I was lucky enough to spend last week seeing Cuba with old and new friends, and looking and listening for God in a place where the church is vibrant, just, inclusive, and growing in a way that inspires hope not only for what the church could be like, but for what I could be like.
We started in the stunning beach town of Veradero, where we connected with the local church and the young adults there. They showed us what the church does in their own community, and brought us around to the neighboring poorer communities where they are seeking to build up networks of small house churches and community development projects. We saw VBS run out of the yard of an elderly woman, and and old building once filled with bats transformed into a church and neighborhood center, and were inspired by the church’s relentless commitment to building up their own community.
We struggled to put a finger on it, but sitting on those stunning beaches after dinner, talking through those first few days, we all shared a similar sense: something special was happening here. Not only did the Cuban church not need us in the slightest, it had something, a spark, that it was a gift to even get to stand in the light of.
After 2 days in Veradero, we piled in a old VW bus with “END THE BLOCKADE AGAINST CUBA” spray-painted on the side, and drove hours out into the country side for the next leg of our adventure.
By 10am the next morning, it was so hot that the legs of the plastic chairs were starting to melt and get soft, which led them to randomly collapse under the weight of whoever was sitting on them.
The sudden and hilarious interruptions provided humbling punctuation to the serious, impassioned conversation that filled the cement-and-rebar outdoor classroom.
We were at a Presbyterian camp in a rural area outside of Santa Clara, most well-known as the hometown of Che Guevara. We were lucky to be there; not just in Cuba (although that’s not nothing) but in this place, far outside of any normal visitor’s path. Our trip leader had asked the group of Cuban Christians we were working with where they experienced God, and this place had been there answer. Our leader, Josh’s, follow-up question was simple,
“Will you show us?”
That question, and the hope that we might have “eyes to see and ears to hear” was all our team really brought to Cuba, and our curiosity was more than well rewarded. That “classroom” was filled with dozens of Cuban Christians listening attentively to a woman pounding a chalkboard with one message written large across the top: “La Gracia de Dios es para todos, todas,” or ‘The grace of God is for everyone.’
The fiery, all-in, radically inclusive Presbyterian church of Cuba filled that camp with animated discussions about justice, with laughter over shots of espresso, and with late night salsa dancing. We said little and learned much. The last night we were in the camp, Josh spoke to the group to thank them for having us, and he referenced Exodus 3, the story of Moses and the burning bush, and in particular, God’s instruction to Moses:
“Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on Holy Ground.”
Holy Ground, Tierra Sancta, surrounded us at that camp, and those sacred barefoot days, spurred us on to our 3rd and final leg.
We stopped along the way at an amazing overlook, a wonderful seminary, and the restaurant where Hemingway was inspired to write The Old Man and The Sea, but it was all leading to Havana.
It was captivating. The narrow streets wove through old European architecture and the city buzzed with street music and food carts and kids playing soccer on town squares. Political and striking graffiti covered bare walls and every street corner and doorway had markers chronicling the city’s long, colorful, tragic history.
We were shown around the city by the President of the Council of Churches in Cuba, Dopico, who was also the pastor at the church we started at in Veradero. Dopico described Cuba’s history as one of betrayal, exploitation, and a people trying to find someway to be their own. Whether by the Spanish, the British, the Americans, or the Soviets, Cuba, he said, was always a plaything of somewhere else.
Under Soviet pressure, the Cuban government became officially atheist in the 1970’s (the church in Cuba faced relatively little struggle between the revolution in the 50’s and then). Many churches and seminaries closed, and 70% of the pastors in the country left Cuba.
Dopico told us that, in those days, people said that Jesus himself had left Cuba.
But some stayed. People like Dopico, like the President of the seminary in Medanzas, Cuba, where they went years without graduates but never closed their doors, or like Rita Rodriguez, a woman who, for years, was the only member of the church in Veradero where we had started our adventure. Those who stayed had no reason to believe that the situation would get any better, and it didn’t. For decades.
In 1995, when the constitution was changed to allow for the free practice of religion, it was leaders like Dopico, institutions like the seminary at Medanzas, and faithful laypeople like Rita, that built the foundation for the reconstruction of the church. And the church is Cuba is alive because of it. They still face massive challenges, like a shortage of ministers, a whole generation (those who came of age between 1975 and 1995) missing from the pews, and inadequate compensation and social safety nets for pastors.
But their social values of inclusion and equality are working in their favor to help them create a vision of the church that is not just a light for Cuba, but for the declining church of the West, as well. It’s not an exaggeration to say everywhere we went with the Cuban church had people of every color, age, mental ability, and physical ability. For them, a church that reaches those in the margins, and those of diverse backgrounds, isn’t a desire, its a fundamental truth of what it means to be the church at all.
Our last night in Havana, Josh had us all offer one word up in prayer from our experience. My word was hope. Not hope for Cuba, hope from Cuba, for myself. My 9 days in Cuba didn’t just provide me a new passport stamp, or new friends, or a handful of fun new stories, it gave me hope. I brought “eyes to see and ears to hear” and what I saw and heard was remarkable: that the world didn’t have to be as it was. That community, grace, and justice can triumph over politics, fear, and all that divides us. That the Kingdom of God is still arriving on Earth, even, and especially, in those places that princes and principalities have forgotten.
As we prayed in church on Sunday, En la tierra como en el cielo – On Earth as is in Heaven.