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 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.”

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.”