It's officially a kidnapping...

In more than fifteen trips to Haiti over the last twenty years I have experienced a lot of heartbreaking moments, but most difficult to bear of all was a brief stop in the remote countryside on the way back from Pestel, a little-visited town far out to the west of Port-au-Prince, in about 1994. I don't remember why we stopped, exactly, perhaps just to try and buy a cola. We were a film crew, a car full of blan, as foreigners are always called. As often in rural Haiti, just the simple fact of being in a car in that place meant that we were people of incalculable wealth and privilege. At the end of our short visit, as we were getting back into the vehicle, one of the women we had chatted with came running out to us, with her newest-born baby in her arms. She thrust the child, perhaps a year old, through the driver's-side window. "Please take him," she begged. "Take him home with you to America, and give him a life. We have nothing here for him." We protested that it was impossible. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who was tearing up. We said we hoped that there was a better future in store for them. We did our best to wish them well, and we drove on.

If you interpret this tragic anecdote as meaning that Haitians don't care about their children, then I'm afraid you are someone who needs to expand your mind and try and come to terms with how brutal and difficult life is when lived in a state of eternal poverty. Nothing is more sacred in Haiti than the "ti moun," the little children. In Haitian culture, even more than in our own, the innocence and life of the small child is to be safeguarded at all costs. Grownups will starve to let the little ones eat. Imagine, if you can, the supreme sacrifice required of a mother to try and seize, in one terrible moment of opportunity, a better life for her own baby, knowing full well that she may never see it again. It is almost too terrible to contemplate.

It is in this context that the ten Idaho baptist kidnappers caught at the Dominican border with thirty-three underage Haitian children should be prosecuted. In Haiti, not, as some have proposed, in the United States, where the religious right will make a mockery of any trial. It isn't difficult to picture what happened. These misguided evangelical zealots, so arrogant in the certainty of their own spiritual superiority, are probably not unlike many missionaries I've met over the years in all manner of third-world hell-holes, marketing their one true God to starving people. I'm sure they believed they were doing a great thing. In fact, it seems they were so certain that they were doing a good thing that they were willing to lie and dissemble to accomplish their goals. They claimed the children were orphans. This has proved not to be true. They claimed the children were not to be put up for adoption, a contention contradicted in the very first paragraph of their rudimentary mission statement, linked in Marc Lacey's New York Times article about their indictment, below.

Certainly they went around town painting a pretty picture of their hypothetical new orphanage in the Dominican Republic. In the NYT article Marc Lacey reports that "several of the 33 children had at least one living parent, and some of those parents said that the Baptists had promised simply to educate the youngsters in the Dominican Republic and said the children would be able to return to Haiti to visit their families." (It seems to me that Lacey's failure to directly quote any of the parents involved should be grounds for him to be recalled and reassigned to reporting on bowling matches, but maybe that's why I'm not an editor at the New York Times. Imagine for a moment that thirty-three American children had been kidnapped, or absconded with or whisked off or whatever you choose to call it. How long would it take the major media to locate their parents and barrage us with quotes? Does Mr. Lacey think the Haitian parents are incapable of explaining how this all came to pass?)

One nasty thing about this whole story is that well-meaning people who might otherwise consider adopting actual Haitian orphans, without any religious strings attached, will now think twice about getting involved. But the Idaho baptists are driven by a noxious agenda, and they should be punished; their primary interest is in attaching those very strings. According to this article in the Associated Baptist Press, the saving of souls through adoption is now a "movement," and one which might be damaged, "given a black eye," or made the object of "derision" in the wake of this mass abduction. No kidding. When you let your evangelical zeal for promoting your own faith go against the sanctity of the family, universally fundamental to all the cultures of the world, it is time for a major rethinking of your belief system.

I know it is a cliché of political correctness to turn the tables in these scenarios, but let's imagine for a moment what the reaction would be in middle America if after hurricane Katrina a group of well-meaning vodouists from Haiti had come over to New Orleans and gathered up a couple of dozen stray and desperate children before setting sail for their home island. Should we be surprised that Haitians are outraged? Marc Lacey leads his story by saying that "the case has become a flashpoint for Haiti’s fears of foreign encroachment." That sounds like a more than reasonable reaction to me.


Anonymous said...


Ann Neumann said...

Thanks for this, Richard. Part of the problem is our media's lack of nuance in religion reporting. Either faith is a crazy weapon or it's a benign force to be revered. This bifurcation inhibits a serious look at the motivations of, for instance, the Idaho baptists, who I have no doubt believe they were doing God's work. Until we have a sophisticated understanding of the motivations of faith, I'm afraid we'll continue to hear of these such horror stories of the faithful working for God without any sense of politics, culture or human rights. We simply digest faith in a way that fails to shed light on such "Godly" efforts.

I hope your travels are safe! Ann

Miss Anne Thrope said...

It isn't the first nor will it be the last time we see Christians using adoption in this manner. The case of Edgardo Mortara, an RC priest stolen from a Jewish home and raised under the cassock of Pius IX, comes to mind. Then there is the other method adopted by evangelicals, out breed the rest. Th Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar clan are up to 19 children and counting.

Marc Lacey/The New York Times said...

You took issue with my failure to quote the parents of the Haitian children who were taken by the American missionaries. You clearly missed a New York Times story from two days before that focused on the parents' stories. I was merely summarizing that earlier story in my piece. Read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/world/americas/03orphans.html

Marc Lacey