Why is it that in nonprofit Christian ministry, the work sometimes seems to be valued more than the worker?
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.
In response to their attempt at altruism, Haitian officials detained and charged ten of them with kidnapping. And as of this article’s publication, they are being held indefinitely in a Port-au-Prince jail, awaiting their due process.
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 reports, 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.”
Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims:
1. Humankind is made in the image of God.
2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of.
3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.
It’s a little known fact, but homeless people are incredible singers. At least many of the homeless people struggling in Los Angeles are above average. I stumbled on this phenomenon with some friends one Wednesday night at the Central City Community Church’s outreach.