Newswires buzzed recently with reports that a group of ten Americans from an Idaho-based Christian charity were arrested trying to transport 33 Haitian children into the Dominican Republic contrary to the rules of Haiti's government. Although details are still emerging, the story thus far suggests a potent mingling of good intentions with ill-advised plans. Fellow Christians embarrassed by the incident should have the grace to withhold the abuse many observers are now piling on the group, but we can still take a strong lesson on the need to match zeal with knowledge in every effort to "care for orphans in their distress."
According to their website, the group's goal was to "rescue Haitian orphans abandoned on the streets … and bring them to New Life Children's Refuge in Cabarete, Dominican Republic." This "Refuge" is at present a 45-room hotel the ministry leased to house the children as an interim measure. Ultimately, they planned to construct an orphanage that would provide long-term care, and also the potential of adoption for children that could not be reunited with relatives.
These rickety plans, along with the decision to remove the children from Haiti without approval, were a recipe for trouble. Adding further to the impression of sloppy do-goodism, it now appears that some of the children had living parents and were not in need of rescue at all.
Appropriately, many relief organizations have voiced strong concern over the incident. Meanwhile, others in the foreign aid world—which often tends to be dismissive of volunteer efforts and highly critical of international adoption—have sought to make the situation a cause célèbre. Private blogs and even some nonprofit websites now venture beyond the known facts, implying gross neglect of the children by the Christian group and even worse. No doubt some hope to harness the situation to foster broader criticism of adoption, and to emphasize the superiority of large-scale, government-centered models of aid to smaller acts of private charity.
Even as we apply strong words to the group's actions—"reckless" and "irresponsible" come to mind—we should first be reminded what this debacle does not tell us:
First, it does not tell us that Christians have the market cornered on well-intentioned but poorly-devised attempts at aid. Far from it. As writers like William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo lay out in disturbing detail, the history of efforts to help the needy—both government and private, religious and secular—is rife with failed largesse. A brief survey of public welfare programs in the U.S. alone would dwarf this situation in both size and foolishness for examples of benevolence gone awry.
Second, it does not tell us that compassion motivated by Christian faith is somehow peripheral to "real" disaster aid. Thousands of committed Christian organizations, churches and individuals—both foreign and indigenous—were effectively meeting deep needs in Haiti even before the earthquake. Today, these entities and recently arrived allies are central to relief efforts on the ground in Haiti, as are Christians in every catastrophe. The actions of a single small group certainly don't define the Christian response, nor should we feel embarrassed of our faith-inspired efforts in response to future disasters.
Finally, it does not tell us that the significance of adoption in caring for orphans should be marginalized. Although the press played up reports that the group had mentioned adoption to the U.S. as one potential way to eventually help some of the children, this was clearly not the group's primary focus. Nor could such adoptions have happened on any scale without massive amounts of U.S. and local paperwork, as any adoptive family knows. The group's errors to date were actually examples of on-the-ground orphan care gone wrong, not of mishandled adoptions. Yet no one is suggesting we should now shun orphan care, nor should they. The Christian community should stand strongly behind a full spectrum of in-country orphan care efforts, as well as the option of international adoption for children who'd otherwise grow up without families.
Amidst all this, what this situation does tell us is much more straightforward. Passion alone is simply not sufficient; it must be consistently paired with wisdom. Zeal without knowledge can be a destructive force. A compassionate impulse may indeed be God's nudging, and certainly should not be ignored. But the hard work of education, preparation, and planning most always stands between us and a job well done.
For those freshly woken to the needs of orphans, one other reminder will be helpful as well. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti had an estimated 380,000 children who had lost at least one parent. Tens of thousands lived in orphanages, on Haiti's streets, and as household slaves. These tragic situations are mirrored in many developing countries worldwide. So while the current crisis adds urgency to the biblical call to "defend the cause of the fatherless," the need to respond did not start with Haiti's latest anguish. Nor will it end when the television cameras no longer bring their images to mind.
Thus, in this moment—stirred as we are by Haiti's pain, and freshly reminded of the hazards of poorly-directed zeal—the most significant reminder is that knowledge-guided love is always needful. The emotion we're feeling is one that can be acted upon for the rest of our lives. Amidst the current crisis, we must help as best we can: giving generously, praying seriously, and even working on the ground alongside trustworthy organizations and local churches. Meanwhile, it's never too early to begin readying ourselves for a longer journey, joining passion with preparedness, and compassion with commitment, to serve wisely and well for the distance.
Jedd Medefind is President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which will host Summit VI in April 2010 to help churches and organizations seeking to engage in adoption and orphan ministry. He previously served as a Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and led the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.