Ten American missionaries are jailed in Haiti for attempting to rescue needy children whose lives were uprooted by the earthquake. The missionaries’ plight underscores the potential costs of discipleship, but also the consequences of good intentions gone awry.
A group of Americans, comprised of church volunteers from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, recently left on an emergency mission trip to Haiti. Their mission: to rescue children recently orphaned or abandoned in the aftermath of the horrific earthquakes that rocked the region in January.
Unfortunately, they ran into an unforeseen complication that torpedoed their endeavor and thrust them into international headlines: It was against the law.
As was the case in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many across the U.S. have left the comfort and security of their homes in order to help the masses affected by the calamitous quake in Haiti. Relief work always has its risks, but lending a hand after a monumental earthquake in an already poverty-stricken country like Haiti is a difficult undertaking with a unique set of challenges.
So, the last thing that any of us want to do is diminish these missionaries’ acts of service by playing armchair missiologist and publicly second-guessing every detail of their decision-making. And given their denomination’s sterling reputation for disaster relief, I’m sure that this group of Southern Baptists had nothing but the noblest intentions.
Nevertheless, these Americans are in a real pickle, and I can’t help but wonder if things might have gone differently had they taken more time to count the cost of their actions beforehand.
According to variousreports, the group had not established much of an infrastructure to support their stated intent of building an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Not only that, they apparently had little experience with international charity work. And a Dominican official has recently gone on record as having warned the group that their plan was illegal. Despite their pastors’ best efforts to defend the team members through the media, they have been unable to provide any evidence to counter the perception that they acted, if not maliciously, then irresponsibly. And now new reports about lead missionary Laura Silsby’s dubious history with relief work complicates the picture even more.
Lacking expertise in either international adoption or relief work, I’ll leave it to others to pontificate on the specific hows and whys, but I can say that these kinds of rescue efforts are tricky, nuanced affairs. And if, as was reported, there were actual Haitian parents who begged the group to take their children in the hope that they might have a better life, I can understand their sense of urgency in wanting to establish this orphanage.
But it saddens me to ponder the possibility that, amidst all the rush of preparation and the emergency fund raising and the packing of clothes and the righteous momentum that would accompany such a crusade, no one considered the possibility of a backlash.
Innocent as their motives may have been, it’s hard not to view this incident as one more example of well-intentioned White people with an abundance of resources rushing into a situation with a savior complex, doing more harm than good in the process. When celebrities like Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie make headlines with their adoptions, there’s an implicit assumption that all you need to become an international hero is to be White and have money.
Far past being a trend, it has literally become a punch line. Christian Lander, author of the blog Stuff White People Like, recently appeared on the new TBS late-night series Lopez Tonight with the following bon mot:
“And White people love having Black friends, because they possess the most desired accessory of all — Black children.”
This pattern is problematic because it sets up the well-intentioned do-gooder from the outside (whatever their skin color) to think that if they are to give downtrodden children a better life, they must be the ultimate arbiters that decide what a better life should look like and where it should take place. (Indeed, this is one of the main gripes that many folks have against the Oscar-nominated film The Blind Side, in which a wealthy and compassionate White family uses its money and connections to create a better life for a homeless Black teen, who goes on to become a successful NFL player.)
In his best-selling classic Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby offers a timeless nugget of wisdom for those who are struggling to discern God’s will for their life: “Find out what God already is doing and join him there.”
The idea here is that if God stirs up a desire in you to go someplace and undergo some form of ministry, you need to understand that when you arrive, you’re not bringing God with you — He was already there in the first place. And if you go with a spirit of humility and continue to listen to His leading, He’ll show you how you’re supposed to fit into His plan. If God gives you a burden to feed and clothe and love on orphans in Haiti, then find the people who are feeding and clothing and loving on orphans in Haiti — because you’re probably not the only one.
The truth is, despite all the criticism that has been heaped upon these intrepid volunteers, there are some great positive takeaways. Among them is the fact that, while most people were content to give only $10 by sending a text message, two churches sent a real team of real people that actually had a real, tangible, viable presence on the ground. That, in and of itself, is impressive.
And while it’s easy to criticize their lack of planning, if everyone in an emergency waited to act until there was an airtight plan, nothing would get done. We need people in the body of Christ who can marshal resources and champion causes and actually get people moving in the right direction, just like we also need people who can help navigate treacherous hazards.
After all, the point of that passage in Luke 14 is that Jesus wants us to count the cost of discipleship — and become full-blown disciples anyway. Too often, too many of us have become adept at counting the cost as a means of disqualifying ourselves, and thus, maintaining the status quo.
As I was bouncing these ideas off of my wife Holly and getting her feedback for this column, she crystallized perfectly the tension that we must live in if we are to represent Christ well:
While we don’t want Christians to be seen as people who act without proper planning, on the other hand, we also don’t want Christians to be seen as people who don’t go to Haiti to help, but instead sit at home criticizing those who do.
Amen to that.
And as my pastor used to say, if you can’t say “amen,” then say “ouch.”
Kory Westerhold is a graphic designer, and accidental activist, who’s using his skills to help Haiti, one T-shirt at a time.
It’s just past 1 p.m. in Brooklyn and designer Kory Westerhold is getting anxious. His e-commerce site for Haiti relief, Thread & Water, was supposed to launch by now, but there are … shall we say … technical difficulties.
“Um, let’s make that 2 p.m. Sorry y’all,” he tweets, and disappears online to tinker with the infrastructure of the site. A community of friends and colleagues stand by, waiting for his signal and building excitement amongst one another via Twitter and online chat programs. “It’s going to melt your face off,” says one friend. She’s had a sneak preview of the site and can already vouch for its quality.
Everyone’s eager to see the custom T-shirts and prints Westerhold’s selling, designed by a who’s who of top creatives, hand-selected for this project. One hundred percent of the proceeds raised will go directly to help provide clean water in Haiti (most of the participating designers have kicked in cash to pay for the back-end costs, and Westerhold is making up the rest out of his own pocket).
In the wake of the disaster, water is crucial. Newly erected tent cities with makeshift latrines and food storage can turn into breeding grounds for cross-contamination from sewage to drinking water overnight. The threat of a cholera outbreak is very real in such a situation, potentially leading to more deaths than the 7.0 earthquake that leveled the already poverty-stricken country two weeks ago. Thread & Water donations will help reduce the spread of disease and prevent the devastating effects of starvation and dehydration by contributing funds to The Water Project, a charity that provides clean water and supplies to survivors … that is, if Westerhold can get the site running.
An hour later, he reappears on Twitter triumphantly declaring, “WE ARE LIVE!” Within minutes word is spread throughout the country as friends and friends-of-friends log onto ThreadnWater.com to donate $25 in return for a shirt.
“It’s just so much more than I imagined it would be,” he explained the night before the January 25th launch. Westerhold never set out to be an activist. Like most of us attempting to process the images of devastation daily streaming in from the media, the young designer just felt compelled to help. Enter project Thread & Water. “This really didn’t start off to be ‘something’ — I just wanted to sell some T-shirts and allow that to help me give more than I could have otherwise — and if it is ‘something’ now, it surely wasn’t me who came up with it … it just kind of happened.”
And happen it did. Within a week, Thread & Water quickly expanded to a community project, as numerous people from Westerhold’s close-knit web of friends raised their hands to get involved. Some contributed back-end skills to get the site off the ground, like publishing guru Kristen Ball and finance journalist Erick Bauman. Others offered designs for the Thread & Water T-shirts, including Ness Higson, Danny Jones, Phil Coffman, Aaron Grauer, Joshua Blankenship, and Steven Abraham.
“I just took inspiration from them,” Westerhold says, identifying the collaboration of his friends as the driving force behind the relief effort.
And while he’s certainly no saint, this isn’t the first time Westerhold has used his design skills to effect change. He rarely talks about it, but he’s the creator of the logo for To Write Love on Her Arms, the popular non-profit started by Jamie Tworkowski to help teens battling depression and suicide. Embodying the same community-driven quality of TWLOHA, Thread & Water may see similar success. But success isn’t Westerhold’s goal. Like most of us, the accidental activist is just trying to be faithful to the small opportunities before him and join his friends to help others.
Only four days after the launch, Thread & Water is doing well. Inspired by the site, a New York City school invited Westerhold to share with students various ways they can help with the relief and inspire the children to design their own shirts, which will be sold specially on Thread & Water’s site.
The momentum around Thread & Water is exciting, but Westerhold is keeping some perspective. “There are actually lots of fantastic designers responding to the tragedy in Haiti with their talents and checkbooks. In fact, a good friend of mine, Mike Fretto, who runs Rosa Loves in St Augustine, has already sold over 1,000 shirts for the relief effort! I’m just glad that our group had the heart to respond and is doing what they can to be a part of that.”
For more information about Thread & Water, and to purchase a T-shirt for a $25 donation that will help provide clean water for Haiti, visit http://threadnwater.com.
Pat Robertson’s comments were offensive, but one cannot overlook Haiti’s legacy of voodoo and witchcraft. If Westerners really want to bring about social justice and spiritual transformation in Haiti, Africa, and other nations of African descent, then we need to take the implications of their religious worldviews more seriously.
When I was a student at Christ for the Nations School of Missions, I learned about the so-called “pact with the devil” that the African slaves of Haiti made to free themselves from the French. Later I learned about the so-called “renewal of the covenant” presumably made by Aristide in 2003 where he officially recognized Voodoo as a state religion.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, I knew that it was only a matter of time before a televangelist would say something that the media would pick up and allow themselves yet another opportunity to paint evangelicals in a negative light. While I agree that Pat Robertson’s comments were embarrassing and offensive (for the record: I don’t think that anyone should ever claim they have divine knowledge as to why a specific natural disaster occurs. Luke 13:2-5 speaks loudly against that), I also think that the reaction of the secular media and some in the progressive faith community has been — good intentions not withstanding — condescending.
Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about this. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I visited a peace-oriented church in Albuquerque. After the service I struck up a conversation with a guy that asked me what I do for a living. I told him I’m a missionary that travels the world and that I lived in Africa for a period of time. When I told him about how missionaries view most African traditional religious practices as demonic, the reaction I got was “Um…oh…that’s nice. I’m sure you see some value in traditional African religious practices [aka witchcraft] … don’t you?” I told him the truth. No I don’t.
Here’s the ironic part. While I’m sure that this man felt justified in his appreciation for traditional African culture over and against the supposed mentality of “culturally imperialistic” missionaries, the reality is that millions of African Christians — and I suspect Haitian Christians as well — would agree with me, not him.
One of the reasons why Christianity has exploded in Africa, and countries of African descent like Haiti, is because many African social systems are structured around fear of evil spirits. Unlike in the West, where the predominant salvation model centers around guilt/forgiveness, in African societies people often place their faith in Christ because they view the message of the resurrection as a cosmic defeat over the power of demonic forces. This is why when Africans (and/or people of African descent) read their Bibles, most don’t read through the prism of Western liberalism. They take what the Bible says about the supernatural at face value.
Western liberal academia might scoff at the idea that idolatry leads to poverty, but for millions of African Christians, the dots were connected a long time ago. They themselves are fighting against sorcery and witchcraft in their spiritual warfare conferences — without the prodding of Western missionaries. And for good reason. Witchcraft is a poor moral base to build a prosperous society. When people are afraid to succeed in their jobs or businesses because they fear their neighbor will place a deadly curse on them, that’s bad news for the economy. Most African Christian leaders recognize this. This is why when Western media and religious elites treat witchcraft/voodooism as a harmless practice that may or may not be compatible with Christianity, what they’re really doing is trivializing the beliefs of millions of African Christians — a sort of paternalism in reverse if you will.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying that idolatry/witchcraft/voodooism is the only factor perpetuating poverty in African societies. Certainly the legacy of slavery and colonialism, unfair trade laws, Western interference in internal political affairs and — name your political injustice here — have all played a role in keeping Africans and people of African descent in economic slavery. But if we in the West want to partner with African background Christians to bring about social justice in their respective countries, then we need to take their worldview a bit more seriously. If you don’t believe me, read Philip Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom or, better yet, watch any film made in Nigeria.
I can’t speak for every African and/or Haitian Christian, but my sense is that while many would be offended by Robertson’s comments, most would also tell us that if African societies are to progress into the 21st century, then both physical and spiritual issues will need to be addressed.
This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Sojourners.
Haiti does have a long history of “dealings with the Devil.” But not in the way the televangelist suggested.
Last week’s earthquake in Haiti has turned the world’s attention to this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti was rocked to its very foundation by a 7.2 earthquake that decimated its capital city, Port-au-Prince, leaving countless thousands dead and millions more homeless, hungry, and in need of medical care. As much of the island is reeling from the recent devastation, without electricity and water, this is but the most recent disaster in a string of tragedies to hit Haiti’s shores.
Over the past several decades Haiti has suffered famine, civil war, hurricanes, and floods just to name a few of its many unfortunate trials. And now the most devastating earthquake ever recorded on the island has the world watching and praying. Many of us are also taking crash courses in Haitian history in our need to know more about this Caribbean island that has suffered hardship after hardship. We’ve watched the reports from Haiti on CNN and Fox News, listened to scholars and commentators on NPR, and tried to understand the complicated story of this star-crossed nation.
Sadly, not everyone watching the events in Haiti have come away with the normal humane sentiments of shock and grief. As we’ve all heard by now, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is more bothered by the fact that President Obama will be viewed as “humanitarian” and “compassionate” as a result of the tragedy rather than the fact that millions of human beings are in crisis.
But Limbaugh is a political rabble-rouser who thrives on drawing fire with his ridiculous (and often racially tinged) remarks. More disheartening were the comments from TV preacher and erstwhile presidential candidate Pat Robertson, who used his 700 Club platform to offer an impromptu history lesson on why Haiti may be the recipient of such catastrophic misfortune, even as he asked for donations for relief efforts. With his helpless co-host looking on (the poor woman’s face seemed to plead, “Please don’t say something crazy, Mr. Robertson!”), Robertson said this:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the Devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.
That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have — and we need to pray for them — a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.
By now, most reasonable people have rebuked Robertson for the insensitive tone and poor timing of his remarks. But what about his take on Haitian history? Looking at the events through Christian eyes, did Haiti’s historic grab for freedom truly constitute “a pact with the Devil”?
A Voodoo Legacy?
In his controversial remarks, Robertson seemed to be referencing the legendary Bois Caïman voodoo ceremony that some believe took place in 1791, though scholars now disagree as to the historicity of the event. The ceremony, led by voodoo priest and activist Dutty Boukman, supposedly inspired the Haitian revolution.
That’s one reading of the history, but unbeknown to most Westerners, Haiti’s dealings with the Devil started long before its rebellious slaves overthrew their French oppressors — and it continues to this day. The bargaining for the soul of the island began when Christopher Columbus happened upon this Caribbean paradise and its natives in 1492, supposing it was part of India. He renamed it “Hispaniola.”
In less than a century the Spanish had exterminated the indigenous population, the Taínos, and imported slaves from the continent of Africa to cultivate what would soon be called the “Jewel of the Antilles.” The French, seeking possession of this valuable piece of real estate, went to war with Spain a century later and was only able to conquer half the island. As a result, the island once known as Hispaniola is today divided, with the eastern side now called The Dominican Republic and the western side, Haiti.
A Myth That Keeps Giving
Before the fateful Haitian revolt, the island of Haiti produced half of the sugar, coffee, and indigo consumed in all of Europe. By this time, North and South America, as well as the Caribbean, were engaged in colonization and the slave trade by various European nations — Spain, France, Portugal, England, etc. It is here where we begin to witness the Devil’s doing … or undoing. After many failed attempts by the black people in Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, and the United States to free themselves from the satanic practice of the West called slavery, the Haitian slaves began a revolt in 1791 that eventually surged under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture. The Haitians finally won their independence in 1804.
Battle at Santo Domingo is a painting by January Suchodolski depicting a struggle between Polish troops in French service and the Haitian rebels during their revolution.
The Haitian revolution became the first successful slave revolt in history, and Haiti was the second European colony, after the United States, to win its independence. However, many white Christians continue to believe the not only false but ridiculous rumor over the centuries that the Haitians secured their freedom by making a “pact with the Devil” in exchange for their freedom from French rule.
Not long after Haiti declared its independence, Napoleon Bonaparte, the then-leader of France, often hailed an “anti-Christ” by many of Robertson’s peers, failed in his attempts to regain control from the rebels and France lost the war — and, I might add, most every war after that. Why anyone would need to strike a bargain with the Devil in order to beat France in a war is beyond me. Perhaps the thought of “ignorant savages” having the ability to overthrow their white masters to secure their own freedom was too much for some European minds to grasp. Therefore, these “mere slaves” must have required the assistance of some “supernatural power.” And this “supernatural power” invoked by the Haitians naturally must have been of satanic origin because the Christian God served by France and the other European nations obviously smiled upon the slave trade and the many blessings colonial imperialism was inflicting on His other children throughout the world. He certainly couldn’t have come to the aid of slaves who cried out for centuries for God to deliver them; surely there is no biblical precedent for this.
Perhaps, by now, you’ve picked up on my sarcasm.
The Devil’s Triple Play
You don’t have to be a military strategist or have ever read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to know that you never just give up territory to the enemy. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Jesus. And He was not referring to the house of France, but the House of Satan itself. If the Bible be true, and I believe it is, why would Napoleon, a supposed “anti-Christ,” release one of his greatest trophies in Haiti? Especially since he had a “two-for-one special”: 1) One of the most prosperous islands in the Caribbean at the time, supplying massive amounts of cash crops to the rest of Europe in the name of “Mammon,” while 2) extracting it at the expense of untold human suffering and carnage in the form of “slavery.”
It is apparent to anyone who knows the history of Haiti that the real dealings with the Devil have been three-fold: First, its initial contact with European colonization and the satanic institution of slavery; second, the nearly century’s long embargo that the West imposed on the island as retribution for liberating itself; and third, the economic exploitation perpetrated against Haiti by those very same Western players in modern times, as well as the poverty prostitution the nation has been forced to perform for the Devil’s spawn — the Bretton Woods system and its minions.
The fact that the Haitians themselves have had a hand in their own suffering is well publicized, sampled, looped, and mixed. But it takes two to tango. I’ll address the second and third aspects of Haiti’s “Dealings with the Devil” more fully in a future article. Until then, Pat Robertson, like the rest of us who profess to be believers in Jesus, should engage in “religion that is pleasing to God.” That means guarding our tongues against saying cruel things; it means coming to the aid of the widowed and orphaned in their distress; and it means keeping oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26-27).”
Haiti needs our help and prayers at this time, and in doing so we should heed what God has shown us to be good: “to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Micah 6:8).