NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) — A top official of the Southern Baptist Convention said Feb. 3 he is confident that a church mission team being detained in Haiti on suspicion of child trafficking acted in good faith but that Haiti's government interpreted their actions "in the worst light possible."
Morris Chapman, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, sought prayers for 10 mission volunteers mostly from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho arrested Jan. 29 while trying to bring 33 Haitian children into the neighboring Dominican Republic in a rare first-person commentary in Baptist Press.
Chapman said Southern Baptists have a long and storied history of disaster relief. He added that while the denomination encourages churches to work through the North American Mission Board, any local church can mount its own relief effort without coordination with the SBC.
Chapman said that is what happened when Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, co-sponsored a "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" with New Life Children Refuge, a non-profit organization launched last fall by church member Laura Silsby with dreams of buying land and building an orphanage for abandoned and impoverished Dominican and Haitian children.
According to media reports, devastation caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake prompted the ministry to act immediately by securing facilities for a temporary orphanage on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. The mission team picked up 33 children with ages ranging from 2 to 12 in Port-au-Prince before being stopped near the border, allegedly lacking proper documentation to remove the children from the country.
"The Haitian government and the international community immediately interpreted their actions in the worst light possible, alleging that they were trafficking in children," Chapman wrote. "As the story has unfolded, it has become more and more apparent that these 10 individuals were driven by the true selflessness of altruism. Moved with compassion, they acted."
Reports conflict about how the children came to be under the church group's care. The Associated Press quoted a pastor named Jean Sainvil who called the whole thing a misunderstanding. Sainvil said parents knew the missionaries' plan and agreed to let the children get on the bus in hopes of finding a better life. He said it is not unusual for children in Haitian orphanages to have parents who are living but unable to support them.
The New York Times, however, quoted Haitian parents who said they trusted the Americans on recommendation of a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area.
Phil Murphy, as he is known in the United States, founder of House of Blessings orphanage in Callabasse, Haiti, confirmed Feb. 4 that the Americans took children from the home but said he knows nothing about the group other than what he has seen on the news. Murphy, who lives in Lake Wales, Fla., added that he is not a Baptist minister.
As of midday Feb. 4 the 10 Americans were still waiting to hear of their fate. NBC News spoke to family members who said that an attorney representing the Baptists believes nine of the 10 would be released, but charges might be filed against Silsby, the group's leader.
The Idaho Statesman reported Feb. 4 that Silsby, a Boise woman who runs an Internet-shopping service, has an extensive record of legal problems including civil lawsuits, unpaid wage complaints and traffic citations including failing to provide insurance or register her vehicle.
American Baptist Churches USA, meanwhile, issued a statement Feb. 1 clarifying that the group, labeled "American Baptist" in many media reports, are not affiliated with the mainline denomination based in Valley Forge, Pa.
Central Valley Baptist Church released a statement Feb. 3 saying the congregation continues to pray for family members of the Americans being held in Haiti.
"We are concerned and worried about them, but the two governments need time to work this out," the statement said. "There is nothing new to report today and there will be no further comments from the family members unless conditions warrant."
The Baptist World Alliance released a statement Feb. 4 stating that neither the missionaries nor their churches are affiliated with the BWA or any of its member bodies. The Southern Baptist Convention, a founding member of the global Baptist organization in 1905 and traditionally one of its largest financial supporters, pulled out of the BWA in 2004 citing theological differences with some other members.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.