Written by Jodi Jacobson for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
The term "trafficking in children" conjures up the worst of all possible scenarios…bad people taking children away from their families for nefarious purposes, such as the labor or sex trade.
But can children be trafficked for religious purposes by deeply misguided people who think they are doing "good?"
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is defined as:
“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation".
As I hear more about the story of the group of Baptist church members from two congregations in Idaho that attempted to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic without papers and absent any legal process, it strikes me that in fact they were trafficking these children for religious purposes.
The first reports on the group suggested that the children were orphans and that the American Baptist group was "just trying to help." According to the Washington Post:
One of the detained Baptists, Laura Silsby, told the Associated Press that the group had not obtained the proper Haitian documents to take the children. But she explained that the group was "just trying to do the right thing" to help.
But the road to hell is, as they say, paved with good intentions, and this response struck me, from the beginning, as deeply naive and even dangerous. Even if the children were orphaned and even if the country was devastated by an earthquake, you do not–you can not–just parachute in from Idaho and take children out of their country with no process, no permission, no legal review, no effort to find or communicate with any living relatives just because you think it is the right thing to do.
It turns out, however, that most if not all of the children were not orphans and in fact have relatives–parents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents–alive in Haiti. Some had been separated from their families in the aftermath of the earthquake, some may have lost one or both parents but still had extended family. Some had been brought by their own parents to orphanages where, the parents apparently hoped, they would get priority for scarce food supplies. In the aftermath of such a devastating national disaster, people do what they can to survive until they can regain a stable footing. Placing children in orphanages is one such strategy.
But the Baptist group went one further, because they were actually in direct contact with the parents of some of the children.
Several parents of the children in Callebas, a quake-wracked Haitian village near the capital, told The Associated Press Wednesday they had handed over their children willingly because they were unable to feed or clothe their children and the American missionaries promised to give them a better life.
What possessed the American Baptist group to try take them away from parents likely still in shock, and out of the country so swiftly, without permission from authorities? Religious beliefs, it seems, drove this group to feel it was above the law, but also to take these children for the purpose of converting the children to their own form of Christianity.
About half of all Haitians identify as Roman Catholic, about 15 percent as Baptist, 8 percent Pentecostal and 3 percent Adventist, with the rest identifying as Muslim, Christian Scientist, Mormon or other religious affilations.
The majority of Haitians, however, practice voodoo alongside Christianity (most commonly with Catholicism), and the voodoo religion keeps a strong hold on the beliefs, traditions, and worship practices of the population. In short, voodoo holds that all living things–from people to trees and plants–have spirits. According to a report by the U.S. State Department, voodoo is frowned upon by the elite, conservative Catholics, and Protestants.
The voodoo religion, adopted from practices in Africa brought to Haiti by slaves, is one aspect of "animist" religious practices which the Catholic church and evangelicals have long sought to banish from Africa, Haiti and elsewhere, because they are seen as incompatible with true Christianity.
But "true Christianity" is what the American Baptist group wanted these children to practice. For example, a flier used for fund raising purposes by the group in Idaho states that:
NLCR is praying and seeking people who have a heart for God and a desire to share God’s love with these precious children, helping them heal and find new life in Christ.
The flier also suggests this may not have been the only trip they intended to take children out of Haiti. Their flier states:
Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon
our hearts the need to go now vs. waiting until the permanent facility is built. He has provided an interim solution in nearby Cabarete, where we will be leasing a 45 room hotel and converting it into an orphanage until the building of the NLCR is complete. This interim location will enable us to provide a loving environment for up to 150 children, from infants to 12 years old.
Moreover, the New York Times story from today reports that
some of [the] parents said 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.
Was it clear to the parents what exactly these missionaries had in mind? It doesn’t seem so. Isn’t it a form of coercion to ask people so devastated by a tragedy to given up their children for some unknown "better life" without offering to better their lives right there? Why take them away? And if your intention is to bring these children to the DR and put them up for adoption to "loving Christian homes," how does telling their parents they are just going to get an education and can "come back to Haiti to visit" make you much different than the labor or sex trafficker who promises a woman that she is going to find lucrative work abroad in a new industry, only to be trafficked for other purposes? While these children might be adopted to "good homes" that does not obviate the lies, deception and abduction in which the group engaged to secure access to these children.
These children were clearly being abducted for the purposes of religious conversion, a strategy that may have been indirectly propelled by a broader religious movement to expand adoption internationally for the purposes of religious conversion.
A report in the Associated Baptist Press, for example, quotes Russell Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as decrying the efforts of the Idaho Baptist group to "remove children from earthquake-stricken Haiti without proper documentation [because it] could give a black eye to a budding movement of evangelicals who view adoption as a means of spreading the gospel."
ABP relays Moore’s reaction upon hearing the news of the 10 Americans being held in Haiti:
"I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to cause all kinds of derision to the orphan-care movement and to what the Holy Spirit is doing in churches all across America and all over the world in having a heart for orphans,’" Moore said, sitting in as guest host for seminary president Al Mohler.
Last year Moore published a book titled Adopted for Life calling on Christians to adopt children as a "Great Commission priority." On Feb. 26-27, the seminary in Louisville, Ky., is sponsoring an "Adopting for Life" conference aimed at creating "a culture of adoption" in families and churches.
"The Bible tells us that human families are reflective of an eternal fatherhood (Eph. 3:14-15)," says a website promoting the event. "We know, then, what human fatherhood ought to look like on the basis of how Father God behaves toward us. But the reverse is also true. We see something of the way our God is fatherly toward us through our relationships with our own human fathers. And so Jesus tells us that in our human father’s provision and discipline we get a glimpse of God’s active love for us (Matt. 7:9-11; cf. Heb. 12:5-7). The same is at work in adoption."
This is sensitive territory. Untold numbers of children languish in orphanages in countries throughout the world, waiting for a safe and secure home. And when a child is without parents or any family and has no recourse, it is assumed that the best thing for that child is to be placed in a loving home through adoption.
But the link between adoption and prosyletization is troubling. In Haiti, for example, I would imagine that parents, rather than being so bereft of food, shelter, water, health care and other profoundly basic needs that they feel compelled to give their children to orphanages or to strangers promising them a "better home," never to see them again, would prefer to be assisted right there to rebuild their lives, maintain their families intact, raise their children according to their own traditions and see them thrive.
But learning about their own heritage and history is not part of the "gospel-driven" religious movement. Moore, for example, is the father of two children adopted from a Russian orphanage.
In his book, Moore said when he and his wife were adopting their boys they were encouraged by social workers and family friends to "teach the children about their cultural heritage."
"We have done just that," he wrote.
"Now, what most people probably meant by this counsel is for us to teach our boys Russian folk tales and Russian songs, observing Russian holidays, and so forth," Moore explained. "But as we see it, that’s not their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home. We teach them about their heritage, yes, but their heritage as Mississippians."
Moore and others, therefore, have strongly criticized the tactics of the Idaho Baptist group in large part because they are concerned about the backlash against their own efforts to expand "gospel-driven" adoption. .
"I’m worried that this news is going to give a black eye to the orphan-care movement in the same way that some of the really rambunctious, lawbreaking aspects of the right-to-life protester movement did to the pro-life movement," Moore said on Monday’s program.
"[It] is going to cause people to have increased skepticism toward what I think is a genuine movement of the Spirit of God among God’s people."
Similar sentiments were expressed in an interview conducted by Moore with Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, and David Platt, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.
Medefind, a former aide to President George W. Bush who led the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, now heads an alliance of orphan-serving organizations and churches promoting Christian orphan and foster care and adoption and adoption ministry.
The group’s mission statement says it exists to "motivate and unify the body of Christ to live out God’s mandate to care for the orphan." The Alliance’s vision statement is "every orphan experiencing God’s unfailing love and knowing Jesus as Savior."
Its easy to get caught up in the moment of devastation to say that rescuing children by taking them "away" from their parents and their country is the first, best response. According to the New York Times, for example, the Americans, their lawyers and members of their churches have said they are innocent of any wrongdoing, and said the imbroglio was "a huge misunderstanding."
In an interview earlier this week, Ms. Silsby said the group had come to Haiti to rescue children orphaned by the earthquake, and that “our hearts were in the right place.”
But was it really, given their own materials? And what does that really mean when you have a religious agenda for children–many of them with living family– who are being taken away from everything they know to serve your own notion of what is right in the world and your own notion of "God?"
"The Real crux of the issue," writes Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, is this:
These ten do-gooders walked into the trap many well meaning white evangelical Christians fall into: those poor brown/black/yellow/red people need My help. Jesus wants Meto help them. To much of White American Evangelical Christianity the We often means Me. It’s what God Called Me to do. It’s what God would want Me to do. The problem with the Me mentality of much of conservative Evangelical Christianity is that they often can’t see the We—the people of Haiti—who love their kids so much they’re willing to let some white people who claim to be “Christians” take them away to what they promise will be “a better life.”
It is unquestionably true that the majority of adoptive parents raise their children in their own faith. It is a different issue, however, to me at least, when you seek to rescue children, legally or not, for the express purpose of expanding the number of believers in your faith….removing all trace of their original heritage. It strikes me as similarly troubling to providing aid to people in need in order to bring them into your "religious fold."
And it also seems that similarly to those who call themselves "pro-life’ but perpetuate violence against medical doctors and their clients, an approach that suggests the "religious ends" justify the means in removing children from a country will only lead to more coercion, abduction, and falsehood in the effort to "rescue" children from a culture and a religion that does not comport with your own.
To me that feels like trafficking children for religious purposes.
Veronica Arreola wrote about the same subject here.