One of the latest headlines floating around in the media is one about 10 Baptists who have been arrested while trying to smuggle/rescue (depending on your perspective) 33 children across the Haitian border into the Dominican Republic.  If you haven’t heard about it, you can get caught up in this New York Times article.

The situation with these missionaries in Haiti begs an important question for American Christians trying to live out our call to care for those who are suffering:  What is the most faithful way to help those who are suffering?  My goal in writing about this situation is not to offer a definitive answer to this question, but perhaps to uncover some assumptions American Christians often have about offering assistance.  This discussion came up in my own town when we found out that at some point in the near future over 60 Haitian orphans whose orphanage had been destroyed in the earthquake would be flying into our airport.  The initial thoughts surrounding their arrival were that they would probably need to be placed in temporary foster care situations until more permanent adoptions could be arranged.

Then, as we received more information, we found out that the caretakers at the orphanage were not sure they would let the children be brought to America.  When we think of “orphanage” (or at least when I think of “orphanage”) we typically think of it in terms of a hopefully temporary situation, a place to care for orphans until they can ultimately be adopted.  Instead, the ultimate goal of this orphanage in Haiti was to care for the children, provide them with excellent education, and empower them to be important leaders in their society once they were old enough to live on their own.  They were to be part of a better future in Haiti.

Thus, the caretakers in Haiti were not particularly keen on the idea of the orphans being adopted and assimilated into American society.  More importantly, on top of the concerns for their future, the caretakers were concerned about adding more trauma to the already traumatized by bringing them to a far-off land and separating them from one another.  Thus, the caretakers would only agree to move the orphans if they could all stay together and if the move was done with the understanding that they would eventually return to Haiti.

I think such resistance by the caretakers could likely generate several responses:  Wouldn’t the children and the caretakers have a better life and more opportunities in America?  Wouldn’t they be better off and happier in a family with loving parents?  Can they really afford to make demands or to refuse assistance?

All of these potential responses are possible and perhaps even understandable, given that they likely would come from people who really do want to help relieve some of the suffering in Haiti.  I imagine that similar responses will probably come from folks who read articles or watch stories on television about the Baptist missionaries.  I have no doubt that the missionaries really do want to help the orphans they were trying to move when they were arrested.

However good the intentions of these Baptist missionaries or even the people in my own town, the potential responses to these situations can betray certain assumptions we may have about what it means for us as American Christians to “help” those who are suffering abroad and even in our own country.  The major assumption that we make is that because many of us have “more,”  we know the “answer” to helping those who have “less.”  This puts us in danger of confusing our way of doing things with the way of doing things.  This crisis in Haiti is a situation where this kind of thinking is bound to crop up at one time another because as Christians who also happen citizens of a world power (one could read empire) like America, we are particularly susceptible to wanting to step in to control and/or fix the situations of people in communities or countries that lack power.

Fortunately in my town, those who were trying to help the Haitian orphans and their caretakers were tuned in enough to care what the orphans and their caretakers actually needed.  Thus, one denominational home for orphans was able to offer the space for all of the orphans and their caretakers.  They were able to listen and respond and to treat the caretakers as agents who knew what they needed.  This is not to brag, but rather to celebrate that in this instance those involved did not drift in the direction of the responses I suggested above.  Sentiment could have easily gone in the other direction because we are all susceptible to the temptation of assuming we know better.

I don’t know for sure what the Baptists in Haiti were thinking when they decided to try to smuggle/rescue those orphans to the Dominican Republic.  It would only be speculation to suggest what might have gone into their decision.  With that being said, as details begin to crop up in the news, we can understand why the Haitian government felt a need to stop them.  Haitian officials are understandably very wary of the possibility that there are traffickers who could benefit from children who slip through the cracks.  Even if the Baptist missionaries were trying to be helpful, they still felt it necessary to do it covertly, which seems problematic.  What is even more distressing is that some of the children seem to be indicating that they have parents.  Who knows what actually went on, but no matter what it should still be cause for thoughtful Christians to reflect on what is appropriate in situations like these, even as we realize that every situation requires a particular response.

The best insight in the New York Times article comes from Deb Barry from Save the Children:  “The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse, but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake.”  There is no blanket answer to what we should do to help others in need because every situation is different.  What may be required for Christians who want to help to work to alleviate suffering is to do what Tex Sample calls “pitching tent” with Haitians, which means that rather than trying to swoop in and “save” them, we make the commitment to enter into community with them, to listen to them, and to discern what is best for the community because we are a part of the community.

For those of us who cannot actually live there, as part of the larger Christian community we are called to “pitch our tents” with them and with those in need around us by cultivating a Christian community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that can hear the needs of those inside and outside of the church.  We need to do away with the idea that we are the heroes coming into the save those in need, that we have everything to give and they have everything to receive.

While it might make a difference in the lives of the individuals who happen to be rescued from Haiti, to focus only on the individuals and not the brokenness of their society (not to mention the brokenness in our own society) will continually leave Haiti crippled and dependent on other nations, rather than able to be led by people like those orphans who may soon be spending some time in exile from their homeland.