The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 1

Pastor Maykel shows us future plans for the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba campus. Seated to the right is Corita, pastor of Iglesia Bautista el Shalom, a Fraternity Baptist Church in El Mariel, Cuba.

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.

In a country otherwise made up of atheists, many Cubans are Catholics, some protestants, and the rest, those who follow a pseudo-Catholic cult by the name of Santaria.  Santaria is a religion that is one part Catholic and two parts African ancestral worship.  Witchcraft, along with animal sacrifices and other practices of divination, is common, and Santaria’s grip is vast and wide.

As one might expect, Baptist approaches to Santaria are about as diverse as Baptists themselves.  For many Baptists, hostility is the only action against religions other than evangelicalism; but, for many Baptists who make up the Fraternity of Baptist Churches, those entangled in Santaria are no less worthy of hearing the Gospel and being treated as neighbor.

Today we went to Maykel’s house.  Maykel is a pastor of a church in Havana, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan, as well as president of the Fraternity, and he explained how his presence in the community–he lives in the church’s parsonage–offers the opportunity to befriend neighbors who are in the Santaria movement.  Maykel’s wife, also an ordained minister, is sensitive to their neighbors’ plight, and offers hospitality whenever the need arises.

Maykel’s church is also committed to being the presence of Christ in this diverse neighborhood.  It is a hub for various ministries and groups, including after school programs and a computer classes for adults.  Although 20 churchgoers make up Maykel’s church’s youth group, they can reach up to 100 youth in the area with ministries and special events that they promote out of El Jordan.

Maykel gets a salary from the church, although it was not always the case.  He explained that when he first arrived at El Jordan, the average monthly giving was around $400.00.  Maykel communicated the real needs of ministry in the area and taught on stewardship.  Over several years, the congregation raised their level of monthly support to $1,600.00.  Their goal is to raise their level of giving to $2,000.00, so that they may be able to fund other missions and church starts throughout Cuba.

El Jordan also began a building project to acquire a dining hall, dorm room, and kitchen to their current facility.  Building in Cuba is precarious.  You begin with the walls a brick at a time instead of the foundation, lest the pipes and cables in the foundation “disappear” in the middle of the night.  Next, the church will install a roof, requiring $4,000.00 for supplies.  The completion will mean that the church can serve the community in more creative ways, as well as host meals, mission groups, and neighborhood gatherings.

Our next stop was Milano Verde, or “Green Mill,” the campus of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches.  With 2 buildings and several plans for expansion, the campus is central for the 42 churches in the Fraternity.  In fact, 50 pastors and lay leaders plan to gather here next week for a church start/evangelism conference hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Maykel explained the importance of this space.  For one, theological education is a core value of the Fraternity, and although the local seminary is effective in teaching theology, it lacks the curriculum to support pastors in church starting and outreach ministries.  The Fraternity campus is pivotal in providing these resources. Second, the campus serves the wider community, as it is home to a water purification system that is so good the local hospital uses the water to sterilize its equipment.  The system and its installation were donations by a Presbyterian church in Florida, exhibiting the Fraternity’s success in building ecumenical partnerships.

Maykel also explained how ecumenical partnerships benefit their churches’ missions.  The Fraternity recently approved placing a printing press, complete with building, on campus.  The press will publish Bibles in partnership with the United Bible Society.  South Korean churches are donating the press; Canadian Baptists are donating the pre-furbished building, and the Bible Society will donate supplies and materials for the Bibles.  Local Cubans will benefit from the new micro-economy as they will work the press and transport the Bibles to the rest of the island.  Future plans call for a volleyball/recreation field and a chapel for services.

As Maykel described the ministries of both his church and the Fraternity, I could not help but conclude that he is a master administrator and visionary.  Many from his flock have affirmed as much, as many told us of how much the church and the Fraternity have improved as a result of his leadership.  Best of all, he is not from outside the community–Maykel grew up in El Jordan, and it was there that he heard God’s call to the ministry.

El Jordan and the Fraternity’s campus embody the deepest values that the Fraternity represents, namely being the presence of Christ in a spirit of inclusivity, ecumenism, collaboration, theological education and missions.  Another Fraternity Baptist pastor we met, Pastor Corita, originally traveled to Mexico to become a theologian, but heard the call to ministry in her native land of Cuba during her studies.  After serving in marginalized communities in Mexico, primarily among children and others exploited by human trafficking, she became pastor of a church we set out to visit on Day 3 of our trip.  She, like so many people we met, is the product of those core values, and her ministry to her own flock tells the story of a people who have become born again as a result of a Baptist movement that provides hope to this diverse island.

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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.

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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.

The Cuba Chronicles: Introduction

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. 

Juan Ortiz was a little boy when he and two-dozen sailors went from Havana to Tampa Bay in search of conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez and nearly 200 men in the early 16th-century.  Narvaez failed to reach a rendezvous point, and his wife, back in Havana, sent a search party of which Ortiz was a part.

Upon their arrival, a few men and Ortiz went ashore to inquire with the natives.  It did not take long for the situation to worsen.  The natives bludgeoned the sailors while Ortiz was captured, bound and placed over a bonfire pit.  Moments before the flames licked Ortiz’s bare back, a young native girl interceded with the tribal chief.  He sparred Juan Ortiz’s life.   Ortiz learned the culture, hunted and gathered with the men, took a wife, created a family.

Several years later, De Soto and a new wave of adventurers found Ortiz, who then joined the crew as translator and guide.  They went as far as the Mississippi before Ortiz met his fate in a rushing river.  As Marjorie Stoneman Douglas puts it in her classic book The Everglades,

Juan Ortiz, whom the Indian girl had rescued, would find his death also, drowned crossing an unknown river, weighted down with Christian clothing and armor.

This little anecdote rightly describes religious life in Cuba over the past fifty years.  As a thriving island democracy, Cuba soon saw a breakdown in both politics and religion after the Castro revolution overthrew President Fugencia Batista in 1959.  Christianity protested with the weight of its own armor and influence but ultimately drowned under the rushing river of atheism and anti-imperialist propaganda that followed communist victory in 1965.

Now, nearly a year after Fidel Castro’s death, Christianity is learning how to swim again.  While some Baptists still weigh down faith with the clothes of a type of Christianity imported from the United States, many others have cast off consumerist models of religion in search of a thoroughly Cuban Christianity.

This is a daily, uphill spiritual battle.  Where the atheists don’t resist Christian growth, the occult Santaria movement vies for more converts to its own cause.  Where Christian missions try to recreate the megachurch mindset of North America and Africa, many Christian Cubans struggle to keep an indigenous faith that resists the shortfalls of capitalism and consumerism.

The daily lives of Cubans exist somewhere in the middle of all of this, and the Baptists that we worked with, those who make up a community of 40-some odd churches known as the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, try to blend an indigenous cultural beauty for which Cuba is known with a steadfast Gospel that embodies Christ’s salvation, compassion, and mission.  It is not a Christianity weighed down with western ideals, though it does borrow heavily from an incarnational model of missions that promotes social justice and the rhetoric of liberation that stems from the likes of Latino theologians Oscar Romero and Justo Gonzales.

Juan Ortiz  died because he divorced himself from the very culture that guaranteed safe passage through hostile environs of Florida.  Cuba’s Christian churches are trying to live by divorcing themselves from unhealthy models of Christian mission known for emphasizing other-worldly salvation at the expense of — (or, at times, total abandonment of) — community transformation.

If anything, Baptist Cuban churches are poised for growth precisely because they have engaged in ministries that bolster the Cuban imagination, especially those that protest systemic oppression, all while being sensitive to the deepest needs that exist in the local communities where the real spiritual battles are being waged.

As one local Cuban pastor told me, this is not a forcing of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “arc of history that bends towards justice,” but a long game that seeks total and utter reformation for the sake of Christ, not of our own making and in our own time, but in the kairos, cosmic time whereby God’s kingdom will imbue earth as it is in heaven.