Friday, February 5, 2010

Baptist missionaries arrested in Haiti, giving the United States yet another international black eye

On January 20 ten Baptist missionaries, most of whom reside in Idaho, were arrested in Haiti for trying to transport 33 children into the Dominican republic without proper documentation. In their initial court hearing they were charged with kidnaping and criminal association. Because the first charge involves children, Haitian law apparently prohibits release on bail while the case is pending.

This case has already been fairly widely covered in the US news media, with most media outlets getting the essential facts right. However, pertinent background facts about Laura Silsby, the group’s leader have been either ignored or glossed over far too often. In some of the media reports, this presents the group as being victimized by the Haitian government while possessing noble intentions. I contend this is far from the case.

In Idaho, Laura Silsby has frequently been in trouble of one kind or another with the law. She owns an online shopping business based in southwest Idaho. Between February, 2008 and July, 2009, fourteen lawsuits for nonpayment of wages. Nine were resolved in favor of the employees. Her business paid out in excess of $34,000 in back wages and Idaho Department of Labor penalties.

Currently, court records acquired by the Boise Idaho Statesman newspaper show that she is due in District Court next week for a hearing in a civil suit filed last October by her former marketing director. The trial in that suit is scheduled to begin later in February. In March, she is due in court to answer to yet another civil suit that has been filed against her.

An excellent brief summary of her civil woes assembled by the Statesman can be read here.

From her track record of deceit, and an apparent problem with keeping commitments, troubling questions abound about this entire group effort. Equally puzzling is the make-up of the detainees. Six of the ten are 34 years old or older, and include a part-time youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and the pastor of the Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Why didn’t one of these other adults sense something was amiss, and speak up? For that matter, why
didn’t at least one of them take the time to research the relevant legal requirements for setting up the Haitian refugee orphanage they were allegedly building in the Dominican Republic?

Clearly there are many details about this incident that have not been made public yet. Until all of the facts are on the table and out in the open, many questions will remain. The group’s Haitian defense attorney claims that nine of the ten were unaware that they lacked the proper paperwork for moving the children across the border. I find that claim a bit hard to believe.

Once the Haitian judicial process is completed the world will know whether the collected evidence is sufficient to confirm their guilt or not. If they are adjudged to be guilty, then the question shifts to the appropriate sentence to be handed down. The kidnaping charge carries a possible maximum sentence of up to life in prison while the criminal association charge carries a lighter sentence. Their Haitian attorney seems to think that the most anyone would get is fifteen years. Would this be a just sentence? As I am not an attorney, this is a question I do not feel qualified to answer.

Still, this case raises troubling issues. Just how far should American aid providers be allowed to go in helping foreign victims of natural disasters? Is it appropriate for aid workers to seek to convince affected parents to hand them their children, as apparently happened in this case? How much effort should aid workers put into documenting whether a child is or is not an orphan? Finally, if a child has lost both parents, but has other, even distant, living relatives who are in a position to provide care and shelter, is the child still an orphan?

The down side to this unfortunate incident is the negative reputation and image it unavoidably lends to the Southern Baptist Convention and its relief efforts world wide. Even though all ten are members of SBC-affiliated churches, their questionable actions should not be seen as indicative of the way Baptist missionaries behave. (In the interest of full disclosure: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any Baptist church.)

As a native of Idaho I am disgusted by the actions of this group. The typical Idaho resident is a stable, law abiding citizen who would not consider stooping to seemingly stealing children in an earthquake ravaged country to satisfy personal needs. Sadly it appears like Laura Silsby does not fit this mold.

Tonight, as I write this post, my heart goes out to the Haitian people. On the heels of last month’s crippling earthquake, the survivors do not need events like this creating more problems.

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