Posted by: Titus Presler | February 4, 2010

Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission brings disgrace to Christian mission

“God wanted us to come here to help children, we are convinced of that,” Laura Silsby, leader of the ten Americans charged with abducting Haitian children in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 catastrophic earthquake, is quoted by The New York Times as saying from jail in Port-au-Prince on Monday, Feb. 1.  “Our hearts were in the right place.”

It is highly unlikely that the ten missionaries from two Baptist churches in Idaho intended ordinary kinds of harm to the 33 children they were trying to take across the border into the Dominican Republic when they were arrested.  Yet in detaining and threatening to try the ten, the Haitian government is rightly stressing equal application of laws intended to prevent the coercion, mistreatment, sale and enslavement of children on an international market that regularly inflicts horrors on the young and vulnerable.

So if the missionaries did not intend such horrors, were their hearts truly in the right place?  In the very narrow sense of wanting to help children, maybe.  Beyond that, the evidence so far indicates that their hearts were not in the right place, for their conduct illustrates some of the most egregious attitudes that have in many times and places brought Christian mission into disrepute.  It is important for missionaries, mission agencies and mission activists to acknowledge this and repudiate the conduct of the Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission.

The case, which happens to be the first to prompt criminal prosecution by the shattered Haitian judiciary system since the earthquake, brings disgrace to the enterprise of Christian mission.  This is far from the first time that mission has been disgraced in a particular setting, and it will not be the last, but it is  regrettable.

It may be helpful to name some of the particular problems in the case:

Ambition backed by Ignorance: It is not clear that Silsby and her live-in Nanny, Charisa Coulter, who together envisioned New Life Children’s Refuge out of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, had extensive experience of working on Hispaniola.  Yet the plan for the post-earthquake Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission was breathtaking: “Drive bus from Santo Domingo into Port-au-Prince, and gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages, then return to the D.R.”  It was there that New Life Children’s Refuge was to be an orphanage or children’s home for children from Haiti.  This would be a major project for an experienced organization.  For a start-up with only slight experience, if any, it was folly.  What explains such a plan taking such hold in a church and among a group of ten such inexperienced missionaries?

Institutional Isolation: It appears that Eastside Baptist Church and other churches from which group members came are freestanding congregations, with little tradition of connectional church life through which members could draw on the experience of others with expertise in cross-cultural international mission.  Connectional church systems typically have, for instance, churchwide offices and agencies staffed by people experienced in international mission.  Ministering alone, this church and its members did not imagine that they needed to consult others.  While there is much to celebrate in the entrepreneurial spirit through which congregations even in many connectional churches – such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal – are pursuing world mission at their own initiative, this incident illustrates the nightmarish problems that arise when one goes it alone in situations where mutual learning and collaboration are crucial.

Cultural Myopia and Arrogance: Here is where the now highly publicized incident has the potential to hurt all missionaries and set the cause of world mission back.  The group was preoccupied with its own concern for Haitian children and orphans, its own planning and logistics for the good deed the members planned to carry out.  They seem to have been in touch with a Haitian pastor, but he does not appear to have been effective as a mission companion who could bring indigenous perspectives and cultural resources to bear on the project.  The group’s North American brand of charitable concern held center stage.  That was was the myopia, of which arrogance was the converse.  Group members clearly imagined that Haitian society was so informal, loose, and poorly organized that they did not need to interact in any significant way with it.  They imagined that Haitian culture was completely clueless, incapable to dealing with the situation of orphans in any way.  Their view of a non-USAmerican culture and society shared in the stereotypes that have often characterized attitudes in the Global North, that peoples in other parts of the world do not know their own best interest and have no capacity, cultural or otherwise, of addressing their own situation.

Power as Privilege: Alongside the myopia and arrogance, the Idaho group presumed that the power they thought was theirs as citizens of the USA conferred on them an inherent right to do what they planned and that therefore they would prevail against all obstacles.  The social class of the group members is unclear, but their assumption of privilege seems to have arisen not from particular affluence relative to lifestyles in the USA but from the privilege of being US citizens relative to other societies in the world.  Such privilege and power are real, for it is remarkable that a relatively inexperienced and uninformed group of people were able to convene quickly, reach Haiti, gather 33 children and get to the Dominican border before they were stopped and detained.  That is the fruit of the combination of all these factors: ambition, ignorance, isolation, myopia, arrogance, privilege and power.  Unfortunately, theirs is a particularly USAmerican brand of hubris.

Interpersonal Callousness: The fact that children designated as orphans  have later turned out to have parents indicates that the most basic due diligence of ascertaining the children’s family situations was cavalierly neglected.  Amid the confusion, parents of some of the children have said that they had agreed gratefully for their children to be educated in the Dominican Republic – they were not giving them up for adoption.  Ambiguity surrounding the question whether the group planned to raise the children as orphans or to stay in touch with the their parents indicates, at the least, that for the Idahoans the feelings between Haitian parents and their children are of a different and lower order than feelings between parents and children in Idaho.  Especially in this dimension their hearts were not in the right place, they do appear to have intended harm, and child abduction does not seem too harsh a charge.

Organizational Chaos: Planning in Idaho was poor, and there is ambiguity about the legal status of New Life Children’s Refuge there, as well as about the financial viability and business practices of Silsby.  The legal status of the facility the group purportedly planned to use as an orphanage, children’s home, school or whatever in the Dominican Republic is similarly unclear.  Failure to secure permission for the entire venture from the Haitian government was reprehensible.  Ambiguity about the true intentions of the group concerning the children and their parents prompts a question about basic honesty.  It is shameful that a project of such gravity was undertaken in such a slipshod way.

Devotional Fog: Said Mel Coulter, the husband of Charisa Coulter, “They were acting in faith.  That may sound trivial, but they were acting not only in faith but God’s faith.”  Such statements by group members and their supporters in this debacle have the unfortunate effect of bringing faith itself into disrepute. The group has said little substantive about the facts of the case, so their faith functions as a smokescreen defense.  The appeal appears to be that indefensible acts are to be excused on account of good intentions motivated by religious faith.  It would be best for group members to tend their relationship with God in private, and in public to give a clear accounting.  And simply apologize.

It is tempting for mission activists to disavow the term “missionary” as applied to the Idaho Baptist travelers and to term them “so-called missionaries” or “self-styled missionaries,” but that would be an inartful dodge.  A Christian missionary is a person sent by God through a community to bear witness to Christ in word and deed in some dimension of significant human social difference.  The Idaho Baptists certainly felt sent by God.  The community aspect is not as clear, but the congregations from which they came seem to have affirmed and supported the members’ sense of call.  The group did not have an established mission board behind them, but there have been many good missionaries in that situation over the generations.

So overall, we should acknowledge them to be missionaries, as they claim to be and as the news media routinely calls them.  In the same breath we should also clarify that they are deeply misguided missionaries, just as there have been misguided missionaries before them.

One possible – perhaps the only possible – good that may come out of this sad affair is cautionary learning: Other similarly zealous but uninformed Christian groups feeling concern might be prompted to learn a good deal more about Christian mission before they presume to undertake it in Haiti – or anywhere else.



  1. Thanks for a very thorough analysis of a piece of missiological folly. Unfortunately the desire to “do something” about a disaster all too often leads to this kind of mindless activism.

  2. Titus,

    Thank you for this thorough and insightful response to this story which continues to be so prominent in the news. I came to your page today as I am contemplating my sermon for World Mission Sunday (2/14/2010) and had this story on my mind so was glad to read your analysis.

    A technical question regarding your blog, I did not see a place to “share” this with others through Facebook, email, etc. It would be great to have an easy way to share links to your blog.

    Stacy Walker-Frontjes

    • Hi Stacy! Great to hear from you, and thanks for this response. I’m glad this posting seemed helpful. There’s another now on the “hearts in the right place” response of many. It’s always interesting how mission and missionaries play in the news, and unfortunately this particular debacle will indeed be the most recent publicity about missionaries that many parishioners have on their minds on World Mission Sunday. Blessings, Titus

    • Well, Stacy, your comment made the difference! I’ve now got Share/Save buttons for the blog. Thanks! Titus

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