MERIDIAN, Idaho (BP)--Members of two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho are awaiting word on what a Haitian judge will decide Feb. 1 when he hears the case of 10 Americans accused of unlawfully trying to remove 33 children from Haiti.
Five of the 10 are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and three are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, including Eastside's pastor, Paul Thompson. Two others are believed to be from other states.
"Both churches are very missions-minded and have sent members overseas many times," said Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention. "They went over to help. I really don't believe they had anything less than perfect motives."
Lee said while he had been informed by email that the churches were planning trips to Haiti, the trips were not coordinated through the Utah-Idaho convention.
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Clint Henry, pastor of 500-member Central Valley Baptist, said he has been able to piece together some information from spotty communications with the team. In an Associated Press report, Henry denied that his church members had anything to do with child trafficking and said he didn't believe those kinds of reports from Haiti.
"They were at the border Friday night and were told they needed one more piece of paperwork," Henry said. "They returned to Port-Au-Prince to get that paperwork and that's when they were detained," he added to give emphasis that the group was not trying to flee with the children.
The Haitian government is struggling to keep a semblance of order in a nation brought to its knees in the aftermath of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. Violence and looting still break out in some areas and even basic electricity and phone services have yet to be restored.
U.S. officials have estimated that up to 1 million children lost their parents in the earthquake. Many have been surviving despite food shortages, safe shelter and needed medical treatment. Hundreds of orphans have been airlifted to the United States for adoption, but Haitian government officials have slowed such adoptions amid rising fears that child traffickers may be taking advantage of the desperate situation to steal children.
Amid these heightened concerns, members of the Idaho mission team found themselves caught in a tense situation between Haitian and American officials.
In a statement to the press, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said, "We did not arrest Americans, we arrested kidnappers." Some have pointed to the situation to illustrate why orphans should not leave Haiti at all right now.
"I am the parent of adopted children," Henry, the Idaho pastor, said, "So we are very concerned about the impact this might have on other Haitian adoptions that are currently underway."
Henry said Laura Silsby and another member of his church started New Life Children's Refuge before the earthquake as a way to help orphaned Haitian children.
According to an AP report, given the living conditions for the children and the breakdown in government control, Silsby said she didn't think about Haitian permission to take the children out of the country. She said they only had the best intentions and paid no money for the children, whom she said were brought to a Haitian pastor by distant relatives.
Child trafficking "is exactly what we are trying to combat," Silsby told AP. "In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing."
Silsby is the founder of PersonalShopper.com, an online tool which has been featured in major newspapers and on television networks nationwide, and in 2006 she won an international businesswoman of the year award for her "visionary leadership, impressive accomplishments and strong commitment to helping others."
Silsby and her team had been working with a Haitian pastor named Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries, AP said. The earthquake destroyed the orphanage facilities, and facing the chaos that followed the earthquake, the ministry team was trying to help Sanbil ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the children. Sanbil had made arrangements for housing the children temporarily in the Dominican Republic, and the team was working to help him transport the children there.
"When the earthquake happened, their hearts were breaking for the Haitian children, just like everyone else," Henry said.
Silsby located a hotel in the Dominican Republic and made arrangements for it to serve as a makeshift orphanage until a more permanent home could be built, Henry said, adding that the plan was for the mission team to work with one or more orphanages in Haiti that had been destroyed in the earthquake and bring those children to safety.
According to Henry, family members of those arrested have been working through the American Embassy in Haiti and an attorney is en route to Haiti in hopes of being able to represent the group at Monday's hearing.
"It is our prayer that our people will be released and that the orphans will soon have a place where they can be cared for," Henry said.
The Utah-Idaho convention, in a statement on its website, lauded Henry as "one of our finest pastors" and requested prayer.
"At this time we ask for your prayers for the mission team in Haiti, for their families waiting for news, for Central Valley Baptist Church family, and for Pastor Clint Henry. We also ask you to pray for the Haitian government and then most importantly for the children of Haiti as they struggle to survive the earthquake disaster," the Utah-Idaho convention said.
Mike Ebert, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, told Baptist Press that in a situation like the earthquake aftermath in Haiti, it's especially important for local churches and individuals to coordinate their plans and any mission trips through their state convention or through NAMB or the International Mission Board.
"Part of that is just because we are keeping informed about all the requirements and regulations in play and restrictions and travel issues and safety issues and things like that," Ebert said. "As part of our normal disaster relief work, NAMB is constantly in touch with local governments and many other disaster relief entities. So we have a lot of information about what is actually happening on the ground and how people can be the most effective."
Ebert said he doesn't have any doubt that the team from Idaho had the best intentions as they were moved with compassion for children in Haiti.
"The whole situation has served to illustrate the importance of working through the process that Southern Baptists have put into place over the years," he said.
"We're preparing to send another team now into Haiti that will establish a more permanent disaster operations center there and will hopefully serve to help the free flow of Southern Baptist aid to the churches and the people that need it the most," Ebert added.
Compiled by North American Mission Board and Baptist Press staff.