This is day two of our recent visit to Cuba. This is a long post. I haven’t spent a lot of time revising and condensing thoughts since I want to get it out before the memories fade too much. Even at that, I still haven’t included all the details. There may even be spelling or grammatical errors — I hope not too many (horrors!). I’ll fix those later. Read it with grace and feel free to skim.
The day started early for me. The night air in the Havana area is a little chilly. It’s the coolest part of the island, we were told, which makes the beaches popular around here. But for me, that meant sleeping with the heavier courtesy blankets in my room – they had a bit of a musty smell. I woke up with watery eyes and a stuffy nose. So I removed the blankets from my room, popped a Benadryl and got on with the day.
Breakfast was included in the resort package, so everyone on the team was encouraged to make use of it. The days we had planned were long and we would be sustaining ourselves with snacks on the bus and a late supper. The buffet-style breakfast at the resort was nothing to write home about, but it would keep you going for the day. Cold rice. Bread. We debated about what some items actually were. It took us an extra day to notice the omelette bar – which was very good. And mango juice. You can’t go wrong with that.
We had a little time to kill before we headed out for the day, so Remi and I decide to head over to the beach. Remi is another dad from our church with a daughter on this trip. We shared a room with the two teenage boys from the youth group that were with us. Remi and I never really knew each other – he sits way on the other side of the church, for heaven’s sake. But this week, we have a lot in common and a God-given opportunity to get to know each other. We took advantage of it as often as we could.
The beach was as beautiful as you would expect it to be. The sand was fine and white. We took off our shoes and found that the sand was quite cool, almost chilly. We waded out into the water a little and discovered that it was a lot warmer than the sand; it was the complete opposite of the beaches in Canada. There was a bit of a wind that morning, churning up the waves on the beach. There was a strong undertow and we ended up going out a little further than we’d originally planned. Two Canadians drowned on this beach a week before we arrived; one got into trouble in the waves and the other tried to save him. We made a mental note to warn the kids – frequently.
We loaded into our bus and settled in for the two-hour ride to the region we would be visiting. Pastor Paul and Pastor W used this time to prepare the team for what we were doing and seeing this week.
In summary, Paul tells us that we don’t have anything to teach the people we’re going to see. They know the Lord and move as the Spirit leads them. We simply have some resources that God has made available to us and we’re partnering with them to help them reach the people in Cuba.
Each of these trips to visit churches includes picking up the presbyter of the area to come on the visits with us. So our first stop was to pick up Pastor M and his wife to make the day-long trek with us. Pastor M was familiar to the regulars on the team. His short stature and demeanour have earned him the nickname “Vinnie” on a previous visit. He didn’t seem to mind.
First Visit: Pastor G
Pastor G was a woman pastor. Her husband passed away a while ago, but she continued with the work that they had started together. Her daughter helps her. The chapel they work out of on their property was larger than most of the house churches we visited through the week. It was distinct that it was in a building apart from the house as well.
There was some discussion about her work in the area and the challenges she faces. Before leaving we spent some time praying for Pastor G and her daughter. All of our kids gathered around Pastor G’s daughter to pray for her. Every one of them. They were all engaged in what was happening. I realized what a great team of young people we’d brought with us. They were together. They helped each other out. They worked together and they played together.
There was a little boy and girl observing everything that was going on out in the yard. So Dwight, one of the adults on our trip, brought out a baseball and bat from the bus. Baseball is huge in Cuba. So the kids were excited about the new toys and a little game breaks out in the yard for a few minutes.
Paul and Vinnie were engaged in more administrative issues of the church. I carried a pad of paper with me for journaling, so I was called over at one point to tear out a sheet so they could make some notes. Vinnie looked up at me, patted me on the chest and asked in broken English: “Is this a future pastor?” Laughter. Vinnie laughs too, but then adds: “Yes. Why not?” He said something else, but I forget the rest. I just thought I was bringing paper.
We left a little money behind at each stop. We made sure that they understood the gift was for them and any personal expenses they had – not a donation to their church.
Second Visit: Pastor R
Before we arrived at the next church, we were informed that Pastor R didn’t have this house a few short years ago. The property was purchased with funds provided by our church in Canada. When Paul, Dwight and Kathy (Dwight’s wife) last visited, this pastor had all the pews built for his church – he was just waiting for the church. So it was especially gratifying for them to see the pews lined up in the front room of the home being used on a regular basis.
Pastor R was a slender man with greying hair. We started the tour of the property in his house. This house-church was a standard design for most of the places we visited through the week. It’s a typical Cuban home. The walls are concrete and the size is modest. There is a wall down the middle of the house to support the roof, but it also serves as a dividing line for the house and the church. There are bedrooms on the other side of the wall. There’s also a narrow room at the back that goes the whole width of the house and generally serves as the kitchen / bathroom area. The rest of the house accessible from the main entrance is devoted to the church.
After some discussion, we moved into Pastor R’s back yard. He had a modest garden and the property was surrounded by a cactus fence. We discovered that the cactus fence is employed frequently as a natural barrier to keep out “critters”. Plus, it’s free.
Pastor R picked up a long metal pole and walked over to a tall tree at the back of the property. He began pulling down coconuts which dropped to the ground with a thud. He took out his machete and skillfully hacked off the top of the nearly-ripe coconuts to form a bit of a spout and began handing them out to the kids on our team. Coconut milk! There were a lot of laughs as the kids drank and shared the fruit.
We noticed one pair of men’s black dress socks carefully hung out to dry on a tree branch after being hand-washed. Someone jokes if this is the kind of fruit this tree produces – humour was an effective relationship-builder. All the pastors we visited seemed more relaxed once they discovered that we had a sense of humour. It turns out the socks were something he’d received from the Cuban Pastor’s conference that was held a few years ago and our church was asked to send down men’s undergarments.
Pastor R addressed the group. He thanked us for our faithfulness and for funding the purchase of the church. I wanted to laugh out loud, because this struck me as kind of humourous. It was like a farmer who’d brought in an enormous crop and he’s thanking you from bringing him a package of seeds. Not that I’m minimizing the monetary contribution, but what he had done with it was enormous. He pastors a church. On foot. He sends out missionaries from his house church. He offers half of his house for people to meet regularly. He’s given his life to this work. I was struck with a sudden realization that we should be thanking him for making such use of the seeds that were given to him. If God has given our church the ability to fund these types of things, we ought to be looking for such people to make the investment so fruitful. I left his house wondering if I’ve been as effective with the seeds God has given me as Pastor R has with the seeds God has given him.
Third Visit: Pastor A
A short drive away, we visited Pastor A, his wife and three young children. At each visit, we would sit in the chapel and ask about the work they were doing in their community, any particular challenges they faced and how we could help them with their mission. Pastor Paul is friendly and always puts everyone at ease with his servant’s heart and his sense of humour.
Running these small house churches is a family affair; you can’t escape that when the church is in your house. Pastor A’s wife was touched by having so many young people coming to visit her from our church. She got a little misty. She said they have a real burden for the young adults in their own area “who face many temptations.” She didn’t elaborate on that – and she didn’t need to.
She coaxed one of her young daughters to come out and sing for us. We prayed together and boarded the bus again.
Fourth Visit: Pastor C
It was a longer drive to our next stop. The smell of mango filled the air briefly as we passed through a mango grove. Eventually, we arrived at Pastor C’s home. He was home alone. His wife was not well and at the doctor’s office.
Pastor C is quiet. An issue with his house emerged early in the discussion: he has no water. Water was an issue with several of the churches we visited. This one was urgent. Most homes in the countryside have a water cistern sitting on the roof. Gravity provides the water pressure to the whole house. Sometimes, they are refilled with a water truck. Sometimes the municipal water pressure is only available on certain days. The cistern gives them consistent availability to water. Pastor C has a rusty water barrel in the back of his house. He was concerned for some of the neighborhood children when they come to church and they tell him that they’re thirsty.
He also mentioned another need – the “stretch” goal, if you will. He wanted to have something to help with the laundry. He quickly qualified that it’s not that they want it as a luxury, but it is a time-consuming chore and they find it difficult to fit it in with the demands of pastoring the church.
We stood around in the back yard, eating guava and oranges, looking at the rusty rain barrel. Some of the kids on our team found some neighborhood children with a puppy and use it as an opportunity for introduction. Baseballs were found on the bus along with some ring pops. Instant friends were made.
We loaded into the bus once again. We were supposed to meet some people for supper and we were already late. We had eight pastors on the list to visit for that day and it became clear that we were not going to get to all of them. Already, the whole team hated the idea of missing a visit. These pastors were waiting all day, and now they wouldn’t get a visit at all.
Fifth Visit: Pastor E
The sun was setting. But Pastor E is on the way to our supper meeting, so we squeeze in one more visit. His church is in a town where Santeria is firmly established. Santeria is a strange mix of Catholicism and Voodoo-like worship. Practitioners of Santeria are generally not indifferent to the churches around them – they actively oppose them.
We entered Pastor E’s chapel. The mood was a little more sombre. They were a young couple with no children, although they admitted they were trying to have children. Through the course of the discussion, we discovered that at least two pastors before them gave up on the area and left.
We asked him about how we could help him. His modest request was a pair of shoes. He visits people all over town on foot – all these pastors were on foot. But inadequate footwear made the job more difficult. As soon as the interpreter got the words out, Dwight went out to the van looking for shoes. Paul pressed him a little more and asked if there was a project we could get behind to help them – another stretch goal. He was hesitant at first and looked to his presbyter. They have an exchange in Spanish. Based on the intonations, it sounded like it ended with: “Yes, tell them. This is your opportunity.” He admits that they could use a refrigerator for the house – a used one that they could get for about $150.
By this time, Dwight had returned with a pair of men’s shoes, some socks and other items. He wasn’t sure they would fit. While the rest of the group looked around the property, Pastor E slipped into the back to try on the shoes. He was self-conscious that he had no socks and probably didn’t realize that Dwight had brought some in for him. They fit perfectly.
It was our turn for a discussion. Our church finances these types of things, but we’d run into a problem with the bank in Cuba and Paul hadn’t been able to get any cash. If we missed this chance, it was going to be a long wait to get the money to this couple. Transportation is a challenge for pastors and presbyters, so visits are infrequent. No visit = no money. Team members stepped up with the personal money that they were carrying. We would square it up with the church later.
When we were gathered back in the chapel, Paul gave him the money for the refrigerator. He broke down. We prayed. When we’d finished, he told us that he’d been asking God for a refrigerator for a long time. It seemed like an impossible request.
In that moment, I realized we didn’t just buy a pastor a refrigerator. We were privileged to be present when God answered a struggling man’s prayer. By doing that, we told him God was with him in this hard place, that God heard him and that God loves him.
We loaded into the bus again. It was dark out. We stopped by another house to look at the cistern that was installed recently for them because we were looking at a similar one for Pastor C. For time’s sake, Vinnie, Paul, Dwight and Kathy went in; the rest of us stayed in the van.
We picked up Vinnie’s daughter and son. They came to supper with us. We were really late at this point, but the restaurant stayed open for us. We were the only ones there. They let us in and locked the gate behind us.
Vinnie’s daughter and son were a hit with our kids. She spoke a little English, so that encouraged a lot of broken dialogue and laughter. They exchanged emails. Vinnie’s daughter has some access to the Internet when she visits her uncle in Havana. We returned to their home and they sang for us in Vinnie’s church. Our kids returned the courtesy with their own song. We ate cookies. They’d only spent a few hours together, but already Vinnie’s daughter hugged all the kids on our team and said she was going to miss them. Vinnie’s son is a handsome 17-year-old and there are many nudges and winks from the adults with a busload of pretty girls around. He committed to taking his English lessons more seriously in preparation for our next visit.
We boarded the bus again for the trek back to the hotel. By the time we arrived, it was 2:30 in the morning and the ambitious start time of 9 AM was pushed back a little to give everyone some time to recuperate.