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Relief groups walk delicate line on spreading gospel, providing aid

WASHINGTON (RNS)—When night falls in Port-au-Prince, thousands of homeless Haitians find shelter beneath weatherproof plastic sheets emblazoned with the logo of Samaritan’s Purse, a group that’s zealous to spread Christianity worldwide.

Faith-based volunteers serving earthquake victims in Haiti not only include evangelicals and mainline Christians, but also groups such as the Church of Scientology. Members of the Scientology Disaster Response team distribute water to patients at a field hospital near Port-au-Prince. (PHOTO/Church of Scientology International)

The 20-by-20-foot sheets offer a tangible way to demonstrate God’s love for people regardless of their beliefs, said Barry Hall, director of program support at Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based relief organization headed by evangelist Franklin Graham.

And while the logos don’t add warmth, they still may help local churches on the ground get credit for distributing the plastic sheets, along with similarly marked blankets and personal hygiene kits.

“It may have our name on it because we supplied it to them, but it’s the local church that these people see meeting their needs,” Hall said. “We try to leave that church in a better position” to evangelize.

As faith-based relief agencies work to help Haitians manage an epic crisis after the Jan. 12 earthquake, most are taking pains to give aid according to need, not creed, and disavow proselytizing.

World Vision, for example, a massive relief group based in Washington state with nearly 800 aid workers in Haiti, makes sure those who distribute aid aren’t simultaneously trying to win converts.

But even after decades of responding to emergencies, members of the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations still are wrestling with out how best to proclaim the gospel, offer spiritual support and advance other organizational goals in disaster zones.

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In short, they’re trying “to figure out what’s appropriate, especially in a disaster context, in terms of Christian witness,” said Randy Strash, strategy director for emergency response at World Vision.

“In a disaster context, it’s especially important that you earn the right to be heard (because) all these emotions are raw, and the future is so uncertain, and you don’t want to be manipulating people’s emotions.”

Some Christian outreach efforts in Haiti already sparked controversy. Haitian officials detained a group of Baptists from Idaho for allegedly trying to leave the country with 33 children, some of whom may not be orphans.

Meanwhile, some in Haiti’s large Voodoo community fear Christian relief groups are pursuing ulterior motives. Max Beauvoir, Haiti’s chief Voodoo priest, already has accused foreign Christian groups of “trying to buy souls,” and said Haitian Christians “grab” scarce resources and receive preferential treatment. He convened a national meeting of Voodooists “unhappy with the attitudes of the Christian community and their foreign guests ... to decide together the future of our country.”

Some experts on evangelism say Christian groups must be especially careful to give aid according to need and without strings attached.

Elaine Heath, professor of evangelism at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, bemoaned a “lack of dignity” when ministries require aid recipients to sit through sermons or other religious appeals.

Relief groups—religious, secular or governmental—see situations like Haiti not only as a chance to do good, but to look good, too, Heath said. Positive PR isn’t inherently bad, she said, so long as meeting basic human needs remains the first priority.

Relief ministries tend to follow strict protocols in disaster zones in order to ensure the vulnerable aren’t exploited. But protocols vary according to each group’s understanding of the risks at hand.

Last September, more than 20 religious institutions, from Scientologists to Buddhists to Catholics, agreed to a set of guidelines that urged relief groups to refrain from imposing moral values or engaging in inappropriate evangelism.

Samaritan’s Purse relies on chaplains from its sister organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to attend to victims’ spiritual or emotional trauma. No one who receives aid from Samaritan’s Purse is required to listen to a message or make any sort of faith profession, Hall said.

But those giving out aid nevertheless do their best to win converts when they can.

“When we get these folks together (for aid distribution), we’re going to do two things: We’re going to meet their physical need ... but we’re also going to take the opportunity to share the gospel,” Hall said.

Catholic Relief Services concentrates primarily on distributing food, according to spokesman Tom Price. In Christian countries, Catholic Relief Services defers to priests or nuns to handle many of the spiritual crises that arise in disaster zones; he added that his agency, like other major relief groups, does not proselytize.

Medical Teams International, an Oregon-based evangelical group that’s active in more than 50 countries, provides physical aid in disaster zones. Workers sometimes tell patients that they’re grateful to God for being able to help, but they make no attempt to lead someone to faith, according to spokeswoman Marlene Minor.

Sometimes when patients are dying, “they have themselves come to a desire to make peace with God, and they ask you: ‘I want to be with Jesus. I want to be with God. How do I do that?,’” Minor said. “They’ve already come to that, and they just ask you to pray with them.”

Samaritan’s Purse represents a different approach to witnessing. It relies on chaplains from its sister organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to attend to victims’ spiritual or emotional trauma. No one who receives aid from Samaritan’s Purse is required to listen to a message or make any sort of faith profession, Hall said.
But those giving out aid nevertheless do their best to win converts when they can.

“When we get these folks together (for aid distribution), we’re going to do two things: We’re going to meet their physical need ... but we’re also going to take the opportunity to share the gospel,” Hall said.

“What I have found is, no matter what that person’s background is, when I look them in the eye and say, ‘Can I pray for you?,’ I’ve never had anybody say no.”

 

 

       
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