The Cuba Chronicles: Day 4

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. Find Day 3 here.

We visited Communidad Christiana Emanuel in San Jose de Las Lajas, which is about 40 minutes outside of Havana.  The town name, Las Lajas, means “tile” or floor and is so named for its red ceramic tile industry.  Little red ceramic Christian ornaments, freshly made and baked by the children’s department, adorn Emanuel’s window sill in the sanctuary.

Emanuel is another free-standing church.  It is simple in design, though it has stained-glass windows that set the church apart from the other churches we’ve visited.  It does not have much room for ministry, but there is no need for wide gathering spaces.  This is a mission-sending church, with outreach ministries in the neighborhood and in surrounding areas.  They provide breakfast every morning to about a dozen homebound seniors; their sanctuary accommodates a local AA group.  The pastor is also out-and-about, as he serves as chaplain to prisons and hospitals in the region.

A seminary-trained missionary is pastor to their mission endeavors beyond Las Lajas. The first mission is in a small neighborhood of Jamaica.  The congregation of about a dozen people meet in the parlor of a home.  The parlor is cramped, only about 8×14, and they wish to build a lean-to someday that can seat an open-air church.  Jamaica is extremely poor and marginalized.  It is a fenced-in village within a village.

The second mission is about an hour out (it takes long to get there not because of distance, but because of shoddy roads), nestled in the rich green, mountainous interior of Cuba.  It is a beautiful scene, dotted with cattle and cane fields.  It is located in Juan Abrahamstad, an agriculture impoverished village, home to Communidad Cristiana El Meson (“The Church of the Inn”).

El Meson is a small house church, though the entirety of the house is dedicated to the church, and can seat between 20 to 30 members.  It was founded by a Freewill Baptist minister some years back and represented the first Christian presence in this otherwise atheist community.  Since most of the men in the neighborhood either work far away or go into the military to escape the substandard living facilities, most of the congregation is made up of women.  A woman, a proud octogenarian who received her divinity degree late in life, has been shepherd of this church for nearly a decade (she became a believer 14 years ago).  She wept the entire time we were there, so happy to have these American guests–a first time for the village–in her church.

The pastor explained that the church is named “the Inn” because it seeks to be a place of respite, specifically recalling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the Parable, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, the Samaritan sees a person in need, brings the person to an inn, and provides for his healing and care.  This is how the church perceives its ministry, providing a balm to the many wounds that communism and atheism have wrought on this town of some 1,200 residents.

On the “sanctuary” wall behind the pulpit, churchgoers view a series of hand-painted crowns.  One is missing.  Pastor explained that the one missing is yours and mine.  In having received the Word of God and responded to God’s grace in faith, we believe in Jesus and then Jesus gives us a crown of eternal life.  When we receive that crown, we make up for the missing crown on the wall.  Are we counted among God’s saints?

***

This evening concluded our trip with a worship service back at Iglesia Bautista El Jordan.  There were three groups there–ours, a Canadian youth mission team, and a small contingent of churchgoers from El Jordan.  We sang, we shared, we read scripture (the lesson was from Psalm 133, “O, how beautiful it is for Christians to dwell in unity!”).

After a time of worship, Pastor Maykel split us into our groups to discuss what evangelism means to us.  A representative from each group told the rest of the congregation what was discussed.   Agreement came in the importance of relationships in sharing Christ.  We also have similar challenges: all three countries are secular, some more hostile to Christianity than others.  This requires hard work, open minds, and open ears.  We all hoped that many Christians in our nations would close their mouths more often.  All of us struggle with Christians that do a disservice to our churches by being judgmental, antagonistic, and close-minded.  This was our prayer for Canada, the United States, and Cuba.

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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.

****

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.

One Pastor’s Reading List for 2017

books_journalBy Joe LaGuardia

It is the “in” thing these days for pastors to publish their reading list for the New Year.  Since I am an avid reader, I can’t help myself.

The notion is that clerics were once the storehouses of knowledge, when churches were at the center of town and of political and cultural life for any given county.  Also, there is the thought that parishioners might be interested in what their pastor is reading.  That may or may not be true.

What is true, at least for me, is that my spiritual mentors instilled in me the abiding ethic that pastors should be continually growing in their field, in learning about what stands on the horizon of cultural movements, and how God is at work in our world today.

It was Karl Barth (or was it Deitrich Bonhoeffer?) who said that a pastor must go about his or her vocation with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Additionally, I consider myself a writer, and what writer do you know doesn’t boast of a formidable home library or reading list?  So there you go.

Here are a few books I am looking forward to reading as the new year is upon us.

1-  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  I fell in love with Dillard’s writing a little over a year ago.  I started with The Writing Life, read Holy the Firm, and moved on to a book of her essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read The Writing Life for a second time when I moved to Vero Beach–all my other books were packed away in storage!

When I learned of her classic, Pilgrim, which won a Pulitzer, I set out to buy a copy at our local Vero Beach bookstore.   It is, in classic Dillard style, a meandering reflection of life at Tinker Creek in the Appalachian mountains.   Part memoir, part spiritual narrative, her writing moves between poetic reflection and naturalist exploration.

Dillard once stated that her goal was to write the “impossible page.”  In Pilgrim she does not disappoint (I started reading it before Christmas).  Her writing is heavy, rich like a meaty stew in which every bite contains enough nourishment and protein to fill you for the rest of the day.

2- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  In a recent issues of The Christian Century, pastors submitted short paragraphs about the best book they’ve read recently.  A majority cited Just Mercy.  I better get on the bandwagon.

As director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Stevenson mixes anecdotes and research to shed light on the underside of criminal (in)justice with the aim of bringing about real conversations on the need for criminal justice reform.

3-  The Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I heard about Douglas and her memoir of conservation when I went to high school at none other than Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a joke about the school: What better way to honor her than by building a school right in the middle of the environment she longed to save?  (The ghost of Douglas struck, however–when I graduated, there was an urban legend that the school was sinking in the swamp at nearly a foot every ten years.)

This is not the only Florida-specific book on this list.  Over the years, I have come to love reading local authors about local places.  I’ve read scores of Georgia authors; now its time to read classics every Florida resident hopes to read.

4-  The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings.  Another Florida classic, a coming of age novel in the heart of the Florida wilderness.  I am not all that sure what this book is about, specifically, but it was recommended by a fellow Florida naturalist, so I figured I better read it.

5-  Communication in the Church, by Thomas Kirkpatrick.  One of the things I need to shore up in my first year at First Baptist is communication.  So many have cited communication as an issue for the church, partly because there was no figurehead–senior pastor–to really head that up.

This book came across my desk in an advertisement from the book’s publisher, Romman and Littlefield, and it caught my eye.  When I received it in the mail, I was delighted to find that it appeared to be both easy to read and practical.

When I spotted a chapter on how to lead a committee meeting, for instance, I knew I had made the right decision (not that I don’t know how to lead a committee meeting, but there is always room for improvement!).

6-  The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, by Roy Oswald.  In my previous church, we had an emotional intelligence guru in our associate pastor, the Reverend Karen Woods.  I was enthralled with the things she taught the staff and our church on this growing field in ministry, and I am still convinced its one of the most important things every church leader needs to understand.

I asked Pastor Karen what book would be best–give us the good stuff for people who want to read about EQ, but don’t have time to read every book on it.  She recommended Oswald’s book, and we purchased a half-dozen copies for staff and lay leaders.

I was grateful for her lessons, especially, since part of the interview process at First Baptist Church was to take an EQ test!

I began to read this book last month, and it is indeed still some of the most important material I’ve read of late.  What pastor does not want to learn more about empathy, self-awareness, and stress management.  Well, I am sure there are many–and this is the book to purchase for your stressed-out pastor!

7- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.  I read about this book somewhere along the way, maybe in an editorial or column in The Christian Century, and I was enthralled with the premise: A German forest ranger, Wohlleben, explores the science and theory behind the social life of trees.

I’m not sure what I will get out of this book, maybe that if trees are social, we humans can be too?  And, since moving to Florida, my family and I have made it a habit to hug a palm tree every now and then.  (We named the one palm tree on our property “Fred.”  We love Fred, but he gets grouchy sometimes if you get too close to him.)  This brings joy.  Maybe this book will explain why. Who knows?

8-  The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson.  A book of essays by the author of Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead (one of President Barak Obama’s favorite books, by the way).  Robinson is known for her conversational tone and religious sensitivity.

Since I am a sucker for essays, hoping to publish two new books of essays in the next two years, I figure I better read Robinson’s.

9-  Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, by Charles Deweese.  My personal history with this book is an interesting one.  Soon after I purchase it, about seven years ago, I lent it to my father-in-law, who was interested in how in the world Trinity Baptist made women deacons.

For some reason, he misplaced the book and it had been lost since then.  He and my mother-in-law just sold their house and moved here to Vero Beach.  In the packing and unpacking, the book turned up.  I hope to get a chance to read it, finally!

10-  Moby Dick, by Herman Mellville.  At the beginning of last year, friends and I joined an informal movement called “Sixteen books in 2016.”  We even devoted a Facebook group page to it.

This book was on my list, and, with the move to Vero and all, I never got around to it.  Maybe this year I will.  Until then, poor Ahab will continue his fateful search for the great White Whale.  I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, so I’ll try to make it my summer beach reading fare.  Beach + whale.  Sounds like a winning combination.

11-  Something about Henry Flagler.  I went to a college on Flagler Drive, which was across the bridge from the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Kristina and I went to St. Augustine for our honeymoon, and have visited many times since, including touring Flagler College.   What does all of this have in common?  Henry Flagler, the industrialist tycoon who founded Standard Oil and connected Florida by rail.  I’m sure there is a biography on him that I’ll pick up along the way.