Where was missionaries' common sense?

Posted: Monday, February 08, 2010

First, to save my soul - and to save my e-mail in-box from an overload of screeds from God-fearing folks - I offer this preface to today's column:

I firmly believe that, throughout the centuries, mankind has accomplished more good than harm acting in the name of God. I say this in full knowledge of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Islamic terrorism and any number of despicable horrors committed on behalf of one faith or another.

Now, let's address a more recent episode of appalling behavior in the name of the Lord, namely the attempt by ten American Baptist missionaries' to shepherd 33 Haitian children across the border to an orphanage they had set up in the Dominican Republic.

The kids were to be the first residents of an orphanage created in a converted hotel. The missionaries were stopped at the border, as they had no documents for the children and no apparent sign of parental or government consent for their enterprise. Haitian officials have charged them with kidnapping and criminal association, and as of Thursday the Americans remained in jail in Port-au-Prince awaiting trial.

Malign intentions may not have created this drama, yet apparently the Baptists rushed into Haiti with open hearts and closed minds. And that's an all too common failing of the zealous. If you believe your faith is the most righteous, if you believe beyond doubt that God is steering you down a path, you can do no wrong.

Maybe they intended to do no wrong; however, it appears that some of the children bound for the "orphanage" were not orphans at all, and that their parents may not have consented or were acting out of desperation when they allowed the missionaries to take off with their children.

Did the missionaries delude themselves into believing the children were orphans in the traditional sense, disregarding the fact that some of the biological parents had handed them over after being promised the children would be educated?

Did the missionaries make it clear, in Creole, that the bowls of food they promised, the beds, the medical care and so forth would come with an indoctrination of their brand of Christianity?

What are we to make of the group's mission, as stated on its Web site: "to share God's love with these precious children, helping them heal and find new life in Christ."

This smacks more than a little of the arrogance that once tore thousands of Native American children away from their families to be educated and "civilized" at Christian-run boarding schools. A lot of those children wound up adopted into Christian homes, and not because their parents necessarily wanted to give them away.

I'll concede that this whole affair could be a tragic series of misunderstandings, that true intentions were lost in translation. But it is equally plausible that the missionaries were taking advantage of the desperation of the children's parents.

Did it not occur to the missionaries to help the parents so they could continue providing for their children? Isn't that what common sense, not to mention common humanity, would dictate?

Did anybody in the group make arrangements for reunification of the families later? Why would the missionaries think they could whisk the children away to the Dominican Republic without clearing it with Haitian officials?

No doubt, Haitian magistrates will be interested in the answers these questions. Kidnapping is a harsh charge, one the missionaries probably don't deserve. They ought to be sent home, branded as an example to others who would display such hubris.

It's also instructive that the Haitian government, presumed to be so non-functioning, stepped into gear when its children were threatened. We should not be surprised. How is it not stealing to take something as precious as a child from his parents, his country?

I think God has something to say about that sin, even when it is done in his name.

• Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchezkcstar.com.

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