When night falls in
Port-au-Prince, thousands of homeless Haitians find shelter beneath
weatherproof plastic sheets emblazoned with the logo of Samaritan’s Purse, a
group that’s zealous to spread Christianity worldwide.
The 20-by-20-foot sheets
offer a tangible way to demonstrate God’s love for people regardless of their
beliefs, said Barry Hall, director of program support at Samaritan’s Purse, a
North Carolina-based relief organization headed by evangelist Franklin Graham.
And while the logos don’t
add warmth, they may still help local churches on the ground get credit for
distributing the plastic sheets, along with similarly marked blankets and
personal hygiene kits.
“It may have our name on it
because we supplied it to them, but it’s the local church that these people see
meeting their needs,” Hall said. “We try to leave that church in a better
position” to evangelize.
As faith-based relief
agencies work to help Haitians manage an epic crisis after the Jan. 12
earthquake, most are taking pains to give aid according to need, not creed, and
World Vision, for example, a
massive relief group based in Washington state with nearly 800 aid workers in
Haiti, makes sure those who distribute aid aren’t simultaneously trying to win
But even after decades of
responding to emergencies, members of the Association of Evangelical Relief and
Development Organizations (AERDO) are still wrestling with out how best to
proclaim the gospel, offer spiritual support and advance other organizational
goals in disaster zones.
In short, they’re trying “to
figure out what’s appropriate, especially in a disaster context, in terms of
Christian witness,” said Randy Strash, strategy director for emergency response
at World Vision, which belongs to AERDO.
“In a disaster context, it’s
especially important that you earn the right to be heard (because) all these
emotions are raw and the future is so uncertain and you don’t want to be
manipulating people’s emotions.”
Some Christian outreach
efforts in Haiti have already sparked controversy. Last week, Haitian officials
detained members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, for
allegedly trying to leave the country with 33 children, some of whom may not be
Meanwhile, some in Haiti’s
large Voodoo community fear Christian relief groups are pursuing ulterior
motives. Max Beauvoir, Haiti’s chief Voodoo priest, has already accused foreign
Christian groups of “trying to buy souls,” and said Haitian Christians “grab”
scarce resources and receive preferential treatment. On Jan. 31, he convened a
national meeting of
Voodooists “unhappy with the attitudes of the Christian community and their
foreign guests … to decide together the future of our country.”
Some experts on evangelism
say Christian groups must be especially careful to give aid according to need
and without strings attached.
Elaine Heath, professor of
evangelism at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University,
bemoaned a “lack of dignity” when ministries require aid recipients to sit
through sermons or other religious appeals. American ministries seldom engage
in such quid pro quo practices overseas, she noted, though they do sometimes
happen in the U.S.
Heath said relief groups —
religious, secular or governmental — see situations like Haiti not only as a
chance to do good, but to look good, too. Positive PR isn’t inherently bad, she
said, so long as meeting basic human needs remains the first priority.
“Anytime any group or
government agency goes and brings help to people who’ve been hit by something,
there is a philosophy behind it,” Heath said. “They all have their own agendas.
Does that mean nobody should help people unless they suggest to others that they
have a good agenda? No, I think that’s just nutty thinking.”
Relief ministries tend to
follow strict protocols in disaster zones in order to ensure the vulnerable
aren’t exploited. But protocols vary according to each group’s understanding of
the risks at hand.
Last September, more than 20
religious institutions, from Scientologists to Buddhists to Catholics, agreed
to a set of guidelines that urged relief groups to refrain from imposing moral
values or engaging in inappropriate evangelism.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
concentrates primarily on distributing food, according to spokesman Tom Price.
In Christian countries, CRS defers to priests or nuns to handle many of the
spiritual crises that arise in disaster zones; he added that CRS, like other
major relief groups, does not proselytize.
Medical Teams International,
an Oregon-based evangelical group that’s active in more than 50 countries,
provides physical aid in disaster zones. Workers sometimes tell patients that
they’re grateful to God for being able to help, but they make no attempt to
lead someone to faith, according to spokeswoman Marlene Minor.
Sometimes when patients are
dying, “they have themselves come to a desire to make peace with God, and they
‘I want to be with Jesus. I want to be with God. How do I do that?’,”
Minor said. “ … They’ve already come to that, and they just ask you to pray
Samaritan’s Purse represents
a different approach to witnessing. It relies on chaplains from its sister
organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to attend to victims’
spiritual or emotional trauma. No one who receives aid from Samaritan’s Purse
is required to listen to a message or make any sort of faith profession, Hall
But those giving out aid
nevertheless do their best to win converts when they can.
“When we get these folks
together (for aid distribution), we’re going to do two things: we’re going to
meet their physical need … but we’re also going to take the opportunity to
share the gospel,” Hall said.
“What I have found is, no matter what that person’s
background is, when I look them in the eye and say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ I’ve
never had anybody say no.”