Remi and I were already into a morning routine. After we were ready, we would go down to the resort’s breakfast buffet. We would usually see some people from our team so it gave us a chance to catch up on what was going on with everyone else.
We met up with Sophie, Joanna and José. They were sharing a room on our visit and the only group without an adult chaperone in the room. Over breakfast, they told us that a man came to their door and started pounding on it in the wee hours of the morning. He rattled the doorknob, shouting in Spanish, demanding to be let in the room. Remi and I listened intently, but we’re both in full ready-to-murder-a-stranger mode. They huddled together in their room and shouted back to the man that he wasn’t coming in. They said he kept saying: “Santa! Santa!” At least, that’s what they heard. After a few frightening minutes and planning how they were going to subdue him if he managed to get in, the pounding stopped and the voice went away. Eventually, they fell asleep, huddled together.
In the morning, they found empty bottles of alcohol near the door (big surprise), but no sign of Santa. Visits from Santa became a running gag for the rest of the trip.
We left the resort a little earlier this day, so I didn’t get a chance to check the computer for any correspondence from Canada.
There was a two-hour drive to our destination today. By this time, the kids discovered I was drawing and writing notes in my sketchbook, so it was handed around frequently. It became a bit of entertainment while we were traveling even though the bumpy roads didn’t allow for great artwork. It was a fun way to document some of the trip.
There was a lot of police visibility in the Havana area. I’m not sure if that was normal, or it just seemed like a lot because we were traveling where they happened to be. Pastor W would take the opportunity to educate us about Cuba whenever he could – which is a great way to visit a country. He said a lot of the police are poor, “lower-class” Cubans from the east of the island. They’re recruited there and brought to the western part. Many see it as a way of escape from the poverty in the east.
Our first stop was a church where they had a lot of young married couples in their congregation. They were training several of them to start their own church plants. This is something that these churches take seriously; they all want to send out missionaries to other communities.
The pastor of the church told us that this plant was different from others he’d seen since the young people in the area were the first to attend, and then their parents came. We prayed together. Someone from our group went to the pastor’s wife afterwards to tell her that they sensed God’s peace in their home. Then a second person from our group went over to tell her the same thing. She said that everyone that comes to her house tells her that, but this was the first time she’s had anyone from outside the country in her house.
Water is an issue in this community as well. This pastor was sharing his water with the neighboring house.
We met two pastor teams on our second visit. We also got to meet their youth and administrative team. They sang us a couple of songs and when we discovered it was someone’s birthday, we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to them.
We entered the third church on our route. Like all the others, it was well-kept and given the largest share of the house. The pastor of the church was at the front of the church telling us all the things they were doing in the community. You could sense the resolve and strength from this man. His wife entered the room a few minutes later and stood by him.
This pastor told us about how he would like to fix his kitchen so he led us out to a narrow room attached to the side of the house. It was a wooden structure and leaked when it rained. The challenge here was a little different. The property was being rented from the government so any improvements to the house would be a lost investment. The real strategy would be to secure a property for them that could be owned by the church, so the investment would not be lost. This is a much larger project that will require significant investment.
Sometimes, when we visited these churches, there would be a small contingent of parishioners sitting silently in the back. As the pastor invited eighteen people through their house and into a dilapidated kitchen, I noticed his wife lingering behind. She wiped a tear away. The parishioners were beside her, comforting and encouraging her. I instantly thought of my own home. My wife doesn’t like having people over when the house is messy. If God had called us to this life, this visit would be difficult for her, too.
These visits were not just about gathering a list of projects and going home to a rich country to attempt to raise the funds to finance them all. These visits were about breathing the same air as someone else, about stepping into someone else’s world, even for a little while. The big discovery is that there’s little difference between us and the people we meet besides our birthplace and our economic resources. To encounter people’s needs and meet them is an easy way to have an impact on their work, but such giving flows out of the emotional and spiritual connections we make upon meeting.
Our crew filed out to the bus and I was one of the last people in the room. I grabbed the pastor’s hand and hugged him. With no interpreter, I tried to encourage him with a few words that I knew in Spanish. I later wondered if it made any sense. Maybe it was like someone looking deep into our eyes and earnestly saying: “bananas.”
This pastor’s family was a little older. He’d pastored another church close to Havana for 16 years; he’d been at this new church out in the country for one month. One of his daughters was enrolled in post-secondary school in Havana, but had to give up her studies to move with the family to this church in the country. It was evident that she was feeling the cost of being a pastor’s kid.
We met two more pastors at our next stop. The host pastor had a younger family. His daughter sang a song for us. She would have been about 12 years old. The pastor told us that she was involved in leading worship at their church. We left a baseball and bat with his young son. Kids always got excited about baseball stuff.
The area we were visiting was close to another pastor we’d met during our visit in 2008. We made a slight detour to see if he was home. I remembered this pastor because I drew a picture for his young son the last time I was here. It wasn’t anything particularly special; it was just a way to communicate while everyone else was occupied and I was sitting around with him. On our previous visit, the pastor told us that his son was having trouble in school since he had some kind of learning disability.
It was getting late, so most of us waited in the bus while Paul, Kathy, Dwight and Pastor W went into the house. To my surprise, Kathy returned with the (much older) boy that I’d drawn a picture for those many years ago. When they went in, Kathy asked the boy if he remembered the guy who drew him the picture several years ago. He got excited and said he did remember me. Kathy said I was out in the bus and offered to bring him out to see us. He came and gave me a big hug. And then it was hugs for everyone. I was surprised that a simple drawing could have such a lasting effect.
We took another side trip to visit a different pastor from our 2008 visit. This husband and wife pastoral team were professionals in Cuba. They both gave up their jobs to be full time pastors. We drove into their neighborhood, not exactly sure where they lived. We were just hoping to find their house. However, we met him at another house that we stopped at since it was marked with Christian messages – likely another house church.
The pastor came out of the house with a look of astonishment on his face. Paul jumped off the bus and the pastor grabbed Paul and hugged him tight. He started to weep.
It was getting dark by this time so we drove the pastor to his house which had been remarkably transformed since our last visit. The yard was a beautiful garden. We took a few minutes to look around and we prayed with him. He then wanted to show us what he had planned for the future. So we boarded the bus and drove a couple kilometers to another house that was run down and not yet livable that they purchased. Since this house was closer to the center of the town, it was more expensive, but the improvements they’d made to their current house should allow them to break even. He said he already had a permit for a ‘garage’, which is a code-word for a church structure. The central location, will allow them to serve the community better than they can from their home on the edge of town. Once they have the roof and water installed in the new house, they’ll sell their existing house and move in to the new one to fix it up.
We traveled back to the presbyter’s house where they’d prepared a meal for the entire team. A group of us sat at a table with our bus driver who didn’t speak much English. He was always eager to talk to anyone though. Through gestures and broken English, he warned us to go light on the yucca (a root vegetable similar to potatoes) because it would make us sleepy.
We were supposed to go to an evening service tonight, but we missed it because of our additional stops. The crew was tired from the long day anyway.
While we were finishing supper, we’d gotten word that there was still a crew of people at the church waiting for us, so we loaded into the bus and headed over. This was the presbyter’s church. Because we were in a larger community, this church was larger also. It wasn’t anything like the humble little house churches we were visiting in the countryside. It was gorgeous – even by Canadian standards.
When we got there, they sang a few songs and a few people from our team sang a song. Then we just spent some time socializing. The church’s youth were well represented. What followed was a comical discussion of mime, broken English and Spanish and laughter. Emails were exchanged. Hugs were liberally shared. You wouldn’t think any kind of bond could be formed in so short a time between kids who could barely communicate – but there it was, happening.
The youth leader gave a few of us the grand tour of the facility. So we followed him around to the Sunday school rooms, offices and kitchen. He showed us the sound system donated by an American church and capped off the tour on the rooftop of the building to look over the town.
A few days after this, Pastor W received a call from the presbyter at this church. He told Pastor W how thankful he was that we went over to the church after supper and that he was impressed with the kids we brought. He explained that most groups who come to the church sing their songs, preach and do whatever it is they do and then leave. But our kids were more interested in getting to know the people – even though it took effort to try to communicate.
I was impressed with our kids too.
We corralled our kids together which took a little time since a lot of them were getting “just one more picture.” Then we loaded the bus and headed back for the hotel. It was really late at that point and we still had a two-hour drive ahead of us.
The kids started singing. Then they started singing really loud. And laughing. Every single one of them involved. Not one of them on the sideline. And that ride home was the most sublime moment of the entire trip. Everyone was tired. But there was joy and love there that you wanted to last forever.