By Joe LaGuardia
On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years. These are my diaries from the trip. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here and Day 2, Part 1 here. Find Day 2, Part 2 here.
We visited Iglesia Bautista Shalom, a home church in La Boca, Cuba. La Boca is a small and impoverished fishing village on the outskirts of El Mariel. A power plant and port stand on the horizon, providing jobs for both towns.
The home is a two-story dwelling, built like many homes in Cuba with brick and mortar, held together by a patchwork of aluminum corrugated siding and roofing. The first floor living room serves as the chapel, in which the congregation greets guests with hugs and kisses.
Their pastor, Pastor Corita, has been shepherd of this flock for nearly 20 years. She is unassuming, smart–she longed to be a professor of theology–and treats each person kindly and with care.
Several parishioners are either retired from or work at the elementary school, located just across the street. One retired teacher, for example, is the church’s administrator. She seems to be like a grandmother to all, and her smile was contagious. Another retired teacher serves as the chairwoman of the deacons.
Everything in the church reflects the industrial and fishing culture of La Boca. The church logo has a sailboat at its center. The hand-sewn liturgical banners and the parament on the communion table have loaves and fish. The chalice and paten are crude and sit idle next to an aged, open Bible. A bulletin board advertises events, classes, education materials, and the familiar color-wheel of the Christian calendar.
About forty churchgoers enjoy fellowship and worship every weekend. The liturgy is steeped in the rhythm of God’s seasons (it’s Ordinary Time, ya’ll, and the color is green), and music is indigenous. An overhead projector, connected to a laptop donated from some United States partner, aids in worship.
It is with a love of the Lord, an emphasis on worship, and a generous love of neighbor that the congregation seeks to bring shalom and support to an otherwise poor neighborhood. A new ministry endeavor, the purchase of a 20-foot fishing vessel they lovingly call the Daisy, will create a micro-economy that will provide fish to locals at a fair-wage rate, enough to pay for employees and overhead, but not much else. For being a fishing village, we are surprised to learn that much of the fish is exported to Havana to fuel the tourist industry. People in the village don’t make enough money to compete, so the haul from the Daisy will be a real blessing.
Upon purchasing the Daisy, they have repaired the hull. The only work left is building out a floor at a cost of $350.00. With a passing of the collection plate, we provided the funding and were a part of launching an entire micro-economy for this amazing church.
An Aside: The Sounds of Cuba
At the end of the day, I had time to reflect on a few things. Although traffic jams exist and make up for much of the noise in Havana (with all of the Ladas and the Peugeots, not withstanding), the real life of Cuba–its sights and sounds–come from the Cubans themselves.
A cacophony surrounds us. Dogs insist on barking at nightfall to gossip about the day’s news. Roosters crow at 4:30 in the morning. Conversations between neighbors, the sweeping of terraces, the knocking on doors by guests fill the air with fresh banter. In the marketplace, the sounds of bartering and buying of a few goods are ubiquitous. Every afternoon, men with a cart walk down the street blowing a whistle and announcing the sale of fresh bread.
There is the occasional blare of a television forecasting some ominous news story (all of the ominous stories are from the United States; the positive ones are about the Castro regime) or hip-hop from Cuba’s version of Mtv. I have heard more George Michael songs here in the last three days than I’ve heard in the last twenty years, and I have not heard a single note of Country music or classic rock.
We have also experienced the occasional curb-side arguments. I asked our translator if they were arguing about politics. “No, this is Cuba,” he said (in other words, you don’t talk politics publicly!), “They are arguing about baseball.”
Aside from these little noises from God’s creation, there seems to be a heaviness in the air that mutes everyone and everything, as if there is an impending burden brought on by the worries of sudden changes in the currency or the next food shortage. Even lovers who snuggle on the sea wall do not have much to say. No one who passes you on the street says hello. There is energy and contentment, but both are tenuous.
I was trying to see where I fit in all of this. Cuba is not like the South in the U.S., with all of its joyful hospitality; nor is it like the North, with its cold, blue-collar terseness or white-color anxiety over the stock market. Instead, there exists a tension that arrests the entire island, a weight that I can only assume accompanies the suppression of a government bent on shaping its people and the messages they hear.
This is a government that insures the survival of its closed hegemony and some long-lost ideal that government distribution is somehow more beneficial to the people than capitalism. With my own education in the American Founding and a bedrock belief that God created all of us with the innate longing for liberty, these feelings or musings were new to me and hit me the hardest during my stay in Cuba. I was moved, and I could see why Cuba needs Jesus, one whom God sends “to bring release to the captives.”