Kidnapping or Caring? Missionaries in Haiti Tried to Take Children to U.S. After Earthquake

Arrest of 10 Americans shows conflict between religious mission and Haitian law.

February 3, 2010, 12:45 PM

Feb. 3, 2010— -- Ten Americans remained in a Haitian jail today, waiting for a judge to decide if they will face kidnapping charges. The ten are devout missionaries, and they were trying to take 33 children out of the earthquake-ravaged country without documentation. They say they did it in the name of Jesus Christ.

"We came here with the intention of being able to offer and share God's love and hope with these children that have just gone through so much," said one of the missionaries, Laura Silsby of the Idaho-based New Life Children's Refuge.

But maybe love isn't enough, and maybe faith can lead to exploitation.

In the earthquake's aftermath, Haiti has been overwhelmed by people wanting to help, many of them Christian missionaries. Their arrival has sparked a sharp debate about the potential conflicts between the call of faith and the need for respect across cultures.

Cultural 'Arrogance'

Max Beauvoir is a leader of Haiti's voodoo priests, in a nation where voodoo is widely practiced and deeply ingrained in the culture. He had harsh words for some of the missionaries.

"They are very arrogant," Beauvoir said. "I have seen those missionaries coming here, supposedly sent by Jesus to save us. From what? I don't know. That is what they say, and I believe that is wrong. We don't need that kind of savior."

But the missionaries come to save anyway. They intend to save the children not just from poverty or neglect, but from Haiti itself -- get the children out of the country and into Christian homes in the United States.

Relatives of some of the arrested missionaries stand by their loved ones.

Relatives: Missionaries Were 'Going to Love'

"They were going down there to love them," said Samantha Lankford, a family member of one of the imprisoned Americans. "To have it turned around and basically be imprisoned for loving somebody in the conditions that they're in, it completely breaks my heart and they don't deserve it."

But in Haiti, at the well-established orphanage where those 33 children are now being cared for, there was deep concern about what happened.

"It was for sure the wrong thing to do," George Willett told ABC News. "It was also against existing law, because 10 days ago, Haiti did forbid bringing children out of the country. If the intention was good, it was still wrong."

There are hundreds of orphanages in Haiti. Many of them are run by missionaries, and many are unregulated and uninspected. More than 300 Haitian children were adopted by American families in 2009. This year, the number already stands at 625.

Keeping Families Together

Some secular child advocates say it would be better for all if the missionaries sought to help the families in Haiti rather than seek to take the children away.

"Our goal should be to keep families together, to strengthen existing families," said Tom Difilipo, the executive director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services.

But in the horrific poverty of Haiti, some parents entrust their children to the orphanages in the heartbreaking hope of a better life.

"It was best for her to go," said one Haitian mother of a child who went with the Americans from Idaho.

Is it arrogant to listen to this mother? What would truly answer her prayers?

For many Christians, there is no doubt.

"What you're seeing here is a picture of the gospel of Christ transcending racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic barriers," said Rev. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "I think it's a beautiful thing. I think we should see that as love in action."