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.

New friends and frontiers in Cuba

Lissett, me, Kristina, and Maykel

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, my family and I had the privilege of hosting in our home the Reverend Maykel Baez Bruffau, pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Jordan and president of the Fraternity of Baptist Church of Cuba, and Ms. Lissett, a musician and worship leader in a sister Cuban church.

This was part of an ongoing partnership between the Fraternity and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Like the CBF, the Fraternity is comprised of churches that emphasize congregational ministry, women in ministry, and creative liturgy focused on the arts and missional engagement.

Maykel and Lissett attended the CBF General Assembly last week in Atlanta, and are making rounds in several churches to give testimony and to sing.  They will not be at First Baptist of Vero Beach this weekend, but they were nice enough to visit us in Vero Beach for a few days to get some rest and time off during their two-week stay.

Aside from my enthusiasm about this partnership (we at First Baptist are praying about joining a small team of pastors in November to reciprocate the relationship), I have been amazed at spending time with people from Cuba–a new frontier for missions and ministry since the easing of relations between the Obama Administration and the Castro regime a few years ago.

I had time to hear Maykel’s story.  Many families deal, for instance, with substandard housing.  Since resources are scarce, families work together to provide community enrichment, education, and support.  In Maykel’s case, he has a parsonage that was restored with the help of the church.

I asked him about things we take for granted, like appliances.  He gave an example and said that each family gets a Chinese refrigerator, which is infamous for leaks and too small.  Each family gets a voucher that barely covers the cost for the appliance, and it takes some families years to pay off the balance.

Other things, like infrastructure, also suffer under the communist dictatorship, although things have improved greatly under Raul Castro.  Small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to provide for a rise in middle-class demands, and the increase in American tourism has bolstered the economy.

The current Administration under Donald Trump threatens this delicate balance, and although communism is no pie in the sky, waning tensions between the two countries have provided the small island an economic step in the right direction–why close off an entire economy to quality refrigerators or microwaves?  We are too big and powerful a county to come under Castro’s sway, so why fear a better partnership?  (You’d think Donald Trump of all people would know a good deal when he sees one.)

Maykel also told me of his Christian upbringing.  He is pastor of the very church in which he grew up, and his pastor who raised him and encouraged him to go into the ministry retired only a few years ago.  Maykel considers her his spiritual mother, and he speaks with her on the phone almost daily.

In Georgia, I spent many days in conversation with communities and churches of color with whom my old church worked.  We spent many hours in dialogue and many more projects together to bridge racial divides.  My time with Maykel and Lissett provided me a new set of friends who spoke a language entirely different from my own, and we’ve been having fun trying to communicate with English and Spanish.

I found that I have become quite self-conscious of both my language and my belongings over the course of this week.  In my language, I use many figures of speech, and that does not translate well for people who only know rudimentary (and very literal!) English.  I’ve also taken note of how many things we take for granted.

We Americans do not know what it is like to go to a grocery store and not have an array of choices of things to buy.  We do not know what it is like to be forced to have all the same items and be confronted with a government and elite class that hoards so many resources even doctors need to barter to make ends meet (Cuba has a universal healthcare system, but patients are still expected to bring a “gift” to the doctor when the need arises).

Since most Cubans make about $20.00 a month, there is no discretionary spending on…well, anything.  Even getting a Coke or a belt is something of a luxury for Maykel and Lissett.

My new friends have taught me more than I can process this early on in the relationship.  Our time with Maykel and Lissett have opened our eyes to a bigger world, something I’d forgotten since my last mission trip to Ghana back in 1999.

I look forward to what God has in store for us who partner with the CBF and the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba.  More lessons, I’m sure–and hopefully a clearer call for justice, for Cuba’s and our own nation’s sake.