Paul Thompson considers it a beautiful thing to reflect on the days he and nine other Baptists were detained in a filthy Haitian jail, falsely accused of trafficking the orphans they were trying to help.
"They were difficult and perplexing and complex days, but God ordained them," said Thompson, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, four years after the ordeal. "It's easy to see that, especially as I read back through my journal entries from those days."
Thompson has compiled a sixty-page journal of his time in Haiti, recording times when he wept with his face to the wall and times when he rejoiced over God's provision.
The group of volunteers from two Idaho churches traveled to Haiti in January 2010 to rescue orphans from the earthquake-ravaged country and move them to safety in the Dominican Republic. Shockingly, they were charged with child kidnapping instead.
Eight of the volunteers, including Thompson, were released after nineteen days. Another team member was allowed to leave after thirty-seven days, and the final volunteer was held more than one hundred days.
Chief among the good that God brought from those bad days was the establishment of New Horizon, a ministry supported by Eastside Baptist Church that houses, feeds, and educates twenty girls in Port-au-Prince. It was during the volunteer group's detention that they met a Haitian named Alex, who now serves as director of the ministry.
"That connection with Alex was clearly the providential hand of God," Thompson said.
Because of the spiritual need in the community where the ministry houses the girls, Eastside has planted its first international church plant, New Horizon Baptist Church.
"Spinning out of our engagement there for the last four years, since the arrest days, they've been days of unfolding for church planting, caring for orphans, being a witness for the Gospel there in Port-au-Prince," Thompson said.
When news broke that the volunteer group had been arrested, Clint Henry, pastor of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, the second church with members on the trip, was home preparing his usual fifth Sunday sermon—a Gospel presentation.
"I knew that the world was going to cave in on some of the families," Henry said. "It was tempting to think maybe I should preach a different message."
But as he watched the mainstream media begin to surround his church, Henry knew God was telling him to stay the course and preach the message he planned to deliver. He did, and the standing-room-only crowd heard the Gospel loud and clear.
One of the positive developments that came from the Haiti ordeal for Central Valley Baptist Church is that now they are prepared with a crisis management team to help mitigate any chaos that might arise if a similar event happens on another mission trip.
"I think as more and more churches are doing overseas ministries, the possibility for unexpected things is always there, and I think some churches aren't as prepared as they ought to be," Henry said.
Central Valley Baptist has remained strong in their commitment to international missions. The church, with 450 regular attenders, has sent teams to more than thirty countries. What happened in Haiti didn't deter them any more than it deterred Eastside Baptist.
Those days when the volunteers were locked in putrid conditions in a Haitian jail were hard for sure, Henry remembers, but God taught him some "amazing spiritual lessons."
The first thing Henry had to surrender, he said, was his right to a good reputation. Growing up, a person's name meant something, and he was seeing his name, as pastor of a church tied to child trafficking, smeared. Not only that, his church's reputation was maligned.
"I was reminded that people didn't think well of Jesus Christ. He didn't have a good reputation either," Henry said, "but that didn't keep Him from continuing to do the Father's work."
The church received hate mail because of falsehoods reported in the media, "but we just had to keep laying down our right to have things work out our way or be thought of the way we wanted to be thought of or have this thing end as quickly as we wanted it to end," Henry said.
Thompson, in his February 6 journal entry, wrote, "NBC brought in a pizza from Domino's and MREs for us today. One of our MREs had a mobile phone in it. They wanted us to use it to call our families. As tempting as this was we have chosen not to use it. I am of the opinion that the media wants to listen in to gather information. This may be an innocent gesture of good will but we have decided that there is no media we can trust or want to trust right now."
"God can do what we cannot do"
Looking back four years later, maybe the most significant lesson the people of Central Valley Baptist learned from the group's detention was being reminded "that God can do what we cannot do," Henry said.
The families of the volunteers wanted to take care of their loved ones by providing meals, water, and other necessities, but they could not because they were thousands of miles away.
"That became an incredible daily challenge that was really kind of beyond our ability to take care of, but God answered that prayer through a Christian organization that came to our aid and through people that showed up at the jail—Christians in Haiti that brought water and food and things like that to our people," Henry recounted. "It was constantly a reminder to us that God does meet our basic needs.
"Sometimes it was humorous because our team was full of God's love for the people down there so a lot of times when we did get supplies to them, they gave them away to the other people that were incarcerated with them who had no one to take care of them," Henry said. "Sometimes after we got what we thought they needed to them, we immediately had to get more because they had given it away."
In his January 30 journal entry, Thompson recorded, "The cell is only concrete. No bunks. No mattresses. The Dominican, Jean, came back offering his sleeping bag. Jim is kind to accept his gift. Not sure when this bag was last washed but, from the odor, it has been some time ago. Kindness from God in a dark place."
Thompson's recorded prayer that night was, "God, protect us tonight. We are without everything but You. You and you alone do we have. Praise be to God."
Though the days inside the jail and at home in Idaho were intense and difficult, "the Lord showed us that He was faithful," Henry said, "and I think that gave a number of people in our church the courage to believe that even though they were going through difficult things in their own lives, God would be there for them too."
Henry quoted Proverbs 16:9: The mind of man plans his ways but the Lord directs his steps (NASB).
"We had this plan of ministry that we thought we were going to be involved in, but it turned out to be something very different," Henry said. "It often works that way, and we just have to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and be willing to do what He leads us to do."
2010 Prayer Guide for Haiti and the Detainees
Within days of the unwarranted arrest of the ten volunteers in Haiti, an intercessory prayer list for the crisis, "Ten Ways to Pray for the Situation in Haiti," was posted on the SBC Executive Committee website and covered by Baptist Press.
"We hope Baptists will access this site and use this resource in their personal prayer time," Roger S. Oldham, the Executive Committee's vice president for convention communications and relations, said in a press release at the time. "It can be printed as a prayer guide, posted on refrigerators, placed in Bibles, shared with Sunday School classes, printed in church bulletins, and used in Sunday morning and other prayer services. We believe in the power of prayer."
The ten points of the Haiti intercessory prayer list were:
- Pray that the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the Haitian people will be met in a timely way by all appropriate means.
- Pray for the government of Haiti as it works with international relief organizations to restore basic services to its people.
- Pray for the thousands of volunteers who are serving in Haiti as the hands and feet of Christ. Pray that their stamina will be unflagging, and that their compassionate service will point to the saving power and presence of Jesus Christ.
- Pray for the physical and spiritual well-being of the Baptist detainees in Haiti.
- Pray that the Lord will surround the families and churches of the Haiti detainees with His tender mercies and sustain them with His arms of compassion.
- Pray that the US State Department will use all diplomatic means available to advocate for the humane treatment of its citizens and will work tirelessly to secure a timely resolution to this unfortunate situation.
- Pray that donors will not be discouraged from contributing to the ongoing relief needs of this devastated country.
- Pray that the situation in Haiti will heighten the awareness of all volunteer groups of the need for adequate training, orientation, and preparation prior to embarking on ministry trips at home or abroad.
- Pray that doors of opportunity remain open for our trained Disaster Relief volunteers to assist those placed in need whenever and wherever a natural disaster may occur.
- Pray that the disaster in Haiti will serve as a catalyst for a new generation of volunteers to enlist for training through SBC Disaster Relief for effective deployment and service for both present and future needs.