Monday, February 15, 2010

Stay Home and Write a Check

February 16, 2010

Missionaries in Haiti Skeptical of Newcomers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Their holy books vary widely and so does their disaster apparel. Devotees of Supreme Master Ching Hai, a Vietnamese spiritual leader, wore fluorescent yellow vests on their way into quake-damaged Haiti. Mormons wore their trademark white shirts and ties. And an array of others — Scientologists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Jews and Muslims — each printed T-shirts of a different hue declaring which faith had inspired them to help save Haiti.

Moved by awful images of the Jan. 12 earthquake, a broad band of religious groups has swept down here in recent weeks. But rather than fostering a universal spirit of interfaith cooperation, the hasty assemblage of religious organizations has sometimes created tensions among them.

Theology aside, what seems to divide the missionaries most is how long they have been working here. Some of the missions have operated here for decades, converting generations of Haitians and helping to develop the country, and that has made for some skepticism of the newcomers’ motives and methods.

Dale Winslette, 51, a volunteer with Give Me Shelter Ministries in Shalimar, Fla., which has been providing food and medical and dental care in Haiti for the past four years, said there were many missionaries who were mostly interested in returning to their churches with grand stories of good works.

“These people are so zealous to get out there and say, ‘Look what I did; look at these kids I saved,’ ” he said.

In Carrefour, a bustling suburb of Port-au-Prince, the capital, the Church of the Seventh-day Adventists, which has worked in Haiti since 1904, runs a hospital, a wastewater purification plant, a bakery, a radio station and a bookbinder. Even before the earthquake, the church was considered to have far more of a presence in Haiti than the government.

But other religious workers are operating in a far more bare-bones manner, with whatever they managed to carry in their luggage.

“You had missionary doctors parachuting in here doing amputations rather than setting or treating wounds because they knew their charter jet was leaving in two days and they would not be able to oversee follow-up,” said Dr. Scott Nelson, an American orthopedic surgeon and Adventist missionary, as he lifted a moaning man onto a soiled stretcher.

“The community trusts us, but when other groups make shortsighted decisions it undermines everyone’s credibility,” he added.

Dr. Nelson and other veteran missionaries faulted the new arrivals for frequently acting on their own instead of collaborating with more established missionary groups that plan on staying in Haiti for the long haul. It is tension, some experts say, that can arise from the differing reasons that missions have for being here.

“The new or short-term groups see themselves as being there to save souls first and lives second,” said Jonathan J. Bonk, director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven. “The older, less conservative missions often see it the other way around.”

But the new arrivals say they have a legitimate role to play as well. “Right now, with the situation being a disaster, we mostly focus on food and water and supporting the doctors; that’s our mission,” said Pat Harney, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, which has several hundred health professionals and volunteer ministers in Haiti.

Some of them arrived on John Travolta’s Boeing 707, which he flew down loaded with tons of relief supplies, and when not doing relief work they sang classic rock songs at a crowded bar full of aid workers inside the United Nations compound. At the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where Scientologists in bright yellow T-shirts have assisted as volunteers, some have carried out what they call touch therapy, in which they say they realign patients’ nervous systems by touching them through their clothes.

The hospital director, Dr. Alix Lassegne, said he told the group’s doctors to stick to traditional medicine and other volunteers to stay away from trying to convert anyone.

“We had fractures, serious wounds, and there was no time for unconventional things,” Dr. Lassegne said. “I told them, as director of the hospital, in no way would I permit other activities.”

Missionaries have long filled a vacuum left by an impoverished and historically unstable government.

While government officials have condemned the 10 Americans, most of them Baptists, who were arrested trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border without proper documentation, they have praised religious groups in general for their work.

“Missionaries have always participated in the process of alleviating pain in this country,” said Patrick Delatour, a top government official.

Christian missionaries run more than 2,000 primary schools in Haiti attended by about 600,000 students, roughly a third of the country’s school-age population, according to the Haitian Education Ministry.

In the case of the Adventists in Carrefour, more than 2,000 children attend a cluster of Adventist schools — primary through university level — that sit on a sprawling campus of palm trees and tidy white buildings perched on a hilltop.

“Even before the earthquake, this was a city of its own,” said Michel Toutian, a resident, 36, as he entered a huge tent city set up by the Adventists. “And the Adventists are the mayor, police, everything.”

Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of World Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, said there were about 1,700 missionaries permanently based in Haiti. The number of missionaries making short-term visits is more difficult to estimate, but some organizations say it is as high as 10,000.

“The outpouring of compassion is heartwarming,” said Sarah Wilson, spokeswoman for Christian Aid, a British organization that receives much of its financing from church members and has a longstanding operation in Haiti. But she added: “People shouldn’t come down here for an experience. They should stay home and write a check.”

Damien Cave contributed reporting.

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