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.

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Five Ways to Encourage Children to journal

Writing - Girl in CarThere is little doubt that keeping a journal has long been considered a spiritual and personal discipline.  Even the Bible have hints of the journal genre–from parts of Jeremiah and Nehemiah and the psalms to first-person accounts in the book of Acts.

Christian history is also fraught with examples in which the act of journaling has connected the people of God to the movement of the Spirit.  St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton immediately come to mind.

If journaling is such an effective way to grow spiritually, therefore, why not teach our young people to do it as well?

In fact, if a young person is called to be a disciple of Christ and can write or draw, there is no reason for that person to not journal.  Sometimes, they–like us–simply don’t know where to begin.

Here are five ways to encourage children to journal:

1.  Provide writing prompts.  Too often, we hear children say that they don’t know what to write about.  If we want to encourage them to experience God, however, it would be wise to give writing prompts.

Some prompts may include having children write about what they learned in Sunday School or church.  Others may be more general, like having a child write about how nature or a church season (like Advent) can help us see God’s amazing creativity.

2.  Show children how to write their prayers.  This is helpful in two ways: First, writing prayers help a child communicate with God in concrete ways that are familiar and fun.  Second, writing prayers will widen a child’s perception of what prayer is all about.

Prayers are more than mere words we say at the dinner table or in church; they are conversations with God in which we can be honest and open with all of the feelings, experiences, and circumstances that we face.  Writing prayers down help us memorialize those conversations.

3.  Let children copy a few verses from the Bible and have them write about what they think they mean.  We are often surprised at how much children listen and learn when we think they are not paying attention; just imagine how much they will learn if they engage the scriptures in a way that is intentional and reflective.

Scripture tells us to “meditate upon God’s Word” daily.  If I remember correctly, there is no age-limit to this challenge–all of us, young and old, need to learn how to meditate on God’s Word.  Writing God’s Word can be just as important as reading or hearing it.

4.  Let children draw as a part of their journaling experience.  When I had my first-born, I was delighted to find that stores sell kid-friendly journals that have a blank spot on the top half of each page.  Children write on the bottom half and then draw a picture to accompany what they wrote.

Sometimes self-expression is best portrayed in picture form than in writing.  Our children should explore every facet of art and journaling in order to experience and learn about God.

5.  Keep project-specific journals.  Children can keep more than one journal in their arsenal of spiritual disciplines.  A child can keep a missions journal, a travel journal, or a prayer journal.  This encourages children to recognize that they can “meet God” in places beyond their church.

It also encourages children to “join God at work” in the world as we adults point out ways we’ve met God along the way.  Taking a vacation, for instance, doesn’t mean we vacation away from God.  We vacation as a way to be on mission for God, and a child can record those points of contact where–guided by intuitive adults–God shows up to be at work in the world.

A christian is never too young to start implementing spiritual practices.  Journaling, as one such practice, is good for the brain, heart, and soul.  And, as St. Augustine once quipped, it encourages all of us, no matter the age, to tell our story “for the love of Your love.”

Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 2)

In our southern society, it is inappropriate to complain, speak negatively, or moan-n-groan in general.  Ours is a community that prides itself on having-it-all-together and not revealing the deepest feelings with which we live on a daily basis.   As we consider this second article (of three) on how caregivers can grow spiritually, we must turn to the first order of business: Learning how to express feelings we would otherwise suppress, and becoming vulnerable with a loving, compassionate God.  In other words, letting it all out.

Many people feel that hiding feelings is somehow beneficial.  If we “let it out,” then we will loss control of ourselves and unveil our very fragility and brokenness to a cold and cruel world.   For some, especially women caregivers, this means that being passive, subdued, or subordinate, is a regular part of life.

Pursuing spiritual growth requires us to ignore these survival instincts.  Our conversations with God, not to mention our very relationship with Him, must honestly reflect the tumultuous storms that sometimes rage in the deepest parts of our being.  Jesus is our example:  Hanging on the cross at Calvary, his own bitter prayer was that of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul encourages his readers to “present your bodies as living sacrifices” and “be transformed in the renewing of your mind.”  Becoming vulnerable in honest prayer–allowing the frustrations that result from caregiving to see the light of day–is a spiritual act of surrender that gets us closer to the heart of God, because we let God into our heart.  We bend to God’s good and pleasing intention for our life.

There is a story of a woman who entered a psychiatric hospital kicking and screaming.  The nurses took away all that she owned except for a coin.  She fought anyone who tried to take it away from her.  Holding it with a deathgrip, she protected it because it was the only thing that reminded her of her old way of life.  But it was her old way of life that kept her from healing.

Though this story seems a bit extreme, it reminds me of our resistance to the Lord.  We feel that if we surrender all of who we are to God, we will somehow lose ourselves in God.  We fight hard to protect our sense of identity, our sense of control.   It is scary to pray honestly because the posture of prayer includes open hands rather than clenched fists.

Caregivers resist God because coming to Him with open hands also leads to guilt.  It’s bad enough that caregivers rarely feel like they are doing enough for loved ones; for caregivers to also admit that they have personal struggles, points of resentment, and periods of exhaustion just adds to the burden of care.

By coming to God with open hands and an open heart, however, caregivers can find a new sense of spiritual freedom.  Vulnerability is scary, no doubt–how many times have people let us down when we have become vulnerable to them?  But God is not human; He does not turn away a contrite spirit.  He does not allow open hands to go away empty.  There is no condemnation for those who love the Lord.

There are many ways to express feelings to God.  One idea is to keep a journal.  The best journaling happens when one free-writes without having to worry about audience, grammatical accuracy, or modesty.  Another idea is to read a variety of the psalms aloud–there is everything from pain (Ps. 22, Ps. 130) to praise (Ps. 23, Ps. 135).

Whatever we choose, we must realize that letting out frustrations and becoming vulnerable with the Lord is healthy for a vibrant spiritual life.  This is especially helpful for caregivers who face a multitude of burdens as they fulfill their call to care for loved ones.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.