MERIDIAN, Idaho (ABP) -- A mission team from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho arrested for attempting to take 33 children from Haiti to a temporary orphanage in the neighboring Dominican Republic was only trying to help children suffering in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, according to the pastor of one of the churches.
Websites of both Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian and Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls posted statements saying 10-members of a church team held since Jan. 29 on charges of human trafficking were "falsely arrested" and the result of a "misunderstanding."
Clint Henry, pastor of the 890-member Central Valley church, the largest Southern Baptist church in Idaho, spent much of his weekend in media interviews insisting his church members did not intend to do anything wrong.
"The intent of our group being down there is exactly the opposite of the kind of thing that is being reported," Henry said on CBS News. "We were not trying to traffic children. We were simply trying to minister to a desperate situation there in that country. We had a facility that could be used to do that temporarily, so we went down there with the very best of intentions, and it's very unfortunate at the way things have turned out."
The Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement Feb. 1 describing Central Valley as a "missions-minded church" that has involved numerous members in mission trips around the world and Henry as "one of our finest pastors."
"We have no doubt that the mission team had nothing but the best intentions for the children of Haiti," Rob Lee, executive director of the two-state convention, said in the statement.
Lee said the state convention did not organize the mission trip but encourages churches and mission teams to work through channels including the state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention's North American and International Mission Boards.
An itinerary of the mission trip posted on the Eastside Baptist Church website said the team was working with New Life Children's Refuge, a non-profit Christian ministry incorporated last November by Laura Silsby, founder and CEO of an online shopping site PersonalShopper.com. The ministry's stated purpose is to rescue and care for impoverished and abandoned orphans in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and to provide "opportunities for adoption into a loving Christian family"
Silsby, 40, is one of five members of Central Valley Baptist Church detained over the weekend in two small rooms at judicial police headquarters in Haiti's capital. Three members of Eastside Baptist Church being held included Paul Thompson, 43, the church's pastor since 2001, and his son, Silas. The remaining two team members are Drew Culberth, youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, Thompson's cousin. One of the 10, Charisa Coulter, 24, of Boise, who is a diabetic, was taken to a hospital Sunday after nearly fainting but the following day was reported to be doing well.
According to the mission-trip itinerary, New Life Children's Refuge has been in the process of buying land and building an orphanage, school and church in Magante on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. After the earthquake the group decided not to wait until the permanent facility is built and leased a 45-room hotel in nearby Cabarete to be used as a temporary orphanage in the meantime.
The group's goal was to drive a bus from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince on Jan. 23 and gather 100 orphans from the street and collapsed orphanages and return to the Dominican Republic. They managed to round up only 33 children, and they were stopped at the border for not having the proper paperwork to take them out of the country.
At first group members thought it was not a big deal, and one of them returned to Port-au-Prince to get the last of the documentation. The next thing contacts in the United States heard the entire group was under arrest.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive called the U.S. Baptists "kidnappers," and Yves Christallin, Haiti's social affairs and labor minister, said they were suspected of being part of an illegal adoption scheme.
In a video clip aired on ABC News some of the missionaries responded to the allegations against them by saying, "Philippians 1," a chapter written from a prison by the Apostle Paul.
Trafficking of Haitian children for domestic servitude was a problem even before the earthquake, but those concerns have only magnified amid growing fears that foreigners would attempt to exploit the most vulnerable quake victims. As a result Haiti's government has suspended all foreign adoptions that weren't already being processed and ruled that no new adoptions can take place without express permission from the prime minister.
The U.S. State Department has discouraged Americans from opening their homes to adopt Haitian children who had not been identified for adoption before the earthquake, citing safeguards and legal requirements to protect children from illegal adoptions, abduction, sale and child-trafficking.
Dillon International, a non-profit child placement agency that specializes in international adoption, says it has received hundreds of calls since the earthquake from families wanting to help Haiti's orphans, but children who may have been orphaned by the earthquake probably won't be available for international adoption for one or two years to allow time for them to be reunited with displaced family members.