Are any of you following this story?
Basically, it seems that a group of American Southern Baptists, led by a charismatic failed businesswoman Laura Silsby, travelled into Haiti, gathered together as many people from a shattered town as they possibly could, and showed pictures of a lovely hotel complex over the border in the Dominican Republic, making promises of how they wished to take any children that wanted to come along for a better life.
And understandably, families looked around at the ruins their kids were sitting in, and handed over their young ones- from as little as a few months old, up to 12 years old.
Except some, including other charities- most notably SOS Childrens Villages International were outraged. They pointed out that this looked like child trafficking- but was at very least a totally inappropriate removal of children from home, culture and extended family at a point of terrible vulnerability. No checks were done as to whether families could be supported to look after the kids long term. No proper background checks were possible. It amounted to cultural imperialism of staggering insensitivity.
The Guardian yesterday carried a long article digging into some of the background to what has become a bit of a media feeding frenzy. Now the Guardian is not noted for its sympathy for right wing evangelicalism, but I think made some sobering points about the place of religion, and oversees mission in this matter. Here are a few quotes-
Further clues as to the mindset and intentions of the Baptists are provided by a written plan of action they prepared at the outset of the trip, which they called an “Haitian orphan rescue mission”. The plan discloses their ultimate aim: to “gather” up to 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages and take them to a new life in the Dominican Republic.
The document is striking in that it displays profound ignorance of the geography and society of Haiti. It anticipates driving the round trip from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince, collecting the children and bringing them back, in just two days – a wildly overambitious schedule given the destroyed infrastructure of Haiti. It talks of rescuing orphans “abandoned in the streets”, which was fanciful as very few children who lost parents would have been abandoned; most Haitians live in extended families with relatives ready to step into the childcare role.
Such behaviour raises questions about Silsby’s motives and objectives. But for the remaining nine ignorance and naivety appear to go some way to explain how they got in the mess they now find themselves in. Certainly, that would fit a changing pattern of behaviour within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US to which Central Valley Baptist church belongs. Over the past 20 years there has been a dramatic shift away from “career missionaries” who spend years immersed in the culture and language of the people they seek to turn to God, in favour of “missionary tourists” who dip in and out of communities for mere days or weeks and have much less cultural sensitivity.
According to David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, that sea change has come at a time when the convention has been increasingly focused on domestic social and political issues as part of the Christian right, which has led it to sound a strong note of American superiority. “Anyone under 40 years of age will have spent their entire life in the America First model of evangelism,” says Key.
The business of ‘short term mission’ has fascinated me. I spent some time in America as the guest of some really wonderful people- Southern Baptists in fact- who I met when they came to Scotland as part of a mission trip. They subsequently invited me to go over to lead some worship and run some workshops. It was a roller coaster of a trip- full of highs and lows- you would say it gave me a taste of ‘short term mission’- only in this case, in reverse.
‘Short term mission’ is big business in the Bible Belt. There are travel agencies that exist just to set these up, and Americans pay thousands of dollars to go on trips across the world- taking choirs, paint pots, projectors- all for an inclusive price. Check out this site for example.
Does that make this kind of mission bad? My experience of the folk who came over to Scotland was a very good one. Lovely folk on an adventure, trying to serve God on an adventure holiday.
But at the same time, the ethos of these mission trips have always made me feel very uncomfortable. They are a way of fitting mission into a lifestyle. They organise a kind of package tour evangelism, that costs nothing that can not be afforded. The long term value of such trips seem to offer far more to the missioners than to any of the places to which they are ‘sent’.
Back to the kids in Haiti.
The people who took the kids are clearly convinced that they were doing the work of God. They were able to believe this, it seems to me, because the worldview that they plugged God into gave them a set of goggles that filtered out all other viewpoints.
There are lessons here for us all/