EXCLUSIVE: Baptists say God provided in Haiti jail
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (BP)--Nineteen days in a Haiti prison is a long time, especially when there's no bed, no drinkable water, no usable toilet, no lights, and -- in the aftermath of a massive earthquake -- a judicial system in tatters.
For 10 Baptists arrested Jan. 30 for allegedly not having proper documentation to take orphans out of the country, it was their reality. Eight of them were released on the 19th day; another after 37 days; and the 10th after 100-plus days.
They're not, though, hoping the world will feel sorry for them. Instead, they're wanting to spread the word about how God cared for them, provided food and water when they had none, and taught them spiritual lessons they'll never forget.
Baptist Press spoke with the two youngest members on the trip, Nicole Lankford, 18, and Silas Thompson, 19, about their time in the Port-au-Prince jail. The two were in separate cells -- the five men in one cell, the five women in another -- but in the same facility.
"Honestly, it doesn't matter to me if the whole world knows that we slept on a concrete floor or not," Lankford, a member of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, told Baptist Press. "That was very minimal in the grand scheme of things. God gave us a story -- we have a million stories of His faithfulness and what He did, and how He sustained us and what He taught us and the lessons we're still learning. Those things are what we want people to hear and those are the reasons we talk about the trip."
In May, Baptist Press published an account of the events that led to the group's arrest, detailing how some government officials told them they had the proper paperwork to transport the 33 orphans into the Dominican Republican, where the children would be housed in an orphanage that was being started. They were arrested, of course, for not having the right papers.
The events of the day of their arrest -- Jan. 30 -- were so chaotic that neither Lankford nor Thompson realized they were being arrested until minutes before they were put behind bars. Until that moment, they had been sitting for hours in the offices and hallways of the sweltering jail facility, doing their best to take care of the children while waiting for the police to finish interviewing Laura Silsby, the group's leader. The Baptists say everything was OK until representatives of UNICEF -- a United Nations agency -- got involved.
"There had not been any talk of arrest or anything, even detainment had not been brought up," said Thompson, a member of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Lankford, whose mother was part of the group, had been caring for a baby girl who was less than a year old and had a fever. She had been giving the baby girl formula and even water, when a Haiti policeman told the 10 Baptists to follow him to another room. Still, Lankford did not realize what was happening.
"Somebody told me that I had to give the baby to one of the Haitian guards, and I handed the baby to someone," Lankford said. "I remember thinking that Laura was acting strange because she was hugging all the kids when we were walking past them. She was saying to them, 'It will be OK, it will be OK.' Obviously, she knew what I didn't -- that something was very wrong, that she had heard that we were being accused of child trafficking."
After walking down a long hallway and into a room, the men in the group were told to take their belts off and everyone was told to remove their shoelaces. The group -- who had come to Haiti simply hoping to care for orphans who had lost their parents in the earthquake -- were being arrested.
"I definitely was shocked," Thompson said.
Said Lankford, "It was so unreal."
THE GROUP REMAINS OPTIMISTIC
Still, though, the 10 Baptists did not believe they would be in jail for more than a day or two.
"I didn't see how -- looking at our team -- they could actually think we were the kind of team that was doing this," Thompson said. "I just figured [Haitian officials] were going through some procedures, maybe they just needed to check out some things."
The group spent much of that first 24 hours getting to know the layout of their temporary home and learning how things would work. The men's and women's cells were within several feet of one another, allowing group members to communicate rather easily. The women were housed in a mostly bare one-room cell that had a concrete floor, small cot and a tattered office chair, with no toilet or sink. The men's side of the facility was even more plain, but larger, with a concrete floor, two cells, a hallway and a large back room -- all accessible by the male inmates. There was a toilet but it was clogged. There also was a small window, about 10 feet up. Although the five women were the only inmates in their cell, there already were eight Haitian men on the men's side that first night, bringing the total number of men's residents to 13. The men could see into about half of the women's cell, meaning that about half the cell was private. Eventually, the Baptists used baby blankets -- which they had brought for the orphans -- as makeshift bedding.
The five American men and the eight Haitian men would have had trouble communicating if not for Thompson and one of the Haitian men, each of whom spoke Spanish as a second language.
That first night, CNN interviewed eight members of the team and an Associated Press reporter did a print interview with three members, including Lankford. The CNN crew gave the group some crackers and water.
The Baptists were surprised to be in jail but confident it would be a temporary stay.
"Honestly, I wasn't terrified," Lankford said. "What I was thinking is that we would be released as soon as whatever misunderstanding has occurred is cleared up that night, and if not that night then at the very most the next morning. It wasn't hard to keep an upbeat attitude about it."
SERIOUSNESS OF CHARGES SINKS IN
But that upbeat attitude eventually tempered, as everyone began to realize that the legal system shuts down on weekends and moves at a snail's pace even on weekdays. They were put in jail on a Saturday, meaning nothing would happen the next day, a Sunday. Monday brought hope with a court appearance, but the judge heard the case of only half the team -- the five women -- meaning the men wouldn't appear in court until Tuesday. Yet after the men made their case to the judge, all 10 remained in jail.
The Baptists believed they had done nothing wrong but they were charged with a crime -- child trafficking -- that is far from a misdemeanor. From time to time Silsby would conduct media interviews and pass along to the group the types of negative questions that were posed, further discouraging the team members.
They knew they were the source of a worldwide controversy, and they learned what outsiders were saying about them not only from Silsby's media interviews but also from listening to a small radio one of the Haitian male inmates had. Occasionally, the news was encouraging.
"The information about news was difficult whenever we would hear [about the charges and rumors], and the next moment it would be really good news because we would hear that we were going home," Thompson said. "And the next thing we would hear that some kind of generator had gone out so we weren't going home. News was by far the hardest thing -- building up hope and hearing the things that we were being accused of."
Due to the seriousness of the charges, Thompson said, "the possibility of this lasting for months was there."
"Here I was as a 19-year-old and I had gone to help some orphans, and I am being proclaimed to the world as a child trafficker," Thompson said. "That was probably the hardest thing I've ever heard in my entire life."
The crude restroom conditions left a lot to be desired. The women had a large bucket in their cell, although they rarely had to use it because the guards would let them out temporarily to use a restroom with plumbing. The men didn't have it so well, at least not initially. Their "restroom" consisted of a corner in the large back room, where a small hole near the floor sloped to the building's exterior, allowing urine to flow out. Plastic bags were used for excrement and then stuffed through the hole. Thankfully, a visit from the Red Cross about halfway through the 19-day period led to the toilet being fixed.
"The whole building should have reeked because of that," Thompson said.
GOD PROVIDES, AGAIN AND AGAIN
But in the midst of their discouraging moments in an unsanitary jail, God provided for their needs, one day at a time. Unlike in the United States, inmates in Haiti prisons are not given food by jail officials. That is the responsibility of family members, which, of course, were thousands of miles away in the case of all 10 Baptists.
The Baptists had enough food for the first few days because, prior to their arrest, they had been carrying enough food, including MREs (meals, ready to eat), to feed not only themselves but also the children. Additionally, media members would give them bits and pieces of food -- granola bars, for instance. But once they ran out of the food they had brought into Haiti, they had to rely on volunteers and, of course, prayer.
"Every time that we got low on food or ran out of food," Lankford said, "we would pray, 'God, we know You can provide for our needs. We need water and we don't know how to get any right now.' And every single time -- if we ran out of food or we ran out of water -- somebody would bring it. And sometime it was the most crazy, random people that would come. But every time we needed it, someone would come."
One time one of the group's lawyers brought a pizza. Another time a doctor brought some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Local Christians, including a man named Alex, would bring whatever they could afford. Once, Alex gave the Baptists seven mandarins and a bag of crackers. Volunteers with Mission Aviation Fellowship also brought food.
"It got to be such a testimony of God's faithfulness to us," Lankford said. "I've always read stories of Hudson Taylor and George Mueller and all those missionaries who would be down to nothing and would pray and God would provide. I've always wished that I could see God move like that, and I did in jail. It got to the point where I would be excited to run out of food because I was excited for what God was going to bring."
After the Red Cross visited the cell halfway through the 19-day period, each inmate -- including the Haitians on the men's side -- was brought a plate of food once a day, normally chicken and rice.
"I don't know if it would be good to me now but it was really good then," Thompson said.
One day, they were given a plate of food that initially appeared to be chicken and rice. But the "chicken" wasn't chicken.
"We are still unsure what that was," Lankford said, laughing.
Although they were not allowed to shower, the women were let out of their cell occasionally to wash their hair and faces using a spigot in the facility. The men had a spigot in their cell -- the water looked like skim milk -- which they used to keep clean.
"I don't know if we were cleaner before or after using it," Thompson said.
PRAISING GOD DESPITE THEIR SITUATION
From the get-go, the group found it amusing that they were in jail with two men named Paul and Silas (Silas Thompson's father, Paul, was a member of the group and is pastor of Eastside Baptist Church). The Baptists decided they, too, wanted to praise God in spite of their circumstances, just like the Apostle Paul and Silas did in Acts 16:25.
The group held a worship service all three Sunday mornings they were in prison, but their worship was not limited to Sundays. They often would gather at the cell bars just so they could see one another and praise God together. They would sing, pray and read Scripture.
"The evenings were filled with a lot of singing," Thompson said. "Oftentimes when we would begin to sing, the Haitian prisoners -- if it was a tune like 'Amazing Grace' or 'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,' a lot of the older hymns -- they would recognize the tune and they would begin to sing in their own language. The worship was incredibly true. I don't even know a word to describe the emotions that went with the singing."
Occasionally, the group would begin singing a particular song but quickly discover they did not know all the words. Lankford, who is part of a youth band at her church and knows many songs, would write the words down on two sheets of paper -- one for the men and one for the women. They used that makeshift jail hymnal throughout their stay.
"We decided that our response was going to be the same [as the Apostle Paul and Silas] -- that we were going to worship God and that He was worthy despite our circumstances," Lankford said. "... By the time night rolled around, we had so many reasons to declare His faithfulness -- with the food and water that we had and the encouraging Haitian believers who would come visit us."
The group members were further encouraged when, several times, members of local churches gathered outside the jail building and sang. Twice, Thompson said, they woke up on Sundays to hear Christians singing hymns. It sounded, he said, "like hundreds of people outside singing."
PASSING THE TIME AND GROWING SPIRITUALLY
With the exception of the first few days and the last few days, Thompson and Lankford have trouble distinguishing one day from another. Lankford regrets that she left her journal -- which she frequently updates -- back in the Dominican Republic.
The group passed the time in various ways. They took naps. They made up games. Thompson, who is an arts major and likes to draw, made a checkers board by using a pen and some extra cardboard, the latter of which he had gotten when food was brought to the group. He also drew sketches of the cell and the other inmates.
Of course, the Baptists also read the Bible.
"I spent a lot of time in the Old Testament, and a lot of things that I learned have been very, very encouraging but [also] very convicting, not only of my own life but the life of the church in America," Thompson said.
The Book of Job, Thompson said, took on a different meaning.
"I didn't understand what was going on," he said of his circumstances. "What have I done that I am sitting here in a Haitian jail cell? It helped me realize that it could have been a lot worse.
"As horrible as it was, I wasn't scraping my skin off with broken pottery," he said, referencing a moment in Job's life (Job 2:8) when he scraped his skin after getting sores from head to toe.
Thompson said he and Lankford discussed some of the Bible's great truths, such as God's passionate love for His people. Sitting in jail, Thompson said, he found it amazing to meditate on the thought that "God is righteously jealous for our hearts, even though we do all this ridiculous stuff walking away from Him." Even if Thompson had to spend the rest of his life in jail, and even though he did not understand what was going on, "it was very comforting to be relying on the strength of God."
Thompson and Lankford both saw their faith grow significantly in jail, although they each had low points where they questioned why they were still behind bars. Multiple times during those 19 days, the group was given false hopes about a pending release.
"There were days and points where I definitely felt like I was wrestling with God -- that I just didn't understand why He was allowing what happened to happen," Lankford said. "I would be like, 'Why are we here? What are You doing?' And He was like, 'You don't need to know.' There were a couple of points where I had to let go and surrender -- points where it all built up and I thought, 'I can't do this again, I can't be disappointed again.' But I had no choice."
She said she drew strength from Psalm 92:2: "It is good to proclaim your unfailing love in the morning, your faithfulness in the evening."
"And so I learned to do that," Lankford said. "I just learned to say, first of all, 'God, my hope is in You. It's not in a lawyer or in being released, but it's in the fact that You are in control and You know what You are doing with my life.'"
COURT VISITS WERE A TREAT
Friday afternoons were always tough for the group members because they knew if they weren't freed before 5 p.m., they likely would be in jail until Monday.
"Weekends were probably the hardest for everyone," Lankford said.
But weekday visits to court were a treat, not only because it provided hope for a release but also because it allowed the Baptists to get out of the jail facility. The 10 would be led through swarms of cameras and media members and would climb into a white van, which would speed through the streets of Port-au-Prince -- "crazy driving," Lankford calls it -- to a court where they sometimes would spend most of the day.
Yet the court visits, Thompson said, further added to his lack of understanding about their situation. One judge told the group that he wanted to free them but didn't have the power to let them go.
"He said, 'I know that you guys haven't done anything. I know you were trying to help our people.'" Thompson said.
Another judge told Thompson and Lankford, "It makes me happy to see that people so young are trying to help my country."
The judge's words -- combined with the fact they were still in jail -- was "beyond my understanding," Thompson said.
"There was nothing going on in court," he said. "There was only two times that I ever talked to a judge. But the only questions they asked me were where am I from and have I ever been to jail before."
THEIR LAST DAY IN JAIL
The final morning in jail for the eight Baptists who were initially released was Wednesday, Feb. 17, but it began like any other day. They had been told they would be released the previous two days, but weren't. Lankford remembers hearing Paul Thompson say from his cell: "I put on my release clothes today." One of the females responded, "You're going to have to put them on tomorrow probably, too." Everyone laughed.
When 5 o'clock rolled around that afternoon, they assumed they would be sleeping there another night.
"And lo and behold, here comes our lawyer and a bunch of guards and they're saying, 'You're free,'" Lankford said. "That was very crazy and very surreal. Even when we were packing up our stuff, it was unreal to me -- until they opened the door and let us walk out."
Said Thompson, "I didn't know if we were heading to court again or heading out or what, but they came in and started naming us off, bringing us out of the cell, giving us our belongings back."
But the release was bittersweet for the eight Baptists, because two of the group members -- Charisa Coulter and Laura Silsby -- were not freed just yet. Coulter was released in March, Silsby in May.
"That was one of the hardest things for me about the entire trip," Lankford said. "That was tough."
The eight walked out of jail, through another media swarm, and boarded a bus. They headed straight to the airport, where that evening they got on a military cargo jet and flew to Miami.
In the past four months ,Lankford said, they have learned about churches across the nation that had been praying for them, obeying God's call in Hebrews 13:3 to "remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners."
"Obviously, we are so grateful of God's people and of them stepping up and standing in the gap for us while we were there," Lankford said. "[Many] have no connection to us whatsoever, other than the fact that we're brothers and sisters in Christ."
Thompson said he has no regrets about being in jail. He said his faith before the trip was "lukewarm."
"Because of my growth spiritually and because we didn't do anything wrong, I would not go back and change anything," he said. "There's not a whole lot in my life that has not been affected by it."
Said Lankford, "This trip has really made me stand in awe of God's faithfulness and His realness in our lives -- to take such good care of us and to give us grace every day so our time in jail wasn't horrible," she said. "It could have been so much worse than it was, even from an emotional standpoint. But I honestly believe that every day God gave us grace to deal with every crazy, wild, unplanned thing that happened. He poured His grace out on us and gave us strength to trust Him still, to still sing and praise Him."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. To read Baptist Press' earlier story about the group's time in Haiti up to the point of their arrest, visit www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=32953