Sami and the Rev. Joe Rigelsky

Sami and Joe Rigelsky of Onalaska moved their family of eight children to Haiti for a year to serve as missionaries. The family has returned to Onalaska, but the couple frequently goes back to the Caribbean nation for continued service.

In stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s vulgar derision of Haitians, an Onalaska pastor who moved his family to the Caribbean nation for a year to minister there insists it was “the greatest gift I could have given my eight children.”

The term “sh**hole,” which Trump is alleged to have used in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations, was “for me, just super disheartening,” said the Rev. Joe Rigelsky, who returned home from Haiti on Thursday night and is scheduled to fly Sunday to do mission work in Kenya and Uganda in Africa.

“These are people who love, who have desires, passions and intelligence,” said Rigelsky, who was a pastor at First Free Church, which has congregations in Onalaska and Winona, Minn.

Although Trump denies he used the obscenity during a meeting on immigration proposals, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois reported that he said, “Why are we having all these people from sh**hole countries come here?”

Among several others at the meeting was U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who declined to confirm the language but did not refute it.

Instead, he issued a statement Friday saying, in part, “Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him. I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.

“The American ideal is embraced by people all over the globe. Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. In reforming immigration, we cannot lose these American ideals,” Graham’s statement said.

Back in the Coulee Region, the pastor of a La Crosse church that also has a Haitian Ministry Team also lamented Trump’s scatological statement.

“To me, I would call it extremely unfortunate — and that would be mild,” said First Presbyterian Church Pastor Taylor Haley.

‘Hospitable, caring’

Haley has been to Haiti more than 15 times as part of First Presbyterian’s Haiti Ministry Team.

“I would never describe” the country or its residents that way, Haley said. “They always have been hospitable and caring. I’ve felt safer there than on the South Side of Chicago.”

Expressing similar sentiments was Rigelsky, who moved with his wife, Sami, and their family to Haiti two years ago to do mission work there. The whole family stayed for a year, and Joe and Sami go back periodically.

Joe will return to Haiti after his service in Africa, and Sami will go to Haiti in March with a team of doctors.

Rigelsky, who serves a congregation in New Albin, Iowa, acknowledged that Trump’s coarse reference might have made a point but even that is inappropriate.

“There is some truth to it, which makes it hurt more — criticism with some truth always hurts,” he said. “But for the president not to season his words — even though he flies the banner of political incorrectness for some reason” — is unacceptable.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Haiti, and it’s the whupping child to all the countries,” Rigelsky said, referring to Haiti’s history as a formerly wealthy nation that once provided three-fourths of the world’s sugar.

“It was a genocided island,” he said.

France, which once ruled Haiti, sapped its wealth, as did some actions of the United States that took advantage of the country, he said.

“It is one of the most resilient, independent nations that should be set on a platform instead of being beat up,” he said.

Haitian spirituality, hospitality

When the whole family was there, Rigelsky said, “even my youngest boy passed pity to experience compassion. The moms and dads (foster) spirituality and hospitality with their families.”

Despite Haitians’ lack of physical wealth, “when you see their lives, the reality, it is a place of peace, patience, kindness,” Rigelsky said.

His children learned to build relationships with others and enjoy life without the latest technological toys that American youths demand, he said.

The countries Trump maligned and would halt immigration from also make significant contributions to Coulee Region health care, with many doctors and other professionals at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare and Gundersen Health System from other countries.

Mayo-Franciscan has “staff from all over the world who care for patients from around the globe,” said Nicki Jo Hager, Mayo Franciscan’s diversity and inclusion administrator.

“We take pride in being a welcoming and inclusive health care system and honor and welcome any and all who want to provide the compassionate, inclusive care to all of our patients,” Hager said.

Global Partners, a service of the Gundersen Medical Foundation, provides extensive services in Yetebon, Ethiopia.

International students also have a significant footprint in local universities, with the rolls at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse including students from the African nations of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow deferred comment on the vulgarities because of the dispute over the president’s precise wording. UW-L is a “global citizen” that welcomes students from all nations, Gow said, adding, “I have a son-in-law who is a Kenyan, and he is a great person.”

The White House also had disputed a New York Times report in December alleging that Trump had said during a meeting in June that Haitians “all have AIDS” and recent immigrants from Nigeria would never “go back to their huts” in Africa.

La Crosse immigrant: Trump builds dams, not bridges

One such Nigerian immigrant is Wale Elegbede of La Crosse, who said, “There is an old Nigerian proverb that states, ‘In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.’”

Elegbede, a Muslim who has lived in La Crosse for nearly 20 years, cast Trump in the role of dam builder.

He said his own values mirror those of the United States, with a father who was a diplomat and treasurer of the Economic Community of West African States, an uncle who headed defense intelligence in the Nigerian Navy and other uncles who served in the Nigerian Army and Air Force.

After coming to La Crosse for school and receiving a bachelor’s degree in information systems Elegbede now is in an MBA program at Viterbo University.

“I received no handouts, no access to financial aid, paid international student tuition, which is extremely expensive, paid taxes, volunteered time in the community, built a software development company, help build bridges with our local police and have been instrumental in the success of local businesses and some of the world’s best companies in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” he said.

Noting that Trump also said the United States should seek immigrants from Norway, Elegbede said, “Perhaps because he wants white immigrants to come and ‘the others,’ to stay away.

“I will focus my energy on building bridges with my fellow Americans from all backgrounds, religion, political party — Democrat, Republican, independent — and social class,” he said.

“Please reach out to immigrants from Africa and Haiti in your community and get to know them. The president can stay in his ivory tower, but we the people will continue to share love, support one another, respect one another, trust one another, not be afraid of one another and excel together,” Elegbede said.

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Reporter

Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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