AMARILLO–With a church member sitting in a Haitian prison accused of kidnapping and child trafficking, Paramount Baptist Church Pastor Gil Lain turned to prayer as he sought to minister in a desperate situation. Lain said in a Feb. 5 interview with the Southern Baptist TEXAN he has confidence that the resources God offers are the only answer to the difficulties Jim Allen faces after he joined with a team of Idaho Baptists to aid children affected by the Haiti earthquake.
Allen was part of a group of 10 Baptists from the United States who independently traveled to Haiti following the earthquake to assist with what was dubbed “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission.” The effort was organized by Laura Silsby with support of two Idaho churches.
Initially, they were trying to move children away from a damaged orphanage in Haiti to a makeshift facility in the Dominican Republic. Along the way they also encountered children whose parents asked them to take them to safety temporarily. By the time they reached the border, the group was caring for 33 children and was detained due to the lack of an additional required document.
According to a statement posted on the church website at paramount.org/news-events, Lain disputed what he described as inaccurate media reports questioning the motives of these Baptists. “Be assured that their motive was to take care of ‘the least of these’ just as Jesus said,” he said, citing Matthew 25:40.
“You may have read the statement from the Associated Press that these missionaries knew what they were doing was wrong,” Lain added, citing their defense that they were moving children from one damaged orphanage to another safe place in the nearby Dominican Republic. “They spent three days getting the proper paperwork in order. The problems arose when they got to the border and still lacked something due to a change in the laws.”
The group met with an investigating Haitian judge on Feb. 2 and 3, then were charged on Feb. 4 with child kidnapping and criminal association for allegedly trying to take children illegally out of the earthquake-ravaged country. The Amarillo church posted a link to an MSNBC report that Lain described as fairly accurate. The report, which was shared by many media outlets, quoted Haitian Deputy Prosecutor Jean Ferge Joseph as telling the five men and five women during the hearing that the investigative judge “can free you but he can also continue to hold you for further proceedings.”
Lain told the TEXAN that all cell phones were taken away from the group, making it impossible for them to contact their families or seek U.S. legal assistance. Like everyone else, the church and family members are dependent upon media reports for updates. However, Lain said the Amarillo congregation is checking into the possibility of obtaining U.S. legal counsel to assist with Allen’s release.
“We’re saddened and disappointed in the charge. Of course it is a charge, not a conviction. It’s not a sentence,” Lain reminded, “but they’re talking three months before a trial and a potential sentence of 15 years in prison.”
“I cannot imagine them not eventually releasing him,” Lain said, making clear that he was sharing his own personal opinion. Referring to the Haitian prime minister’s remark aired live on Larry King’s broadcast, Lain noted, “He said he will be cooperative with governments who try people in their own country, but apparently no one has even asked for that.”
Lain said “it is impossible to know the inner workings” of U.S. officials seeking to resolve the situation. Praising the local media coverage as representative of the interest the Amarillo community has shown in Allen’s release, Lain said one member of his church had contacted U.S. Congressman Mac Thornberry and U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.
Interviewed while in detention, the group’s leader told the AP that they were “just trying to do the right thing” amid the chaos.
Two others in the group, Paul Thompson and his son, Silas, are related to Allen and also former Amarillo residents, according to the Amarillo Globe. Thompson was the youth minister at Second Baptist Church in the early 199s and now pastors East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Eight of the members of the group were from either the Twin Falls congregation or Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, both of which are SBC churches, with another coming from a Baptist church in Topeka, Kan., that is not affiliated with Southern Baptists.
Conditions in the Haitian prison were considered dismal with allegations that the group had been treated poorly, lacking medical care and food. The accusations of human trafficking caused the story to gain widespread international media attention, including a Larry King interview with family members of the detainees aired on CNN that included Allen’s wife, Lisa. She told King that she had not spoken with her husband since he was arrested.
“I think it’s a big misunderstanding that’s kind of been blown out of proportion,” she said. “Their intentions were to go there and help the kids that were in need.”
Paramount Baptist posted a statement from family members on their website late on Feb. 4.
“We are anxious, fearful and concerned about our family members, especially the young people who are jailed in a foreign country. Obviously, we do not know details about what happened and didn’t happen on this mission. However, we are absolutely convinced that those who were recruited to join this mission traveled to Haiti to help, not hurt, these children. We are pleading to the Haitian Prime Minister to focus his energies on the critical tasks ahead for the country and to forgive mistakes that were made by a group of Americans trying to assist Haiti’s children.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Silsby and a friend incorporated a non-profit group, New Life Children’s Refuge, last November, stating it was “dedicated to rescuing, loving and caring for orphaned, abandoned and impoverished Haitian and Dominican children, demonstrating God’s love and helping each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ.”
The Meridian church embraced the vision as part of their own international mission program, according to the Journal in an interview with one of the church leaders.
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, was quoted in a CNN.com report as saying American and Haitian officials are “working to try to ascertain what happened [and] the motive behind these people.”
“Clearly, there are questions about procedure as to whether they had the appropriate paperwork to move the children,” Crowley said.
Silsby was seen in several video interviews Feb. 1 and Jan. 31, which were permitted by authorities, as stating that the group had thought their plans were in order for transporting the children into the Dominican Republic until they were stopped by Haitian guards as the border between the two countries.
Silsby, in a Feb. 1 interview with a CNN reporter, said, “We believe that we have been charged very falsely with trafficking, which of course that is the furthest possible extreme, because, I mean, our hearts here—we literally all gave up, you know everything we had, I mean, income, used of our own funds to come here and help these children and by no means are any part of that horrendous practice.”
SBC President Johnny Hunt and Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman urged Southern Baptists to pray for the jailed volunteers. Hunt said, “We are grateful for the efforts of the U.S. State Department to provide services for the brothers and sisters in Christ, praying that our government will be able to work with the Haitian government to effect an amicable resolution to this tense situation.”
Hunt applauded efforts of state convention disaster relief teams, the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board “in their immediate and timely responses to the ongoing humanitarian crises in Haiti. They are working closely with other disaster organizations and with governmental entities in Haiti to bring resources to those who are in need.”
Recognizing that the convention cannot require any church to coordinate its local church ministries with SBC ministries, Hunt cautioned, “We strongly encourage all cooperating Baptist churches planning ministry trips to Haiti to contact their respective state conventions and our two mission boards, which are working together to provide ministry to this devastated region.”
Separated by a distance of 2,400 miles from the group detained in Haiti, Lain appealed to Christians worldwide to pray for these volunteers.
“It’s just a total misunderstanding,” Lain said, expressing his own frustration and that of his church in West Texas, the families and a host of Christians worldwide. “The press here has been wonderful because people have said, ‘Let’s get our guy home.’”