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.”

 

 

 

The Cuba Chronicles: Day 1

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. Find the “Introduction” here.

A team of seven of us, made up of 3 lay leaders, 2 CBF personnel, and 2 clergymen, arrived in Havana around 10:30 AM.  Our first exposure to life in Cuba was in the airport: crowds of people, expecting family and huddled with tears of expectation.  Children passed the time at play.  One of the members from our team, a Cuban transplant, mentioned that the emotions have to do with the arrival of people who may not have seen each other for decades.  We waited for our whole team, then departed to lunch and our accommodations.

As we drove through the city, I was enamored with the cars, people, and architecture that told of a rich history somehow stuck in the past. It is as if someone came along in the 1950s and took a snapshot that exists in an historical loop. The Chevrolet coupes tell of a one-time thriving middle class who enjoyed grocery stores and plenty, of liberty and dignity.  The architecture is reminiscent of Frank Loyd Wright and the art deco I came to love when I once lived in Miami.

My emotions betray me.  It is beautiful, but it is an illusion.  The beauty is profound: If Cuba was to open fully to investment, travel, and tourism, I would argue that no new architecture would be needed, merely a facelift.  I could see people flocking from the United States in search of golden years lost in the past, an escape from the hyper-technology of the 21st Century.  Of course, if the U.S. were to lift its embargo, technology would come as swiftly as the visitors to these humble shores.

But it is an illusion: Havana is a charming place, but impoverished. Tourists who come here for inexpensive vacations only see what the communist regime wants them to see.  We spent $4.50 on lunch, for instance–and we raved of the low cost for fresh-to-table meat and vegetables–but, as I have mentioned in my own pulpit before, there is a high cost to low prices.  That amount, though small for us, makes up roughly six days of salary for the average Cuban.  Tourists roughly spend what amounts to two week’s worth of a Cuban’s salary for an alcoholic beverage.

After lunch, we went to our accommodations to rest. My apartment-mate, John (a lay leader) and I are staying on the second floor of Cuba’s version of an air-bnb. Our hostess showed us how to lock the doors.  She instructed us to shut off the lights when not in use, and only turn on the air conditioner–one per room–at night.   Electricity does not come cheap, and regardless of how the neighborhood appeared, once a bustling middle-class suburb of the city, both money and resources are hard to come by.  She needed cash up-front to insure that breakfast would be on the table the next morning and the length of our stay.

After settling in, we took a walk in the neighborhood.  We passed a school where children in uniforms shuffled in and out.  We walked through an old, walled cemetery.  We coughed our way through Havana’s pollution-laden streets until we came to a park that memorialized one of America’s fiercest foes, Ho Chi Minh.

I had several Hot Wheels cars in my pocket–trinkets from the U.S. I intend to give to children along the way–and I commented to John that I should have brought gifts for the adults too.  As a joke, I suggested cigarettes, like those who barter for better things as if in a prison.

“Jail on an island,” he quipped.  With all of the tears we experienced at the airport, solemn heads of passersby hung low, and many people rummaging around in second-hand clothing, John may not have been far from the truth.  Someone mentioned that it takes $800.00 for a Cuban to get a passport in order to travel off the island.  With that kind of price, it might as well be Rykers, Sing-sing, or Alcatraz.

Cubans are held captive in more ways than one.  Technology and access to the internet are limited.  No small masses of people huddle on random street corners where the government places wi-fi hotspots, regulated in both content and price.  It takes $2.00 an hour for people to Facetime loved ones or catch up on email or Facebook posts.  You can tell when people are communicating with loved ones who lives off-island because they weep.  People who debate in the park or not talking politics lest they speak too loudly around government moles; rather, they argue about topics that are safe–baseball, mostly.

****

Over dinner, one of our companions Marti told of her escape from Cuba in 1961.  She, along with two siblings, went to the United States as exiles from the “Peter Pan” program, a government-run child labor law in which children worked the fields.  Often, parents did not know where their children went–one day they brought them to school, and the next day they were gone.  The Catholic Church supported the program, so solace and protest were hard to come by.

It took all of the family’s savings to send Marti and her siblings to a friend in Miami.  She was young, scared, hurt and resentful for having to learn a new language, a new way of life.  It took two years for her mother to join them, and another two years for her father to do the same.  This, all before Castro finally ousted President Batista’s forces in 1965.

On the final day of our stay in Havana, all of us, including Marti, stopped by her childhood home.  She was nervous, and she cried.  We all cried, really.  She touched the wrought iron fence that was once her own.  She took a picture, and then she left it behind again.  Her job, children, and grandchildren, not to mention all of the children she serves at church, needed her back in Florida.  Like most Cuban Americans, home is not necessarily where the heart is–it is somewhere lost in time, space, and art deco.