitian street children, faced charges of sexually abusing up to 18 boys in Haiti, luring them with cash and other rewards, and threatening them with expulsion if they did not comply.
Seeing even greater risk in the chaos after the earthquake, Haiti’s government issued a warning to foreigners who were working with Haitian children not to rush adoptions and not to take them out of the country without complete legal documentation. UNICEF called for measures to prevent children from disappearing and potentially falling prey to traffickers. And the U.S. State Department has warned that children could fall victim to pedophiles.
Vying for souls
In Haiti, many Christian and nondenominational groups work together, but there are rivalries as well.
Some, evangelical Protestants in particular, are in a pitched battle with Voodoo in Haiti, which they view as satanic. As evangelist Pat Robertson put it shortly after the earthquake, Haitians’ adherence to Voodoo was a “pact with the devil” that caused the disaster.
Some Protestants also are vying for the souls of Catholic Haitians. The rivalry is in part a reflection of a historical global competition between the major Christian groups. But it is heightened because many Haitian Catholics also observe Voodoo traditions.
“Most Voodoo ceremonies begin with Catholic prayers,” says Dubois of Duke University. “At this point Catholic priests don’t spend much energy trying to stop Voodoo.”
That doesn’t sit well with groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, which includes this description of Haiti’s spiritual landscape on its Web site:
“An estimated 75 percent of Catholics are also increasingly involved in voodoo, spiritism and witchcraft. … The steady growth of Protestant churches in the difficult economic and spiritual climate is cause for praise.”
Christian missions also sometimes come into conflict with other aid efforts in the country.
Bryan Schaaf, a former Peace Corps worker, said he ran into all kinds of missionaries when he was living in Haiti from 2000 to 2002. He recalled one American missionary man living in his village who quietly visited rural areas and helped Haitians build wells.
“They built this large network of wells that wouldn’t otherwise have been there,” said Schaaf. “It was a missionary family that was well accepted by the community, and using sound development principals.”
Purging evil, providing water
On the other hand, he said, another American missionary family in the village seemed to focus on countering his own efforts in health education. After he talked to young people in the village about birth control and prevention of AIDS, which is epidemic among Haitian youth, Schaaf learned that the missionaries were following up with a message of their own.
“They would hold prayer circles with these adolescents to purge the evil thoughts of condoms from their minds,” he said.
Schaaf, who is back in the States and spends his spare time running a nonprofit consultancy called Haiti Innovation, derided missionaries who lack understanding or respect for Haitian culture and treat the country as their “spiritual sandbox.”
“I wish I could tell you I was surprised; I’m really not,” he said of the 10 American missionaries being held in Haiti. “Many missionaries come in and think they are in a position of authority.”
Some provide vital aid
But Schaaf was quick to point out that many of the missionary organizations are not only respectful, but provide essential services.
Some relief organizations that have been pivotal since the quake in Haiti were founded on faith, he said, citing groups like Catholic Relief Services and Episcopal Faith and Development. Other groups started out evangelizing and emerged as key providers of services.
For example, he said, Partners in Health, founded by an Episcopal priest in 1987 as a community clinic, has grown into the largest medical complex in Haiti.
In this case, the conviction and willingness to work with the community turned this faith-based operation into the best medical facility in Haiti and created a model that has been replicated throughout the developing world, he said.
Or, as he put it: “No priest, no PIH.”