By Joe LaGuardia
This past week, my family and I had the privilege of hosting in our home the Reverend Maykel Baez Bruffau, pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Jordan and president of the Fraternity of Baptist Church of Cuba, and Ms. Lissett, a musician and worship leader in a sister Cuban church.
This was part of an ongoing partnership between the Fraternity and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Like the CBF, the Fraternity is comprised of churches that emphasize congregational ministry, women in ministry, and creative liturgy focused on the arts and missional engagement.
Maykel and Lissett attended the CBF General Assembly last week in Atlanta, and are making rounds in several churches to give testimony and to sing. They will not be at First Baptist of Vero Beach this weekend, but they were nice enough to visit us in Vero Beach for a few days to get some rest and time off during their two-week stay.
Aside from my enthusiasm about this partnership (we at First Baptist are praying about joining a small team of pastors in November to reciprocate the relationship), I have been amazed at spending time with people from Cuba–a new frontier for missions and ministry since the easing of relations between the Obama Administration and the Castro regime a few years ago.
I had time to hear Maykel’s story. Many families deal, for instance, with substandard housing. Since resources are scarce, families work together to provide community enrichment, education, and support. In Maykel’s case, he has a parsonage that was restored with the help of the church.
I asked him about things we take for granted, like appliances. He gave an example and said that each family gets a Chinese refrigerator, which is infamous for leaks and too small. Each family gets a voucher that barely covers the cost for the appliance, and it takes some families years to pay off the balance.
Other things, like infrastructure, also suffer under the communist dictatorship, although things have improved greatly under Raul Castro. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to provide for a rise in middle-class demands, and the increase in American tourism has bolstered the economy.
The current Administration under Donald Trump threatens this delicate balance, and although communism is no pie in the sky, waning tensions between the two countries have provided the small island an economic step in the right direction–why close off an entire economy to quality refrigerators or microwaves? We are too big and powerful a county to come under Castro’s sway, so why fear a better partnership? (You’d think Donald Trump of all people would know a good deal when he sees one.)
Maykel also told me of his Christian upbringing. He is pastor of the very church in which he grew up, and his pastor who raised him and encouraged him to go into the ministry retired only a few years ago. Maykel considers her his spiritual mother, and he speaks with her on the phone almost daily.
In Georgia, I spent many days in conversation with communities and churches of color with whom my old church worked. We spent many hours in dialogue and many more projects together to bridge racial divides. My time with Maykel and Lissett provided me a new set of friends who spoke a language entirely different from my own, and we’ve been having fun trying to communicate with English and Spanish.
I found that I have become quite self-conscious of both my language and my belongings over the course of this week. In my language, I use many figures of speech, and that does not translate well for people who only know rudimentary (and very literal!) English. I’ve also taken note of how many things we take for granted.
We Americans do not know what it is like to go to a grocery store and not have an array of choices of things to buy. We do not know what it is like to be forced to have all the same items and be confronted with a government and elite class that hoards so many resources even doctors need to barter to make ends meet (Cuba has a universal healthcare system, but patients are still expected to bring a “gift” to the doctor when the need arises).
Since most Cubans make about $20.00 a month, there is no discretionary spending on…well, anything. Even getting a Coke or a belt is something of a luxury for Maykel and Lissett.
My new friends have taught me more than I can process this early on in the relationship. Our time with Maykel and Lissett have opened our eyes to a bigger world, something I’d forgotten since my last mission trip to Ghana back in 1999.
I look forward to what God has in store for us who partner with the CBF and the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba. More lessons, I’m sure–and hopefully a clearer call for justice, for Cuba’s and our own nation’s sake.