Welcome to Current TV
The Missionary Impulse
To the Caribbean she went with nine other self-appointed missionaries and an audacious plan: they would “gather 100 orphans from the streets,” of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, according to an outline on the Web site of Silsby’s group, New Life Children’s Refuge.
The children would be whisked across the border into the Dominican Republic. Food, shelter, legal permits: the basics would be worked out by divine blueprint. For now, they needed funds — tax deductible!
What’s more, there would soon be “opportunities for adoption,” the group mentioned, “for loving Christian parents who would otherwise not be able to afford to adopt.”
Silsby and her live-in nanny, Charisa Coulter, are still in a Haitian jail, where they have denied charges of child kidnapping. A judge there has agreed to release the two this week, but the case shows once again how easy it is to manipulate people in the name of an all-loving God.
“Kidnapping for Jesus” is what many, including outraged Idahoans, have called it in reader response to newspaper stories about the missionaries. Silsby says it’s all a misunderstanding, and her intentions were good.
At the least, the curious case of Laura Silsby raises questions about cultural imperialism: what makes a scofflaw from nearly all-white Idaho with no experience in adoption or rescue services think she has a right to bring religion and relief to a country with its own cultural, racial and spiritual heritage?
Imagine if a voodoo minister from Haiti had shown up in Boise after an earthquake, looking for children in poor neighborhoods and offering “opportunities for adoption” back to Haiti. He could say, as those who followed Silsby explained on a Web site, that “the unsaved world needs to hear” from the saved.
Who says they are “unsaved?” And who says the world needs to hear from them? Haiti is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, and a nation full of passionate believers at that.
As it turns out, there was no orphanage for the Silsby children, just plans, many, many plans. And some of the young Haitians were not even orphans. As to what qualified Laura Silsby to jump into international relief work with a side of adoption services, well, she had once run something called Personal Shopper. And she was a charismatic Christian, with a golden tongue.
So, despite the fact that she’d been subject to numerous civil lawsuits for unpaid wage claims, and had a history of flouting the law, she could convince fellow Baptists to follow her to Haiti after the devastating earthquake last month. Under the banner of heaven, they would try to help “each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ.”
Eight of the 10 missionaries have since been released and have returned home, after some said they had been duped by Silsby.
Of course, no one moved by genuine concern should ever be discouraged from acting. And in Haiti, we’ve seen some of the best impulses of the human heart at work in life-saving triage.
Still, the damage by zealous amateurs has been done to legitimate adoption services, and to relief agencies with long and noble histories of helping the desperate, the poor, the unloved. Blame it on the missionary impulse, a lingering personality disorder of Western culture.
Most Native American tribes have three basic stories: a creation myth, a trail of tears out of the homeland and indignities suffered at the hands of Christian missionaries.
Some of the worst damage was done, the tribes will tell you, long after the Indian wars were over, when missionaries moved in. They broke up families, shipping children off to boarding schools where they were shorn of their language, their hair and their culture. They banned tribal customs like the potlatch — where Indians compete to give away gifts — and spirit rituals that had been passed on for centuries.
Edward Curtis, the photographer of American Indians, was so happy to find native people in the far north of Alaska whose lives had not been overturned by outside do-gooders that he wrote, “should any misguided missionary start for this island I trust the sea will do its duty.”
The British Empire, struggling with its “White Man’s Burden,” in the memorable phrase of Rudyard Kipling, at times tried to keep missionaries out of its colonies. Violent rebellions in India, among other places, were spawned by fear of having an outside religion forced on people.
As the African saying put it: “First they had the Bible and we had the land; now we have the Bible and they have the land.” Of course, there are more Anglicans by far in Africa now than in England, so in a sense the missionaries got both the land and the Bible.
But again, suppose an animist from Africa tried to wash Christian vernacular from the mouth of an Anglican in London? It would be an outrage.
The missionaries say they have found the Word, the Truth, and feel compelled to spread it. Indeed, Paul Thompson, one of the Idaho pastors who followed Silsby to Haiti, expressed these feelings in his pastoral newsletter just before the earthquake.
“War is declared!” he quoted a 19th century British missionary approvingly. “In God’s Holy Name let us arise and build!”
But the Silsby case calls for a different type of refrain: Missionary, heal thyself.
more from Community:
from the community