I started writing this article in my mind weeks before we departed on our mission trip to Cuba. It was to start: “They were there just as every article, newsreel and travelogue had said they would be -- the thousands of vintage autos from the 1940s and 50s -- some beautifully restored and others heavily primered hulks barely negotiating the pot-holed streets of Havana. Models that no longer exist -- DeSotos, Plymouths, Edsels and Ramblers -- cars with giant tailfins and swan hood ornaments...” There were, in fact, thousands of them amidst throngs of strange little generic Euro-cars, most of which I could not identify.
But the pre-1959 cars was not what struck me first. What impressed me first was the decay -- once magnificent colonial buildings crumbling under the weight of time and neglect-- balconies falling off, stucco dropping in the street, windows with no panes, doors broken in, piles of rubble reminiscent of post-WWII Europe and rows of 30 year old five-floor tenements badly in need of paint and upkeep. Apartments in the worker’s paradise had bars on the lower windows and laundry hanging from the balconies. The refrain of the old Jim Webb song MacArthur Park kept running thru my mind: “MacArthur‘s Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing falling down...someone left the cake out in the rain...” Fidel’s Havana was melting in the dark, all the green and yellow stucco falling down.
Jose Marti Airport is modern and well-maintained. It was not terribly busy on the afternoon of July 11 when we arrived on a Cubana flight from Freeport. It was only 48 hours after Hurricane Dennis had devastated the south coast of the island, but just 50 or 60 miles away Havana had weathered the storm relatively well. I had been very worried about what our group would encounter post-Dennis -- might the damage be catastrophic, would we spend our mission time there stacking bodies on flatbed trucks, picking up limbs and dodging downed power lines. Would the AC in the hotel be working? In fact parts of the city were still without power, but in Old Havana’s hotel district and in the center of the city and along the Malecon there was electricity and very little evidence of the storm.
As we waited in the baggage claim area we watched TV monitors mounted from the ceiling. Fidel and several of his generals were being interviewed by a civilian moderator and I gathered it had to do with the recent hurricane. It was fascinating. Paul Rahill, an elder from our church who had been to Cuba before said that he was on every afternoon. We have Oprah and they have the Fidel Show.
Driving from the airport to our hotel in Old Havana took about 40 minutes and there was a lot to ponder on the way. The road we were on had to be one of the main arteries, a highway on which most foreigners would travel into the city and one would have thought that it would be a showcase for the country and its government. I was struck by a huge sign that read: “Socialismo o Muerta” -- but this amidst row after row of tenements badly in need of paint and repairs -- it looked more like 'Socialism and Death' as opposed to 'Socialism or Death'. It was just the first of many jarring contradictions.
Our hotel, the Armadores de Santander, was a beautifully restored structure located on Avenida del Puerto in Havana Vieja ( the old city). It was directly across the avenida from Havana Harbor. It had 39 rooms and suites located on the three upper floors. On the bottom floor was the lobby, bar and billiard room. On the second floor was a dining room and mezzanine area. The 39 rooms on the top three floors were set around an atrium open to the sky and on the fifth floor there was the Terrazza roof garden with heavy mahogany and wrought iron chairs from which one had a panoramic view of the Harbor. The lobby was furnished with deep leather chairs and sofas and the decor was ornate marble and mahogany. As is typical in the Caribbean, the long windows in the lobby had wooden louvers and no panes. The lobby and hallways were not air-conditioned but the constant soft breeze off the water contributed to the tropical ambiance. On the other hand, the bedrooms tended to be quite chilly.
Eri, one of the bartenders, explained a bit about the hotel’s history one afternoon. He was a baseball fanatic and in between glances at ESPN he quizzed me on baseball, as I quizzed him about the hotel. It had originally been built in 1925 but at some point had fallen into disrepair and was out of use as a hotel for some time. It was restored to its former glory in 2002. Being on the harbor, the theme of it’s decor tended towards the nautical and he explained a bit about the hotel’s history and the origin of its name. Eri wore a modified sailor suit. The Santander was quite nice, but overall, four-star comfort on a church mission trip was another bit of cognitive dissonance. But for all we know, perhaps Paul and Barnabas found a four-star inn in Ephesus. Oh, by the way, Eri’s favorite player is Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox -- “an RBI macheen” he explained.
Most of the hotel’s guests were Europeans and Canadians. We were thought to be the latter, and whereas we were not advised to lie about our citizenship by the organizers of our mission, it seemed prudent to allow others to continue to believe that we were Canadians. U.S. citizens are scarce as hen’s teeth in Cuba these days and their presence arouses immediate suspicion. We were also advised to be very careful about what we said to the staff at the hotel and to other Cubans. We were told to always state that we were tourists and never to reveal our missionary focus. In a sense, almost all Cubans are government employees and an idle comment on our part could create trouble for the church we were visiting.
We stayed at the Santander concurrently with a tour of 26 Norwegian and Dutch guests. Most seemed to be middle-aged ladies. One looked very hopeful as she explained that there were only four men in their party. There also appeared to be two or three children. In addition to that party, and our 18, there were several Spanish speaking couples from Spain or other Latin countries in this hemisphere.
We stayed at the Santander because of its location. Immediately across the avenida from our hotel was a ferry boat station. One could get across the harbor in five or ten minutes on the ferry and the church our group was visiting was in a Havana suburb across the harbor. Each morning we would take the ferry across to Regla and then walk about a mile to the church.
Our stroll to the church was a revealing experience in itself. I was immediately struck by how much the neighborhood resembled any ghetto in a major U.S city. Many people were on the street mid-morning on a workday. The streets were dirty and the people stood in doorways, street corners and in little parks looking surly and bored. We were eyed warily and there were remarkably few warm smiles. Many were obviously unemployed and unhappy. My roommate, Pastor Jim, put it succinctly, “Their spirits have been broken.”
The focus of our trip was to build relationships with Cuban brothers and sisters in Christ’s Body and to spread hope in the little Evangelical community that our church, Northland - A Church Distributed, had been partnering with the previous five years. Our guides, Dusty and Corrine, had been professional missionaries for much of their lives. Dusty, age 56, was born into a missionary family and grew up in the Bahamas. He and Corrine spent the first six years of their married life as missionaries in Brazil. Dusty had made contact with Pastor Marcos on a recon trip five years earlier. The pastor and his little flock of 200 or so could scarcely believe that there were Christians in the U.S. who cared about their welfare as brothers and sisters. Prior to meeting Dusty they had felt completely isolated from the Church in the rest of the world.
Dusty’s focus on the mission remained remarkably undeterred by Hurricane Dennis. “The first rule of missionary work is to be flexible,” he stated. He certainly was; we were two days late in arriving and our flight itinerary changed three times due to the uncertainty of the storm. We flew out of Orlando on just a few hours notice, and several of my friends determined that I was certifiably nuts to go there so soon after a hurricane.
In addition to Dusty and Corrine, there were 16 others in our group, eight of them teenagers. Pastor Marcos and his staff had lined up a couple of hands-on projects for us to do during the day. One project was to work on the house of Salvador and his 82 year old mother. They had been flooded out during the hurricane. Our job was to take up the tile floor, dig new footers and build the floor up with the dirt and stone from the holes dug for the footers. Working inside the tiny house was hot, cramped and dirty. Most of our group worked on Salvador’s house.
The other project was painting a little outreach church several miles from the main church. Four people volunteered to walk over to other location and paint. The larger group, myself included, sat on benches in the back of an ancient Willys truck and rode to Salvador’s house. The vehicle apparently had no shocks and the incredibly jarring ride seemed to take about twenty or thirty minutes.
Working inside the house was an exercise in over heated chaos. We did our best to preserve the floor tiles; they were neatly stacked in a corner and I surmised they would be cemented back into the new floor. Only three people could dig at the same time; picks and a heavy crowbar were used to break up the tile and loosen the soil. Everyone, even the teenage girls, took turns with the digging, though some of the stronger, fitter men worked more than their share. I worried about my back and about heatstroke, however I did work enough to earn a couple blisters. I had thought about bringing work gloves in my luggage but no one had said that we would need them.
The plan was to work till around one o’clock and then take the truck back to the church for lunch. However, our driver, Marin, called and said the truck was down and we’d have to walk. My heart sank. I estimated it to be about a two hour walk back to the church. It was the middle of a 90-degree afternoon and I was already hot and tired. It was disheartening to realize that my missionary hubris was going to end with death from heatstroke on the streets of Havana, and for a moment I was angry with myself for poor judgment in signing up for this adventure.
Earlier, Rigo, our guide and translator, had told us of the faithfulness of Salvador’s 82-year-old mother and how she was an inspiration to their congregation. Every Sunday she trekked to the church for the morning service and repeated the journey later in the day for the evening service. I felt ashamed. If she could endure that walk in the midday heat, so could I. There was no choice for the twelve of us but to put one foot in front of the other and hoof it back to the main church. I did not share my apprehensions with the group as we trudged down one rundown calle followed by another. I tried to distract myself by looking at the vintage autos and smiling as best I could at the spectators. I had a water bottle and some beef jerky in my bag and between gulps of tepid water I gnawed on pieces of jerky. Once again we were eyed suspiciously by the locals--a dozen fair skinned gringos walking in the midday heat in a barrio of suburban Havana was a sight to arouse all sorts of questions. I kept looking at my watch, wondering at what point I would drop. At the 27 minute mark we rounded a corner and things looked familiar. We were a half a block from the church and I had survived. How did a 27-minute walk become two hours in my overheated mind? The shockless Willys was the culprit. That combined with the potholed streets made a five minute ride seem like 20-30 minutes and that length translated into a two hour walk.
The church ladies had prepared a wonderful lunch of chicken and rice, fried plantains, sliced cucumbers in vinegar and flan. After we ate I had my first demitasse of cafe Cubana. While not a big coffee drinker, I found that I looked forward to the thick, sweet Cuban coffee after every meal.
We had lunch at the church most days and had dinner there the two evenings when we joined them in worship. We were able to provide them with some funds to purchase extra food, but hosting our group still entailed some sacrifice on their part as many items are rationed. In spite of the rationing, basic staples such as rice and beans and chicken are apparently plentiful. No Cubans appeared undernourished and a surprising number were obese. On a previous mission trip to the Dominican Republic I had seen shocking evidence of malnutrition amongst the people in rural areas.
We had brought the Cuban church items in our luggage which were difficult for them to obtain either due to the rationing or the expense. I had packed several bottles of multivitamins and ibuprophen. Others had brought similar items such as powdered baby formula and Tylenol. Also, most of us brought Spanish language Bibles. I had purchased three books of Bible stories for children, a paperback New Testament and the books The Sacred Romance and Secrets of the Vine all in Spanish. We scattered the books and other items throughout our luggage so as not to arouse suspicion as we went thru Customs and Immigration.
Still, the young man in the olive-drab uniform who questioned me seemed more than thorough. He kept looking at me and comparing me with the photo on my passport. He enquired more than once about the purpose of my visit and about how many were in our party. I began to feel nervous, and I hoped I wasn’t arousing suspicion. He asked what my occupation was and was I there on business. Finally, he nodded me to go on. Dusty had warned us that he could be denied entree because he had visited there so many times in the past few years. In that eventuality, Corrine would be our guide. A few days before our departure I had read a news item on the internet about a Cuban-born woman who had been a Canadian citizen for over 25 years and who was thrown into jail for two weeks while returning to visit because of some “irregularity” with her paperwork. It was all a misunderstanding and the Cubans later apologized, but this didn’t mitigate the trauma the woman had suffered. That story and the whole rigamarole in the airport left me feeling a bit edgy, and I was relieved when we reached the outer lobby and met up with Pastor Marcos, Marin and Rigo. They greeted Dusty, Corrine and Paul with hugs, and the rest of us were all given vigorous handshakes and welcoming smiles. Dusty was the only one in our party who was fluent in Spanish and Rigo was the only Cuban fluent in English. Still, most of us knew a few words in the other language and we communicated with enthusiasm and warmth, if not with great accuracy.
The morning of our second workday began with me having a very sore lower back, and I decided that instead of working again on Salvador’s house I would volunteer for the painting detail. I took a hot shower and a couple ibuprophen and headed for the hotel dining room early. It opened at seven for breakfast but if one got there a few minutes early they could get a head start with the buffet. A limited amount of food was put out and the Dutch and Norwegian tourists were early risers with hearty appetites. The news that morning was that Hurricane Emily in the Lower Antilles was on a path that could take it over Cuba by the coming weekend. We ate breakfast and joked nervously about the irony of two of our teenagers being named Emily.
Our painting detail of four was guided by an exceptionally warm young man named Herby. He knew only a few words of English. However, his role was mainly to guide us to the outreach church, unlock the door and mix up the paint. Besides myself, our painting party consisted of Shawn, a husky 28-ish landscape architect, Sarah, also in her 20s, and on staff at Northland, and 16-year-old Blair.
The outreach “church” was a two room house that was being used for meetings. There were enough benches and chairs to seat exactly twenty people. Unsanctioned indoor gatherings of more than that number are illegal in Cuba, and some of Pastor Marcos’ outreach churches in the countryside simply had roofs without walls to stay within the rules and accommodate larger numbers.
The outreach church was on a low hill near the harbor and a steady breeze kept the interior tolerable. The pace of the work was also much more languid than in Salvador’s house. Shawn conversed with Herby in Spanglish as we painted. His enthusiasm encouraged me to practice my limited Spanish. Blair was a bit too shy to risk speaking, but she had taken three years of high school Spanish and we would consult with her when Herby‘s expression suggested total bewilderment.
Once again we quit work at one o’clock and began trekking the couple miles back to the main church. Herby lived in the neighborhood and on the way he decided to stop and visit at the house of another parishioner, Maria. She was an attractive woman of about 50. She welcomed us into the front room of her modest home. A stereo, guitar, maracas and bongo drums all contributed to the eclectic decor of the front room--antiques amidst K-mart vintage plastic. She pointed out pictures of her two sons and indicated that they were musicians, and that they were currently performing in Costa Rica. She turned on a rotating fan and offered us water. She explained that the power had just been turned back on after being out for five days because of the storm. We thanked her for her hospitality and explained that we couldn’t drink the local water and that we had brought our own. Maria spoke no more English than Herby and so we were able to learn no more than the very basics about Maria and her sons. It was frustrating. I had many questions about the type of music her sons played, and about her life as well. Being a counselor, I’m accustomed to communicating at a level of some depth and thus our very rudimentary conversation seemed unsatisfying--.an appetizer with no entree. After about twenty minutes of intermittent dialogue we had all more than expended our knowledge of the other’s language. The four gringos were getting itchy to get back to the church and have lunch. Ah, but Herby had one more stop in mind for us. After a few blocks he turned abruptly down a narrow passage off the street and led us up an even more narrow outdoor stairway. We entered a very cramped run down two room flat. He retrieved a framed photograph from a shelf in the bedroom. It was of a delicately attractive young girl. He was bursting with pride and with love. It was his wife. They had been married one month and he had to show us her picture.
As we exited the passageway on to the street, a man on the front balcony yelled for us to stop. He hurried down the stairs. He wanted to talk. His name was Hector and he was a dark, wiry 65-ish man with a pencil thin mustache. He addressed us in perfect English. He had heard us talking. He was a former English teacher who had lived in New Jersey for seven years. He wanted to practice his English and so we stood and chatted with him for a few minutes. A look in Hector’s eyes said. “Take me back to the States with you.”
I know that the unscripted side trips to Maria’s house and Herby’s apartment, as well as the serendipitous meeting with the English teacher played some part in God’s plan. Though what, I am not sure. I do know that our morning was about much more than applying a bit of thin paint onto a satellite church.
I believe that our role is to be open to spiritual growth via new experiences, and to be as kind and as gracious as we can to those who the Lord places in our path. Also, that we bring Christ into the world by serving others. I accept what Pastor Hunter at Northland has said many times-- that is, if we simply make ourselves available, God will work out the details, and that just “showing up is 90% of ministry.” The Lord will honor an attitude of servanthood with meaningful accomplishments in His often opaque economy.
Now, there were a couple in our group who were very focused on the work, and measuring how much we had accomplished in a given day was very important to them. One task-driven, middle-aged lady was reading the book about how to be Mary in a Martha world (Luke 10:38-42). The first few days she was quite frustrated because it seemed to her we were not getting much done. She had difficulty grasping the importance of one of our mission’s stated goals: that of building relationships and simply worshipping God along side of our Cuban brothers and sisters. Overall, it is a goal that sounds too much like pleasure to be very meaningful for some people. They conceive of even short term missions as necessarily entailing heroic striving and physical deprivation.
That evening we returned to the church for worship. It was “youth night” and the teenagers were in the spotlight. Worship was conducted by Moises, one of the Cuban youth. Our four teenage girls sang a hymn and two of our young men, Jared and Christian, gave their testimonies. Rigo stood alongside them and translated furiously. A Power Point system with a projector flashed the words to many of the songs on to a screen in both Spanish and English. Even with a bit of rehearsal our kids were nervous. After the service we socialized as best we could given our language limitations. Overall, it seemed to go very well. So well, in fact, that Pastor Marcos, Pastor Jim, Paul and Dusty cancelled the work scheduled for the following day and decided to send the teenagers to the beach for a day of further bonding.
This sudden change in plans was fine with me, but my Martha friend was a bit frustrated. Paul, Dusty and Pastor Jim were to spend the day inspecting the outreach churches and planning together. The rest of the adults were to accompany the teenagers to the beach.
We boarded a rented city bus at the church the next morning. I noticed that the signs were all in Dutch-- ouitgang, for exit, for example-- and I thought that this much traveled bus must surely have had an interesting history. Its ancient steel could add the story of the church group from Florida who chaperoned a group of teens to Megano Beach. In addition to our group, there were twenty-five or so Cubans -- mostly teenagers but also a few adults. It was a perfect day for the beach, glorious and sunny, and our party was in high spirits.
After traveling a couple miles we stopped at a corner. A young woman with a baby in her arms sprinted toward the bus. Everyone cheered as she passed the infant thru an open window to her abuela. I was struck by the amount of spontaneous affection they expressed for this young mother, and the obvious joy they felt because she and her baby were able to accompany us. The five-week old infant became a focal point of our party, and all of the adult women took turns cradling and feeding her. Even my 55-ish Martha friend appeared at ease for a change when she took her turn with the baby. Perhaps there were more important things than digging and painting for the Lord.
Megano Beach is located about 20 miles east of Havana and the drive there gave us a glimpse of the open countryside. Outside of the city we passed miles of emerald green pastures. I had read that the eastern and central part of Cuba had been enduring a decade long drought, but near Havana on the western third of the island the vegetation appeared quite lush. It struck me as odd that many of the fields seemed to lie fallow, having no discernable crops growing or even animals grazing. The bucolic vista was interrupted at jarring intervals by shabby roadside cafes and gas stations.
The section of Megano Beach that we were at was open to the public and there was ample paved parking. There was even a rudimentary concession stand in the parking lot. Vendors would fill up their trays with drinks and snacks and circulate amongst the sun bathers. However, this public part of the beach had no bathhouse or restrooms. We found shelter beneath a massive concrete structure that we were told had been a school at one time. The lower floor was open to the beach and sand provided the floor. All of the windows, doors, electrical outlets and fixtures had been stripped long ago. People had relieved themselves in the empty rooms. A crumbling concrete stairway led up to a second floor with a panoramic view. This edifice was so massive that it reminded me of something the Germans might have constructed at Omaha Beach. Only this was built to withstand hurricanes instead of bombs and shells. The decaying structure with its fetid rooms stood in stark contrast to the pristine white sand and the azure Caribbean Sea that it overlooked.
The teens played an impromptu game of soccer on the beach and then went swimming. I regretted having not brought a swim suit with me, but I was wearing cargo shorts and waded up to my knees. There was not much for the adults to do but to relax and enjoy the vista.
After a while I decided to explore several hundred yards down the beach. There was a large hotel and resort about a half-mile away and I walked in that direction. Before the resort there was an area of cabanas and a large concession stand. It appeared that there was an area for a DJ and an outdoor dance floor. There were workers in the stand but it was closed. I sat for awhile on a plastic chair in the shade of a tall cocoanut palm and enjoyed the breeze. After about five minutes one of the employees told me to move on. He appeared irritated that I was taking up space, though exactly what rule I was breaking was not clear. Had the concession stand been open I would have been more than happy to buy a cold drink and a snack. It was one of several examples of the Cuban’s not understanding the importance of hospitality. Forty years of insular paranoia and a totally managed economy have left them with major lessons to be learned about encouraging visitors.
Around one o’clock Marin showed up with lunch--dozens of Cuban sandwiches, fried plantain chips and cold drinks. I was more than ready for lunch. Another multi-generational party was camped out next to us in the shade of the crumbling school, and they had come prepared. They had a large tub of black beans, ample chicken and another tub full of cold beer. Watching them eat with obvious gusto had contributed to my appetite. Watching them, I wondered if this trip to the beach was the high point of their summer. There were about a dozen in their party and they were obviously having a great day. It was another occasion when I wished my Spanish was much better. I would have loved to have found out more about their lives, and perhaps told them a bit about why a motley group of Cubans and Norte Americanos were spending the day at Megano Beach.
That evening the Cubans from Pastor Marcos’ church came by the hotel with the bus again and we all went as a church family to visit Morro Castle. We took the Avenida del Puerto along the inner harbor until it met up with the seafront Malecon in downtown Havana; there we dipped into a tunnel and emerged several hundred yards further on the other side of the mouth of the harbor. Morro Castle with its towering lighthouse is a massive fortress that guards the entrance to the harbor. It was flanked by several smaller fortifications on the Havana side. One could readily see why the Spanish picked that site to be their main base in the New World. The harbor was a safe haven from storms and easily defendable from attacks from the Dutch, French or English.
We parked the bus in an grassy field and as we walked toward the fortress a slight rainbow formed in the mist from that afternoon’s thunderstorm. It was twilight and we were there to see the firing of the cannon at nine o’clock. From the battlements of the fort we had a panoramic view of downtown Havana across the harbor. It was a spectacular view. The Malecon’s many skyscraper hotels and office buildings were lit up in the twilight. One could also see the dome of the capital and the spires of churches just off the downtown area, and we were just far enough away to not see the decay and the neglect.
At about 8:30 a small torch-lit detachment of men ceremoniously marched from the barracks up the ramparts to the cannon. They were clad in scarlet 18th-century uniforms, with three-cornered hats and were accompanied by the rented-a-tent, rented-a-tent of a drummer. By then a huge crowd had gathered and they pressed as close to the cannon as was allowable. Little children sat on the shoulders of adults to catch a view. I noticed some of the Norwegian tourists from our hotel in the crowd. The soldiers brandished the cannon swab and the torches ceremoniously. They did all they could to drag the firing out and maximize the tension. Finally, at exactly nine o’clock they lit the fuse and a huge boom echoed across the harbor. Everyone cheered and then headed toward the gift shops and museums.
The following day, Friday, was planned for us to be tourists. In the morning, Dusty had arranged for a fleet of nine little open yellow cabs to pick us up at the hotel. They were essentially three wheeled motor scooters with a two-seat bench partially covered by a plastic shell behind the driver. I think they may be called pedicabs but I’m not entirely sure; they certainly aren’t pedaled. Our caravan of little ochre turtles drew stares as we snaked down the Malecon and thru the downtown.
Our first stop was the capitol building. It is an impressive structure that was modeled after our capitol in D.C., and it compares very favorably with it. It has a steep dome and two wings. Today it is largely a museum. Hallways between the chambers had both fine art and crafts by Cuban artists. Most of it appeared to be for sale. The senate chamber was hushed and solemn as a cathedral. As I stood at the entrance looking up at the heavy wooden desks I wondered if some day again it would house a representative government.
The neighborhood surrounding the capitol was another odd oxymoron. Some of the buildings were colonial vintage, with ornate facades and had been well kept up, but others appeared to be no more than tenements. It seemed odd to look from the capitol across the palm shaded boulevard at an apartment building with the day’s laundry drying on its balconies.
Our next stops were two outdoor markets. They displayed an eclectic assortment of craft items, woodcarvings, t-shirts, jewelry, souvenir trinkets, vintage books and magazines, and also the sort of household junk one would find at any flea market in the States. Surprisingly, there were many original paintings for sale--some were kitschy vistas of palm shaded beaches and mediocre representations of Morro Castle, but others were artsy abstracts, impressionist portraits and cubist street scenes. Several in our group bought canvases that were rolled up into mailing tubes for toting back home.
I had not brought near enough cash with me. I had converted eighty dollars into sixty Euros at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. Sixty Euros equals sixty Cuban Pesos and that doesn’t go far at all. Sodas, snacks and beer at the Santander’s bar and the flea market gifts were surprisingly pricey. Also, I had given Dusty twelve pesos for cab fares. I bought a t-shirt for myself and a few small gifts for friends. I wondered if some of the craft items had truly been carved in Cuba or if they originated in Asia. It didn’t matter that much. It said “Cuba” on them and that was what was important.
On the way to the second market we passed the Swiss Embassy on the Malecon. Though we do not have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. has an office in the Swiss Embassy. It was built like a fortress surrounded by barbed wire fences to keep the natives from rushing in to seek asylum. The walls flanking the embassy had propaganda slogans written on them but we passed too rapidly for me to attempt a translation. There were, however, large graphics of the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and those spoke for themselves.
The second market we stopped at was just off the cobblestone square of the Plaza de San Francisco. There I was approached by an under-the-table entrepreneur, “Psst, hey amigo, I’ve got some great prices on cigars.” We had been erroneously informed by Dusty that we could legally bring back one box of cigars. I had to walk a few hundred feet away from the market to do the deal -- ten pesos for a five pack of hand rolled Monte Cristos to give to friends. I felt quite proud of myself; ten bucks was about a fourth of what one would pay in the States.
After that purchase I was for all practical purposes broke. I still had twenty-some U.S. dollars but they are not legal tender in Cuba and credit cards from U.S. banks are not accepted. I had to bum a few pesos from Neal for lunch at an outdoor cafe and then pay him back in dollars later. Not accepting U.S. currency is fallout from Bush’s immoral and largely failed policy of tightening the economic screws on Cuba.
We have had economic sanctions against Cuba since the early-1960s, but the Bush administration has taken them even farther. They restricted the visitation privileges of native born Cubans to one visit every three years, and also greatly reduced the amount of cash that could be given as gifts to their relatives in Cuba. The emotional impact aside, the estimated 500-million reduction in cash would have had a disastrous impact on the Cuban economy, and would have created further hardships for the Cuban people. However, this blow to their economy was offset when President Chavez of Venezuela began selling deeply discounted oil to Cuba. Once again Fidel had neatly sidestepped our attempts to bring his regime down thru economic pressure. Of course, our policies only hurt the average Cuban, and cause the U.S. additional ill will in Latin America. Bush and his neo-cons can self-righteously fulminate about Castro’s repressive regime and then give an even more repressive government, Communist China, most favored nation trading status.
U.S. citizens are not allowed to freely travel to Cuba. However, our church in the Orlando area, Northland - A Church Distributed, is allowed to take groups to Cuba under a special humanitarian license granted by our government.
That evening, Friday, we were to meet again for worship at the church. It was to be the culmination of our all too brief visit. My roommate, Pastor Jim, was to give the sermon and he had been working on it all week. Before we left the hotel room I put my arm around his shoulder and we prayed together for the Holy Spirit to enliven his message and for it to be well received. He seemed moved and reassured by my offer to pray with him.
I did not know Jim prior to this trip, and as people we are quite different. I tend to mask my shyness by being quiet, aloof and a bit inscrutable, and he on the other hand is friendly and talkative. At first, finding common ground was a bit difficult, but over the course of the week our relationship warmed up, and my offer to pray with him seemed a turning point. Jim had been the senior pastor of his own small church in Sanford for twelve years, and now he was on staff at the mega-church, Northland. Jim is about as amicable, engaging and guileless as a Golden Retriever. He generally wears the joy of the Lord on his face and his obvious spiritual gifts are those of witnessing and encouraging. His teenage sons, Joseph and Jared, were also along on the trip and they impressed me as being exceptionally mature, well-reared kids.
A tremendous lightning display that evening accompanied torrential rain. We all wondered aloud if it were outer bands from Hurricane Emily. Because of the storm, we took cabs to the church in Regla instead of the ferry. Jim and I and a couple others crowded into a well-worn Peugeot taxi, and we sloshed our way down one flooded street after another as we inched our way around the harbor. Havana’s drainage system was overwhelmed, and as we approached the suburb of Regla a torrent of water from a stream or drainage canal was sweeping across the street and into a gully. Water came up to the floorboards and I was sure our cab would stall and if we stalled I was certain we would be swept away. For a moment I was alarmed, and though we joked about our predicament to mask our concern, I began to silently pray. The car chugged and missed and almost stalled, but somehow, miraculously, our driver kept the cab inching forward and eventually we mounted a small hill and left the whitewater torrent behind us. We clapped, cheered and applauded our driver.
Fording the stream that evening was the only truly frightening moment of the mission trip. The night streets were inky black due to the power failure, the rain fell with a vengeance and the gently undulating roads had turned into raging whitewater rivers, and we were poised to be swept away into a gully ending God-only-knew where. I thought, “I know how to swim but I‘m not Tarzan.” Our driver may have experienced this dozens of times, but I hadn’t. He seemed calm enough, but I was not settled until we finally reached the church. Power was still out over the neighborhood, but the church had a small generator and a few lights were burning.
In spite of the hellish weather the sanctuary was filling up. People continued to trickle in from the neighborhood well after the service was set to begin. There was no hurry; the Holy Spirit would be ready whenever we were. I was greeted warmly by Maria, Herby and his young wife, and others I had met in the previous days. A young Cuban family shyly seated themselves next to me. The sanctuary was dimly lit by the generator. The subdued illumination, accented at times by flashes in the sky, conferred a special holiness to the scene. A large sign behind the altar proclaimed: “Jesus Cristo est El Senor.“ There was electricity in the air in more ways than one. The room’s tall windows were open and captured a breeze now and then. A few rotating fans mounted on the walls helped create a relatively comfortable ambiance.
A fair skinned Cuban woman of around 50 sat down by herself in the pew in front of me. She held her arms up and sang a bit too enthusiastically. There was something about her looks and demeanor that reminded me more of a coal miner’s wife from Appalachia than a latina from Havana. As the pastor made his way down the aisle toward the altar he patted the woman on her shoulder. She seemed to take it as a reproach and she slumped down and buried her face in her arms across the top of the pew in front of her. She did not move for forty minutes or more, and her obvious brokenness would haunt me throughout the service. Once again, I wished I knew enough Spanish to speak to her and perhaps comfort her.
Worship was led by the pastor’s attractive 20-year old daughter, Rebecca. A small orchestra complete with keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, strings and horns accompanied the worship. In sections their playing was a bit ragged and off key but their obvious joy more than made up for a lack of musical perfection. They were making a joyful sound unto the Lord, and that was what was important.
Pastor Marcos is a handsome, goateed man with an air of gravitas about him. His voice is one that does not require amplification from a sound system to be heard. He greeted the worshipers and delivered a short message translated by Rigo. Plaques were presented to Dusty and Paul acknowledging Dusty’s service and Northland’s aid to his congregation. Then Rebecca and five other young ladies sang a hymn in Spanish a cappella. That was followed by the whole congregation singing another hymn with which I was not familiar. I mouthed the Spanish as best I could from the words projected on to the screen. Though I was not familiar with either hymn, I have never heard singing so melodic or so utterly lovely. It brought tears to my eyes.
After the worship, Pastor Jim was introduced. He thanked the congregation for their hospitality. As he launched into the heart of the sermon, he had to slow his natural pacing and rhythm down to allow Rigo time to translate. Nevertheless, it was still a spirited address. He had three Cuban license plates as props that he’d bought at the outdoor market that day. He explained that they were for the front his family’s vehicles, and that in Orlando they were sure to bring comments, and that when people asked he would tell them about the trip to Cuba and about the hospitality and the faithfulness of Pastor Marcos’ flock. The battered old license plates would be transformed into wonderful vehicles for witnessing.
After Jim spoke, we sang a couple more familiar hymns alternating verses in Spanish and English. Before the hymns, we ceremoniously greeted one another with handshakes and hugs. A woman came across the aisle and tapped the still slumping lady in front of me; they hugged and the woman beamed. Several others hugged her including my Martha friend. She was affirmed and restored. It reminded me of Jesus’ ministering to the women with the chronic menstrual bleeding (Mark 5). I’m sure I felt almost as much relief as did she.
Our group had to be up quite early the next morning for the trip to the airport, and so we said our emotional farewells that evening to Pastor Marcos, Rebecca, Rigo, Marin, Herby, Moises, Yan, Salvador and his mother, and the church ladies who cooked for us. By that point some of the teens had become fairly close, and two of the young Cuban men looked particularly sad to see Delaine, Blair and the two Emily’s depart.
The next morning we assembled in the lobby with our bags packed. Dusty and Corrine left an hour ahead of us. Hurricane Emily permitting, they were catching a flight to Jamaica to meet up with another mission group later that day. Emily was veering away from Cuba but there was a good likelihood of it striking Jamaica. There was a slight atmosphere of danger in the air, but our flight from Havana to Freeport was uneventful. We were in good spirits and Pastor Jim witnessed to a couple of middle-aged Cuban ladies who had been visiting their homeland. He also witnessed to a Bahamian customs officer in Freeport who was obviously a Christian-- they exchanged high-fives. I was in awe of how easily and naturally this gift comes to him.
We were retracing our circuitous path from six days earlier-- Havana to Freeport, Freeport to Ft. Lauderdale and Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando. We had a five hour wait in Freeport and we were to spend the night in Ft. Lauderdale and catch an early 45 minute flight to Orlando Sunday morning. The flight from Freeport was late and it turned into an almost seven hour wait.
As we were waiting, two beefy uniformed men from Customs, part of the Department of Homeland Security, showed up in our waiting area and called out six or seven names including mine. We were ushered back thru security and made to pick out our bags. Those of us caught “trading with the enemy” had to account for our cigars and destroy them in front of the officers. They provided trash cans for us to crumple them up in, and official forms for us to sign. My little five pack of Monte Cristos was nothing compared to the fancy wooden boxes of 25 very pricey Macanudos that some had bought for friends and relatives. They smashed the wooden boxes and also slit open packages of Cuban coffee and dumped the contents in the trash cans. Being obedient little Christians we had all listed what we were bringing back on the official Customs forms. My Martha friend had bought one cigar in a tube for her husband--no matter, she was as big a criminal as the rest of us. Dusty had been wrong. I wondered if they would make me throw away my t-shirt. Observing this senseless and humiliating act put me in a very dark mood; as far as I was concerned, at that moment the Homeland Security drones had about as much integrity as the Gestapo or the KGB. But in retrospect they were just doing their job and I think perhaps felt as foolish as we did.
Though we were not arrested, I’m sure God used this experience to teach some of us the feeling of being on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps a taste of the offense of driving-while-black. As for myself, it just engendered more disrespect for the Bush regime and our government’s leaden bureaucracy, and it was in a sense one of the serendipitous lessons of the trip. However, the most salient insight for me was seeing a well-fed people, with decent medical care, who are largely devoid of hope. Their society is underemployed and has little upward mobility. Their religion was taken from them forty years ago. Che Guevara became their patron saint and official martyr.
But things are changing. When Pope John Paul visited the island in 1998 he made remarks critical of the immoral U.S. policy toward Cuba. Castro responded by easing up restrictions on religion. Cubans were officially allowed to celebrate Christmas for the first time in many years. Now they have a religious freedom there of sorts, and perhaps Castro is slowly figuring out that people who truly try to emulate Christ are no threat to him or his government. Though we have to be careful, its encouraging that church’s such as Northland are able to partner with Cuban churches. The 200 or so in Pastor Marcos’ congregation are gentle and no threat to the powers that be. Their joy is in marked contrast to that of the average man in the street and their upbeat attitudes have to be a plus for Cuban society as a whole.
I hope to go back. When I do I’ll know a few more words in Spanish and Pastor Marcos’ congregation will know a few more words in English. Maybe, with Rigo’s help I can facilitate a class in coping with stress or something in my area of expertise.
Oh, I’ll also remember to put the cigars in my pocket, and forget to list them on the Customs form.