Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 1

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Spiritual politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition Revisited

Haiti Laid Low

Snatching Babies for Jesus

Singing Against the Rubble

The GOP’s Latino Problem

Anti-Gay Bill

The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans

Losing Patience with the Vatican

Death in the Sweat Lodge

Faith-Based 2.0

Letter to the Editor




Snatching Babies For Jesus
by Shannon Smith

On January 29, a little more than two weeks after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti, 10 American missionaries were arrested while attempting to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. The group, comprised of church members from Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, lacked the proper documents to transport the children.

The group’s leader, Laura Silsby, had recently founded the New Life Children’s Refuge, a ministry to help orphaned children in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After the quake, Silsby’s congregation—Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian—agreed to co-sponsor the Refuge’s Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission. The plan, outlined on the organization’s website  was to bus as many orphans as they could find to the Dominican Republic and to house them in a converted hotel until a proper orphanage could be built.

“In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing,” Silsby told AP reporter Frank Bajak January 31. “Our hearts were in the right place.”

 Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive did not see it that way. As far as he was concerned, the missionaries were “kidnappers” who “knew what they were doing,” Ginger Thompson reported in the New York Times February 2.

Haiti has a troubling history of child trafficking, and many in Haiti feared that the quake’s destruction of infrastructure and displacement of families would make children even more vulnerable to traffickers. For that reason, the government halted all adoptions that had not been put in place before the quake, and required all documents permitting children to leave the country to carry the prime minister’s signature.

Thanks to on-the-ground reporting by the Times and AP, it quickly became clear that the children all had at least one living relative.

On February 3, the parents told the AP they had “surrendered their children on January 28, two days after a local orphanage worker acting on behalf of the Baptists convened nearly the entire village of about 500 people on a dirt soccer pitch to present the Americans’ offer.”

The same day, two of the parents, Kisnel and Florence Antoine, told Thompson that they had willingly surrendered their children because the missionaries offered them educational opportunities they could not provide.

The Antoines said they were promised that they could visit their children in the Dominican Republic, and that the children would likewise be free to return home for visits. Yet while the missionaries told them their children would not be put up for adoption, on its website the New Life Children’s Refuge offered sea-side villas for visiting families wishing to adopt, along with grants for “loving Christian parents” who would otherwise not be able to afford to do so.

On February 4, the missionaries were officially charged with child abduction and criminal association. Soon thereafter, the media began turning up information that cast their leader in a dubious light.

A February 4 article in the Idaho Statesman by Katy Moeller carried the headline, “Laura Silsby, a local missionary to Haiti, left a trail of financial woes in Idaho,” and the tagline, “The Boise woman has a pattern of flouting laws.” Moeller chronicled a dubious past that included eight civil lawsuits, 14 unpaid wage claims, a house foreclosure, and traffic violations.

To make matters worse for Silsby, eight of her fellow missionaries—all but her close friend and nanny Charisa Coulter—signed a note stating that she had misled them. Writing in the February 8 New York Times, Marc Lacey and Ian Urbina reported that the eight had handed a scribbled note to an NBC News producer that read, “We only came as volunteers. We had NOTHING to do with any documents and have been lied to.”

On February 9, CNN’s Karl Penhaul reported that the missionaries had made an earlier attempt to take 46 children out of the Haiti. A police officer who wished to remain anonymous told Penhaul that he had stopped them on January 26, ordered the children off the bus, and directed Silsby to the Dominican Embassy.

Just when it seemed that the case couldn’t get any shadier, the El Salvadorian police recognized the group’s yarmulke-wearing legal adviser, Jorge Puello, as a man wanted in their country for sex trafficking. On February 15, the Times’ Lacey and Urbina reported that the El Salvadorian police had uncovered Puello’s trafficking ring the previous May after raiding the house where the young women were kept and arresting his wife and another man. 

Tied to the operation by documents found at the house, Puello—born in New York and holding joint U.S. and Dominican citizenship—was on the run until he appeared on behalf of the missionaries. Claiming at first to be a victim of mistaken identity, he later admitted he was the man wanted in El Salvador, but insisted he was innocent.

It turned out that Puello had called one of the Idaho churches two days after the missionaries were arrested and offered them legal representation free of charge. Two relatives gave their consent, and he began acting as the group’s lawyer, even though he lacked a law degree. Bernard Saint-Vil, the judge handling the case, said he intended to question Silsby further about any connection she might have with him.

Indeed, it seemed like too much of a coincidence for there not to be a connection between the two. Why else would the man risk exposing himself by assuming a prominent role in a case with international media coverage?

“Somewhere, there’s a story in which these things do make sense, because they occurred,” the American journalist, filmmaker, and activist Anne-Christine d’Adesky wrote in a post on her blog Haiti Vox, March 10. “Could it be the story that is the ugliest? The one that suggests Silsby got hooked up with traffickers, wittingly or unwittingly, because those are the people who know how to quietly move other people across borders? Because she, like others, was motivated by money?”

As the story grabbed more and more media attention, prominent Baptist groups and leaders offered their prayers and support—and made sure to distance themselves from the missionaries. Ethan Cole of the Christian Post reported on February 5 that the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) had assured its member bodies, the media, and the public “that neither the team of missionaries nor their churches are affiliated with the BWA or any of its member bodies.”

Similarly, the American Baptist Churches USA posted a notice on its website expressing concern that news reports referring to the jailed missionaries as “American Baptists” might “create confusion among our constituents.”

As for the missionaries own Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), on February 3 President and CEO Morris Chapman supplied a first-person commentary to the Baptist Press entitled “Prayer for the detainees in Haiti,” in which he defended their intentions as “driven by the true selflessness of altruism” but pointed out, “While we encourage our churches to work through the North American Mission Board, a local church can mount its own relief efforts without coordination with the SBC.”

Both Central Valley Baptist Church and the New Life Children’s Refuge were such uncoordinated groups. “In their zeal to render assistance to 33 children entrusted to their care,” Chapman wrote, “these ten volunteers failed to secure proper authorization to transport them across the border to temporary housing in the Dominican Republic.”

The disclaimer did not impress former Houston Chronicle religion editor Louis Moore, who, in a February 4 post on his blog “Louis Moore on Religion,” reproached the denomination for encouraging congregations to witness across the globe without providing training or support. “Some ranking SBC leader, who has been preaching the ‘go’ message,” quipped Moore, “ought to step up to the plate and volunteer to be imprisoned in the place of the 10 people now being held in that country.”

On February 18, Judge Saint-Vil released eight of the 10 missionaries, but kept Silsby and Coulter in jail for further questioning. Four weeks later, he released Coulter as well.

Then, on April 27, Saint-Vil dropped the charges of kidnapping and criminal association against Silsby because the children’s parents had testified that they had given them over freely. On May 17, he found her guilty and sentenced her to time served. Later that day she landed in Boise.

“It feels incredible,” she told KTVB. “It feels incredible. I just give praise to my God. I thank him for bringing me home.”

When last heard of, Jorge Puello was in Santo Domingo, awaiting a decision of the Dominican Supreme Court on whether he would be extradited to the U.S. or to El Salvador on human trafficking charges.


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