First Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Journey to Cuba
Reflections from November 2016 Pilgrimage to Cuba
Sunday - Cuba Is Becoming Real
We fill out papers for customs, then we’re off. Now I let myself start to become excited. We can follow our plane’s flight on the screen on the back of the seat in front of us. Soon, I see over the plane’s wing lights. They are outlining Cuba. Wow! It’s becoming real and not just an idea or dream. I’m so excited.
Another good landing, and now to get through customs. Baggage pick up is next and they have cute cocker spaniel like dogs jumping and weaving along the baggage. Now to meet our ride. Carmelo, our Global Ministries guide, is greeted warmly and then introductions are made all around. Our guide in Cuba is Sandor. He is in charge. Our interpreter is Vladimir and our driver is Sixto. Very friendly, welcoming, nice young men, and handsome too.
The drive from Varadero airport to Matanzas is a blur, weaving through dark streets. We unload and are treated to a snack. A cola, sandwich of whitebread, ham and cheese and a wafer cookie. We are staying at a Presbyterian church complex that has nice rooms, 2-3 beds, shower, toilet, sink, and some space for suitcases. All one needs. As we climb into our beds, it is now 2:00am. It’s been almost 24 hours that we have been up and tomorrow will be a busy day starting with breakfast at 9:30am.
Monday – Intersectionality and Reincarnation
Our first full day in Cuba has started! In the morning after breakfast we gathered in a circle with Sandor and Vladimir to learn more about each other, our schedule, and expectations of this trip. Our meeting and sharing took place in the A-frame sanctuary of the Presbyterian church that hosted us. The church—interior and exterior—was ripe with symbolism of life, Christ and the origin of Cuba’s own history with yellows representing the difficulties and “bile” of life, the red, Christ’s blood and renewal of life, and the triangular, almost jagged stained glass paying tribute to African slaves who would use discarded materials—glass—as a way to defend themselves.
The thirteen of us initiated our first of seven days together with a trip to the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas. We piled into our “guagua” very cozy and off we went driving along the coast, taking in the view of the ocean, bay, horses, homes, parks, plazas, and Cuban people on the street.
The Seminary grounds are glorious. We headed into the church to hear Daniel Montoya, an esteemed professor at the Seminary to welcome us and tell us their story. The Seminary was established in 1946 and offers several programs from certificates to master’s degrees with several hundred students from Cuba and around the world. Privately funded, enrolling at the seminary is a costly endeavor. With support from several churches and other organizations, the seminary is able to sustain itself and offset costs for the students. Because of the bloqueo (blockade) or embargo, an endowment for the seminary of many thousands of dollars is frozen, unable to transfer from the United States to Cuba. The community outreach is impressive—the Living Waters program that provides drinking water to the immediate community, the Abraham Lincoln rec-center focusing on the arts. The seminary is very much a part of the community and inclusive and open to all.
The most striking thing to me about the seminary is how they have not only students from culturally diverse backgrounds but also from religiously diverse traditions—7th Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Baptists, Santeros. The professors also reflect this diversity. To be truly inter-religious is a statement that acknowledges and validates one’s own traditions while exchanging in an open dialogue. I was struck by the circles, their intersections, and how we share a core or foundation despite differences.
After lunch at the seminary we headed to Jardines Bellamar, the largest permaculture initiative in Cuba that is self-sustaining. Husa, the keeper of the gardens, gave us a thorough tour, illustrating along the way how nothing is wasted. Turns out, a cave was discovered under the gardens, which is protected, thereby protecting the gardens. Husa showed so many amazing and inspiring practices she and her volunteers (three from France when we were there) follow, including the most important of all. Permaculture is about taking care of us and our environment by being efficient, mindful and reuse. Joe said, “Cuba is permaculture.” Even after objects have been recycled and reused to the point in which their utility is lost, Cubans turn what’s left into art. Cuba is not a throw-away society. The power of reincarnation is felt deeply in every aspect of Cuban life.
After the gardens, we had a bit of free time that we all enjoyed in different ways. Dinner al fresco was followed by circle time with our FCC crew. We focused on gratitude by sharing instances of gratitude we felt or observed today. We formed our last circle of the night by meeting up with Sixto, Sandor, Vladimir and Carmelo for drinks and storytelling. What a day! The writing on the wall I observed today rang true, “la dignidad no se vende.” Dignity is not for sale.
P.S. Carmelo knows EVERYONE in Cuba.
Tuesday – In Havana at Last!
Today saw the transition from laid-back, touristy Varadero to active, eclectic Havana. These two places seemed best defined in two Cubans we encountered. The first was a kid at the beach. Six of us were in the water when a young kid made his way to our stuff neatly lined up on the beach. He spotted our things and seemed interested in them, but not in the sense that he might take anything—rather that he wanted to be near them. Or rather that he wanted to be near us. So he set down his bag a little ways away then ran into the water. Throughout the next hour he never got too close, but never very far. It was a feeling I know well, especially at that age: wanting to be near someone(s) or something(s), but unable to connect. Everyone just kept swimming or hanging out on the sand, or doing whatever it is that brings joy on an 80 degree beach with all shades of blue and white.
Again, at our things—with the kid off a respectful distance, yet fully aware of us—I mused to Carmelo why the kid wasn’t in school. Carmelo knows no stranger, so a short while later he asked him. The conversation was a mixture of a super-friendly and boisterous man shouting questions at a rather shy and quiet kid. What became clear was that he had missed school because he got there too late and decided to head to the beach instead, that he wanted to learn English, and that he wanted to go into tourism. This perhaps explained his desire to just be near us. A quick aside about Carmelo: Holly asked him about Fidel, and evidently he has met him 22 times!
We packed up from the Presbyterian church in Varadero and headed toward Havana. Along the way we stopped at a bridge/lookout of Bacunayagua. As you would expect of a bridge with a touristy lookout, it was high. And as you would expect of any touristy spot, a lot of touristy junk sold there but nice bathrooms. The trip provided a cool look at a small stretch of countryside along the way.
After arriving at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Center, we sort of got settled in. Well, room/bed arrangements took some doing—including Carmie trying to climb a bunk and we headed off to meet with Joel Suarez. Joel was the second Cuban who defined our time today, and he seemed to define Havana. He is quirky, compelling, sharp, both a little indifferent and overly engaged, anachronistic, and warm in a cool way. His long beard and curly long hair—and tendency to smoke like a chimney—are exactly the image I wanted to define faith in Cuba; his sharp/critical mind—instantly apparent upon speaking—made that faith cutting; his habit of looking down while his dancing mind talked through human and theological language made eye contact rare and thus privileged. He was fascinating. He was complex—a word he used often.
He told us the story of the Center and the church wanting to move past personal salvation into actual community action, the difficulties everywhere in making it happen, and their work. The most important of which is training of church and community leaders. He talked of the Blockade, of U.S. elections, and of the future of the church in Cuba. He was not a fan of any form of “fundamentalism” or American churches buying Cuban ones, but he fully recognized their appeal. It was all very “complejo” (complex, loosely) to him—and that was no challenge in his being able to understand it. He will not be the final word on faith in Cuba, but he was a great first one.
At night, after dinner, we went into Old Havana, to the terrace at Ambos Mundos Hotel. It was nice, but everyone was beat by the time we got back to crash. So, we’re in Havana at last! Been waiting for this for a long time…
Wednesday – Raised to Our Feet
Breakfast was at 7:30am with fresh papaya, pineapple juice like none of us has tasted before, slices of cheese and ham with rolls, and, as always in Cuba, the deepest, richest and most delicious coffee. But no time to linger, we were off with our three amigos to the headquarters of the Council of Churches in Cuba, A Global Ministries’ partner.
Driving through the Miramar neighborhood that now houses many foreign embassies we got a taste of what Old Cuba before the Revolution looked like. Massive mansions coated with bright layers of pastel paint stood like opulent birthday cakes in the tropical morning sunlight. Gone was that past and here was a present where the Council of Churches is housed in a crumbling edifice where faith seems to be the support beams and walls.
Gathered in a circle we, Norte Americano students, were walked through a brief and incredibly eye-opening history of Protestantism in Cuba. Always struggling with the State and its big sister, the Roman Catholic Church, the other denominations survived with the aid of American Christian affiliations. But even with this generosity was the danger of being taken over by the United States. With the Revolution came the wavering fortunes of socialist government. Never exactly equal participant but never completely ostracized, the Protestant churches held their own until the new “atheist” constitution of 1975 forced them into a new crisis. Fifteen years and once again a change—the collapse of the Soviet block and the beginning of the “Special Period,” Soviet subsidies ended and the most extreme austerities began. The constitution was reworked yet again and religion was once again accepted. With ups and downs the churches have—by the grace of God—persisted. Now they face another challenge, one arriving with greater opening with their northern neighbor: Mega-Big Box-“Christian” organizations with pockets set on buying souls. The faith of the Cuban Christians will be tried once more, and certainly will hold strong.
From there we pilgrims journeyed to the central city and to the Casa de las Americas—the House of the Americas—an art institution that represents the artistic pursuits in all media of the entire Latin American world. A current exhibition of large black and white photographic portraits (inclusive of all ages, races, genders, and occupations) seemed to inspect us as we inspected them throughout the building. We convened after a tour through the building in a large auditorium blessed with the second largest Mexican “Tree of Life” in the world. Painstakingly constructed by tens of mermaids, tens of fish, and hundreds of flowers in fragile red clay it served as the perfect backdrop for the Casa’s most charming work of art, its director, Gerardo Hernandez, who held us with joy and laughter with stories of visitors like Steven Spielberg and adventurers with bicycles and motorbikes.
We had lunch and a visit to yet another mystery of Havana—a Chinatown without Chinese people and an unlikely Chinese restaurant serving an incredible feast of Chinese food that seemed devoid of Chinese food. What could one expect when the eatery was blazoned with the name “Bavaria Dragones”!
With full bellies and stout hearts we ventured to the Museum of the Revolution and the wonderfully informative René, our earnest guide. Here we saw the Revolution unfold from its earliest gunshots, still pocking its walls, to its conclusion with its new leader Fidel Castro. Ever the politician, Castro waited some time before declaring his as a socialist government—only after the USA had broken off relations. The National Palace was vacated to become the Museum—a fresh start replacing the old with something new. The Museum is being renovated presently. Its ballroom with its beautiful painting (on canvas not a mural) symbolizing the first Cuban Revolution is being made majestic with gold leaf being added to the surrounding architectural decoration. The leaf like some brilliant autumn has fallen covering the floor like glistening foliage.
At last back to the MLK Center for dinner and a concert of wonderful Cuban musicians, Sonash. The beautiful voices of the lead singing brothers raised us to our feet and had us joining with them in a stunning rendition of Queen’s anthem “Somebody to Love.” We met on our rooftop patio to debrief—spirit, art, history, and life in the present filled our day and warm conviviality celebrated with toasts in the Cuban evening led us to our sleep.
Thursday – Thanksgiving Day in Cuba
At breakfast, Carmelo tells the story of his career with the Disciples of Christ and his connections to Cuba, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
We then met with Raul Suarez, Elder and founder of the Center (1984), and heard the most moving of many moving testimonies about personal struggles both personal and political. He was part of the 30% of pastors that stayed in Cuba after the Castro Revolution (1958). He was a Southern Baptist trained pastor. The changes in Cuba caused him to re-frame his understanding of the Bible. The kingdom of God, the light of the world, was not within the church SOLAMENTE (only). It should, must be in the family, in the community, and in the world. He used the metaphor of removing his “Baptist/Conservative” glasses to read the Bible more broadly. The kingdom of God is wherever you are—family, church, politics—that become “the seed to grow the tree!” And, as for the two commandments of Christ of love your God above all and your neighbor as yourself, the second is the way to understand, do, and honor the first.
Later, we met with Lesbia Cánovas, former President of the Association of Pedagogues of Cuba. In 1958, at age 13, she was part of the army of teachers recruited to war on illiteracy. The motto was, “He who knows, teaches. He who doesn’t, is taught.” José Martí, a philosophical influence of the Revolution, said, “Education is the right of the people, and in exchange he must educate back.” In 1958, the average education was at the 3rd grade level, with 30% of the population literate and no education in the countryside. In 2017, 99.5% of the population is literate. There is a Literacy Museum! When the first car of teachers went out to teach in 1958, classrooms were any space to congregate to teach—kitchens, homes, barns, office space, under trees.
We had so much fun at Psycho Ballet Project for the elderly. This was created for Cuban elderly people using pedagogy of the 60s/70s for work with children with disabilities. In the early 1990s, the citizens were depressed, emotionally and financially, with little resources for food and other basic needs. In Vogue Magazine, February 2016, in an article on food in Cuba, the writer reported that Cubans, as a whole, during this food shortage after the fall of the Soviet Block, Cubans—on average—lost 30% of their body weight! The elderly were particularly at risk for depression and decay. Elizabeth started an exercise/stretching and dance class at the MLK Center. There, we observed 30+ elderly men and women dancing a thematic story. We also joined in exercising and attempted salsa dancing! Afterwards we hugged, kissed and some of these Cuban cuties gave us touching mementos!
Our lunch had plantains. Now we have had them mashed, boiled, fried in butter and cinnamon, cooked in a stew, squeezed into patties and fried. Long live plátanos! Vivan los plátanos!
At the Center of Sexual Education, CENESEX, run by Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul Castro, we found the most beautiful, well-maintained building we have been in—beautiful grounds, provocative beautiful photos and art, well-maintained/painted walls, and up-to-date technology. Beautiful people dressed very fashionably shared their purpose—Sexual Health is an individual’s right (along with other Cuban constitutional rights), gay rights, transgender rights, sexually abused children’s rights, battered women’s rights, family planning rights (i.e. abortion, birth control), AIDS care and prevention, and pre-natal rights. We met Mariela Castro on our way out!
We had a meeting/discussion with students attending the University of Havana. These students were forthcoming, warm, and friendly. We learned that it is competitive to get into college and you can continue to try if you don’t qualify with entrance exams. Public school is rigorous, not much emphasis on art and music. If you are admitted to a Cuban university it is free, but you must give Cuba two years of work after college in “payment.” They enjoy parties and competitive sports events through their faculties—which means the same as departments or majors in USA college terms. They all had high hopes for certain careers. They were darling.
The Pentecostal Church of Cuba, another Global Ministries’ partner, received us for an evening service. Wow! The Pentecostal experience was new to me. The church was small, clean, narrow with high ceiling, and decorated with a large cross, quotes on wall, blue and white satin, lace, silk flowers and ribbons. There was lots of singing! Different people pulled randomly from the congregation to sing solos, praising, shouting, and our own Carmelo gave the sermon! It was a very evangelical and passionate speech. Then FCC members were introduced, Mark led a prayer, and in the end we all passed the Peace of Christ and kissed and hugged. Very welcoming! In the van, we sang songs coming home, a few to commemorate Thanksgiving. What a blessed day.
Friday – Genuine Connection, Honesty and Hope
For breakfast, CAFÉ!, which we have now learned to look forward to at every turn (we have been a well-caffeinated group this week), fresh fruit, cheese and eggs. What a way to start the day! Today was a day of honest sharing, high ideals and tough realities; of dreams and limited resources.
Julio Fernandez from the University of Havana was our first meeting of the day. He was a specialist on U.S. – Cuba relations and we were invited to ask him questions. He stated that Cuba is full of paradoxes and contradictions. We learned about the election process, art, written work and censorship, and wages/standard of living. Cuba has incredibly trained doctors who are very skilled at doing complex surgeries but there are no workers to clean nor nurses to take care of patients post-surgery in the hospital. So, Julio explained, many people try to keep hospital stays to a minimum because of the danger of contracting other illnesses as a result of poor conditions. It is a shame, because health care is free and drugs are heavily subsidized to make them very affordable. When we asked about why the state did not pay nurses and people to clean the hospitals, our Cuban friends said that it is due to limited resources because of the Blockade. After talking with Julio, we piled into the van and headed out to a small organic farm outside of Havana.
The farm was part of the PPDH Program (Programa Promoción Desarollo Humano)—a program committed to caring for the earth, seeing the connection between humans, God and the earth, and living in harmony (with the human family and the land). The head farmer was named Pedro. Pedro’s honesty, energy, positivity and genuine excitement about the farm and project were stunning. He enthusiastically explained the various strategies used on the farm to keep away pests and create sustainability in a small space. We met pigs, saw coffee plants, avocado trees, taro, an earth worm farm and much more. He pulled down fresh coconuts to try. He cut into them with a machete and we drank the water and ate the meat from the inside of the coconut. We all had coconut water dripping down our chins at one point or another.
Then we shared a fantastic meal together: pork, black beans and rice, taro, veggies and fresh juices. The guava juice was the best I’ve ever had! For desert, they shared two beautifully decorated cakes with us. Since it wasn’t anyone’s birthday, we decided that the cakes would symbolize the birth of a new friendship between us—as Christians and as Cubans and Americans coming together in a new era. It was deeply moving to share a meal with these men, to witness Pedro’s deep commitment to building God’s kingdom on earth by caring for the earth and the human family. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
Our next stop was to the International School of Medicine. It was Fidel’s dream to train good doctors for free (from all over the world), to provide good health care for the Cuban people, and to dispatch Cuban doctors to other countries. When we asked the director why Fidel was so committed to a program in service of not only Cubans but one that was equally invested in helping other countries, he said, “because it’s a good thing to do”. As simple as that and it was not an answer laden with political motivations.
“It’s complicated” was basically the beginning line for each of our exchanges about the reality of life in Cuba. On the one hand, many Cubans feel secure in that the State will take care of their healthcare and provide a safety net for employment and their home as well as free education. On the other hand, we kept hearing again and again about the lack of material resources and the unquenched desire to make more money to provide more for their families. Fidel appeared to be both a dreamer with high ideals—wanting to train great doctors, provide free education and investing in campaigns to educated all Cubans as well as his willingness to meet with religious leaders. And yet, very paternal and somewhat stifling in that certain art, written work, music, and internet has been censored, scarcity of resources, and the questionable outcomes of elections that over and over kept him in power. The complexities/paradoxes and contradictions within Cuba, and pertaining to Fidel himself, bubbled to the surface in our exchanges with Julio and Pedro. It was a new level of honesty and openness that was unique.
We’ve gotten closer as a group and to our Cuban friends: Sandor, Vladimir, and Sixto. There’s a tangible hope in our new friendship and an opening and palpable desire to build a long-overdue friendship despite the blockade. We are hopeful for a new way of relating in years to come. After all, we are such close neighbors!
We had dancing lessons with a charming and delightful teacher, Lisandra. We learned salsa, timbo, and rumba. Everyone danced. Then to the Art Factory for a neat experience of art, music, and performance. What a day of genuine connection, gritty honesty, and hope. The Holy Spirit is at work in this place and within us as we grow in new connection with each other. As brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors in Christ.
“O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared, direct my power and passion to create life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.” (From Guerillas of Grace, by Ted Loder.)
Saturday – Laughter and Tears
Today, Fidel Castro, President of Cuba until 2008, passed away. It was a sad day for many Cubans. It was quite an experience to have been in Cuba as a whole country is in mourning. We met with a church’s youth group, shopped in Old Havana, had carry-out lunch, and rode in the Pastors for Peace bus. We had our last dinner at a fancy restaurant where we talked about the beautiful experience we had in Cuba. There were laughter and many tears. Tomorrow, we return home full of gratitude and new friendships.