Idaho church prays with members in Haiti accused of trying to take children from quake zone

By Jessie L. Bonner, AP
Monday, February 1, 2010

Idaho church prays for Americans held in Haiti

MERIDIAN, Idaho — A tearful Idaho congregation heard their pastor warn that church members detained in Haiti after attempting to take 33 children into the Dominican Republic could face child trafficking charges. Then the pastor urged them to pray.

“It should be very obvious, after our team was arrested, that prayer is needed more now than perhaps at any other time,” Senior Pastor Clint Henry said during Sunday services at Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, west of Boise.

The 10 detained Americans — five of whom are members of Henry’s church — were told they face a possible court hearing in Port-au-Prince on Monday. But Haiti’s justice secretary, Amarick Louis, told the AP on Sunday that a commission would meet Monday to determine if the group would go before a judge.

Henry told the congregation that the Americans were trying to rescue the children. But Haitian officials who stopped them at the Dominican border on Friday said the group lacked the proper documents.

The Meridian church became involved with the “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission” because the founders of the proposed orphanage for the children, Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter, were members of its congregation, Henry said.

The 500-member church, where signs taped to large bins on Sunday read “Donations for Haiti,” gave several thousand dollars toward the mission, Henry said.

“This is something we’ve been talking about doing for a long time so it wasn’t specific to this earthquake,” he told reporters at a press conference after church services.

At least three of the 10 detained Americans are members of the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Others being held are from Texas and Kansas.

The Idaho churches had elaborate plans before the earthquake to “provide a loving Christian homelike environment” for up to 200 Haitian and Dominican boys and girls in the Magante beach resort, complete with a school and chapel as well as villas and a seaside cafe catering to adoptive U.S. parents.

The mission was organized through the nonprofit New Life Children’s Refuge, which Silsby incorporated in Idaho on Nov. 25. A planning document for last week’s trip, posted on the East Side Baptist Church’s Web site, listed an itinerary for the group and asked for donations and supplies, as well as prayers.

One prayer request sought “discernment of God’s will and direction throughout this trip and for Him to prepare the way before us.”

Silsby, 40, acknowledged on Sunday that she hadn’t obtained the proper Haitian documents for the children, whose names were written on pink tape on their shirts during their bus ride to the border.

Public records show Silsby also owns Personal Shopper Inc., an online shopping assistance company. Incorporation papers for New Life Children’s Refuge show they were sent from the company’s fax machine.

Silsby’s records also show she personally has some unpaid state tax bills dating to 2003 and other debt from civil judgments and state tax liens filed by the state against Personal Shopper Inc. She owes more than $1,300 to the state in back taxes; the biggest civil judgment is for $4,500 in 2009, owed to a Boise law firm.

Henry told reporters Sunday that the organization and the mission is separate from the 25-year-old church, which has been involved in at least 100 different mission trips involving construction projects and assisting in medical relief efforts both in the United States and overseas.

Some of the previous missions were to Haiti. But this was the church’s first mission involving the creation of an orphanage, said Drew Ham, an assistant pastor at Central Valley Baptist Church.

Since the Americans were detained, pastors at the church said they’ve been getting backlash through obscenity laced phone calls and faxes, condemning the group leading the rescue mission.

“People come back and say, ‘How could you be stealing children?’” said Drew Ham, an assistant pastor at Central Valley Baptist Church.

Henry told the congregation Sunday that he hoped at least some of those detained will be released Monday.

Another detainee is Drew Culberth, a part-time youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

James Keller, the church’s pastor, said the church willingly gave him time off to go on the trip since his firefighting experience and EMT training would make him a valuable addition to the mission team. From the group’s perspective, they believed they had the proper paperwork, Keller said.

“I am just hoping they will resolve the issue and be able to get back to the mission and come home,” he said. “We know God is a big God and he can help us. What more would you ask for?”

Associated Press Writer Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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