Ken Foree has died. Dr. Ken Foree lived a long and beautiful life, and died at his home this week, at age 91.
As I have said many times over the years, Ken Foree was one of the kindest, most compassion, and most generous human beings I have ever known.
He has a quiet, slow southern drawl. He could cry at at the drop of a hat when thinking of the people of Haiti.
Ken Foree embodied the heart of a servant more than any other human being I’ve known. And while others might find the comparison over-the-top, he was my own personal “Mother Teresa” in terms of what he taught me about loving and serving others in mission.
I was blessed to know and work with Ken in conjunction with the eye clinic in Petit Guave, Haiti, that Ken and others had founded in the mid-1970s. During the mid 1990s, I had the great good fortune to be the Outreach Minister at HPUMC in Dallas. Through that ministry was able to travel to Haiti five time with Ken and Lila Foree, and work alongside of them at a crucial turning point in that mission.
By the time I came on the scene, the Haiti Mission in Petit Guave was already legendary. Ken and Lila had been dozens of times, and helped more than eighty doctors, nurses, and volunteers complete the long trips to Haiti.
The groups discovered quite early on that eye care was a ministry that could really flourish there. Unlike other parts of the practice of medicine, you could see eye patients, and even perform cataract surgeries, that would not require follow up visits.
It’s hard for us to fathom in America, but in Haiti cataracts can cause permanent blindness for many people. Here, we would have surgery before our vision was lost. But in Haiti, many people live with cataracts for years, and literally lose their sight.
So, this routine operation, for us, does what Jesus talked about in the Gospel of Luke for the Haitians. It “recovers sight to the blind.”
In those early years, Ken would spend weeks at a time in Haiti. The doctors and nurses would rotate out, after a week, and a fresh crew would replace them. But Ken often stayed for the duration. I’ve said it before, I feel confident that Ken Foree has spent over a year of his life actually in the country of Haiti. I’ve seen the rooms of his house, filled with medical supplies and devices ready to take to Haiti. He poured his life, his professional skill, and his compassion, into that ministry.
Ken was beloved by the Haitian people themselves. When you walked down the streets of Petit Guave with Ken, they would flock to him. And it was not just because he helped thousands of them be able to see, sometimes literally curing them from blindness. It was also because of who he was.
If you know Haiti’s history, you know the early 90s were a difficult time. There had been a military coup, and so it was that for some years the mission teams from America could not travel there. Early in my tenure as Outreach Minister, I agreed to go with Ken and Lila, and Dr. Ellen Palmer, on a trip back into the country, to assess the status of the mission.
It was basically a fact-finding trip. There had been little communication with the Haitian people for a number of years. We didn’t know what we would find.
Would the clinic even still be standing?
If so, what condition would it be in?
Would there be a chance to reopen it, or keep it going on a more regular basis?
We were humbled and thrilled by what we found. The building was in great shape. A doctor had continued to go to Petit Guave, once a week from Port-Au-Prince, even during the harshest political days when the trip was dangerous. Even more humbling than this, the building had survived…the building had been protected during uprisings when many other buildings were looted and plundered.
The people of the Methodist Church of Haiti were proud of their clinic, and determined to see it succeed. They remembered Ken and Lila, and were pleased to see them again.
So, our goal became to keep the clinic open on a more regular basis. We realized we needed to engage the Haitians themselves: to find a way to train and staff the clinic year-round with Haitians, supplemented by occasional American teams for training and support.
Working with Ellen Palmer, we were able to write some grants (some of them, Ellen and me wrote in Port-Au-Prince hotel room!) that secured some key longterm funding.
Over the next few years, teams began visiting Haiti again on a regular basis. I went on several of these trips. This first video is, I believe, from my third trip to Haiti, in 1996.
I should warn you…the video is hard to watch….painfully dated…first because the VCR tape degraded over the years, before I could digitize it…but even more so, because our video editing skills, in those days, were pretty primitive (to say the least).
With that caveat, take a look…
Yeah…that’s really me….
The clinic flourished again. A few years later, we worked alongside the Haitian Methodist Church to build a new surgery room, on the back of the clinic. This would allow doctors to perform surgeries with there, instead of borrowing a surgery room from another doctor in town.
1999 was a banner year for the mission. We took yet another trip to Petit Guave, for the opening of a new surgery center. The Haitian people themselves voted to dub it the “Ken Foree Surgery Suite.”
The video below is of that trip. It’s long. For years now, I’ve wanted to edit it down, to provide subtitles and other commentary, so you’ll know who is speaking throughout. But for now, I’ll just post it raw.
At the end of this blog, you’ll find a list of the speakers, in order of their appearance. Look for Ken Foree’s comments about the mission at the 26:40 mark…and very near the end too.
As everyone knows, the Haitian earthquake of January 2010 was one of the most horrifying world tragedies in modern time. This was years after I had left HPUMC for Northaven, of course.
But as it happens, a team from the church was actually there at the clinic, working, when this horrific tragedy unfolded. Ken and Lila were there. They were just finishing up their work for the day. The walls of the clinic crumbled in on itself…specifically, the walls of the neighboring building fell on top of them.
They were trapped for sometime, as the daylight faded. Eventually they were rescued by a stranger that Lila would describe as an angel. He had digging equipment and floodlights…something definitely not common for Petit-Guave.
The team evacuated to a field, where they stayed for sometime time. Eventually, HPUMC airlifted them all to safety. However, one team member, Jean Arnwine, died of her injuries. She was one of the thousands killed by that horrific event. Two other United Methodist missionaries were killed in the country, both staying at the “Hotel Montana” on Port-Au-Prince, where we had stayed many times as well.
Here’s an old blog I wrote, in the wake of that tragedy, that attempts to put their sacrifice into spiritual context.
During the past decade, and with great faith and hope, Highland Park has seen fit to rebuild the clinic once again. I commend them greatly for doing this.
And while Ken Foree no longer went on the trips in recent years, others still continue the amazing legacy of love…and now, it must be said, true sacrifice….that Ken helped start all those years ago.
As I said earlier, one of the things Ken taught me most was what it means to have the true heart of a servant.
A final story about Ken. And, to me, this story exemplifies the sense of quiet and humble servanthood he always embodied.
Invariably, after a long day or working at the clinic, Ken would come back to the guesthouse, head straight to the kitchen, to do what he could to help with dinner. (Even though there was a cook…). He’d wash dishes after dinner too.
So, after dinner, I told him that I’d noticed this. I noticed how much he seemed ready to serve others at every turn. And I noticed how he did it quietly, and without fanfare.
Ken paused for while, thought about that quietly, then said something about how important it was to lead by example. And then, he told a story I’ve never forgotten.
Years before, he told me, while in between cases on a full afternoon of eye surgeries at Baylor Hospital, he picked up broom and started sweeping an operating room floor. A fellow surgeon saw what he was doing, and took him aside, privately.
“Ken, this is beneath you. We have staff to do this. You are the doctor, and they are the staff, and everybody has their role. You should not be sweeping the floor.”
Ken replied, “No, I am the leader, and I am modeling what we all should be doing. I had a few minutes to spare, and nothing to do, and so I decided to sweep the floor. In fact, we should all be sweeping the floor.”
Ken said the other doctor huffed off, incensed at this breach of the immutable the hospital caste system.
Ken paused again. It was already dark as he told me this story. But it was still probably nearly 95 degrees, with 90 percent humidity, and no air conditioning. We were, literally, sweating through our clothes.
After the long pause, Ken said, “But sometime later, I was passing an operating room. And I saw that doctor. And, son a gun, if he hadn’t picked up a broom, and he was sweeping the floor.“
Ken leaned back in his chair. He turned a wry, satisfied, smile as we sat in silence, listening to crickets chirp, and stray dogs bark, in the hot Haitian night.
Interviews from the 1999 video, in order of appearance:
Dr. Craig Bolton and Dr. Gary Fish
Dr. Ken Foree- Describes the new equipment
Pastor Gessner Paul and Eric Folkerth- Petit-Guave Methodist Church, Sunday worship.
Jean Angus- Treasurer of the Haitian Methodist Church
Dr. Gary Fish
Rev. Moise Isidore- Dedication Ceremony for the New Building
David Griggs, Chair of Global Outreach Work Area
Rev. Moise Isidore, President of the Methodist Church of Haiti
Pastor Gessner Paul, Petit Guave Methodist Church
Dr. Ken Foree, describing his work at the clinic. (26:40)
Dr. Craig Bolton
Interpreter describes his experience at the clinic.
Dr. Ken Foree, as we are leaving for the week.