Editorial: Hope brings a Haitian man to Southold

On several occasions, our newspapers have used a familiar quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We were reminded of that sentiment last week, when we published our story about Joel Jean-Francois, a Haitian man who is living in Southold on a sponsorship provided by Mattituck Presbyterian Church.

It turns out that the church — known familiarly as MPC — has operated an aid program in Haiti for four decades. Congregation members including dentist Gregory Doroski, eye doctor Jeffrey Williams, Tom Christiansen and Rory MacNish have traveled there and back many times offering assistance such as well digging. 

The person behind the church’s effort is its former pastor, George Gaffga, who made his first trip to Haiti in 1984 to determine if money raised locally and intended for that country was being used wisely. He came away convinced that the money was needed, that it was being well spent and that much, much more was required. 

Seeing Haiti’s extreme poverty up close — it is among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere — motivated him and gave birth to the program. The Rev. Gaffga is now retired and living in Pennsylvania.

“That trip changed me, changed members of the congregation, and started our mission in Haiti that is still ongoing and strong,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of it … The next year I went with my son, who was 8. We went to the island of LaGonave.” 

This is the island — between Haiti’s north and south forks — Mr. Jean-Francois comes from and where his family lives today.

“The poverty and the conditions are desperate and always have been,” the Rev. Gaffga said. “The people are genuinely wonderful. They work hard.”

In recent months, heavily armed gangs have all but taken over Haiti. There is no organized, effective central government. Haiti prime ministers come and go. Late last month, the most recent prime minister resigned and a new governing council was sworn in. While the ceremony was underway, gunshots were heard in the background, The New York Times reported.

Mr. Jean-Francois’ family house on LaGonave is overflowing with refugees from other communities fleeing the violence and gangs. Food shipments have been disrupted. 

This is how The New York Times described Haiti last week: “Armed gangs — some of which are now working together — continue to attack neighborhoods, looting houses, kidnapping civilians, raping women and killing people at random, rights groups say. And the gang leaders have said they intend to do what they can to disrupt the current political process.”

As all this plays out, Mr. Jean-Francois does his best to keep his spirits up. He talks to his wife and children as often as he can. There is no way to get them out. Nor is there any way for him to return due to the chaos. His visa runs out next March. His hope is to get a green card and get his family out of harm’s way. On weekdays he stays with an older man in Southold for whom he acts as caregiver; on weekends, he stays with his sponsoring family in New Suffolk.

MPC’s efforts clearly demonstrate what a small group of committed people can achieve. We applaud them.

In the Talmud, there is another apt quote: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the world.”

The North Fork is fortunate to have these good people among us.