The Cuba Chronicles, Day 3 (and an aside)

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.”

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The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 2

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.

We visited Iglesia Bautista Ebenezer on the outskirts of Havana.  It is a thriving church and home to the Martin Luther King, Jr., heritage center, a non-profit recognized by the Cuban government.  (That the church is named “Ebenezer,” the same as MLK’s church in Atlanta, was coincidental.)

Aside from the heritage center, the church hosts on-going professional development for adults and training camps for youth and college students interested in learning about social justice, non-violent civic engagement, and community reconciliation.  After-school programs and other ministries, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also bolster the congregation’s ministry.  Visiting professors from around the world come to stay at a campus apartment to teach theology to clergy and lay leaders in week-long intensive courses.

Ebenezer exemplifies what some theologians call “leaven”-style missions, recalling Jesus’ parable in which he likens the Kingdom of God to a woman who subversively sneaks leaven into a batch of bread.  The church hopes that the Gospel infiltrates their neighborhood and, from efforts in education, in reaching communities for Jesus Christ across the island.

This is a fundamental part in Ebenezer’s history: As one of three original churches (another being Pastor Maykel’s church, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan) to found the Fraternity of Baptists, its previous pastor worked with the government to soften religious tensions.  This work, which began some 25 years ago, attracted the ire of other Baptist churches, and the three churches were accused of promoting communism.  The atheist government, meanwhile, was weary of the Christian influence.  The Fraternity formed as a result of this schism.

Ebenezer’s work with the government became an asset not only to Christians in Cuba, but to the entire population in the mid-1990s.  At the time, the Soviet Union collapsed and resources were scarce. Cuba entered a time of hardship and famine.  Churches, especially those working close with the government and non-profits in the area, became hubs for emergency relief.  This leverage led to further dialogue, and Ebenezer was able to seat the first Christian senator in Parliament since the advent of Communism.  We met the senator, who remains influential throughout Havana.

Ebenezer is a flagship church in the Fraternity as it seeks to raise up a new generation of Christian business and government leaders who seek to be on mission in Cuba.  The leadership is made up of three pastors, one devoted to the work of the Heritage Center and training; another to developing, writing, and producing Cuban Christian liturgy, disseminated to the rest of the Christian churches in Cuba (indigenous liturgy is extremely important in the Fraternity); and a third engaged in pastoral care and programming.  The pastors rotate in preaching and church leadership.  They want to model the type of egalitarian community they believe reflects God’s kingdom.  Every year, each pastor takes a different category of ministry, so the energy and creativity stays fresh and vibrant.  (To me, this church mirrors the kind of leadership model and good work you can find at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.)

Ebenezer is one of eight churches in the Fraternity that have free-standing buildings.  The rest are home churches that rely on the resources and training that churches like Ebenezer provide — Pastor Maykel calls it “divine resourcing,” which reminded me of my own ideas on “creative resourcing” we’ve been implementing at First Baptist.  (I like Maykel’s term better, as it assumes that God is in charge of the agenda rather than our own limited brains!)

Pastor Maykel, Pastor Corita (whom we met earlier), and the three pastors at Ebenezer believe that they are reaping the harvest of seeds sown so many years earlier with visionary pastors who were willing to dialogue with what were once sworn enemies of Christendom.  Through their hard work, they now have a chance to be a part of the governing process–its the slow work that affirms Martin Luther King, Jr’s admission that the “arc of history bends towards justice.”

 

 

 

Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.