Before the Obama family trip, a small group of 10 from three Baptist churches and 1 leader from the sponsor organization, Orphan’s Heart, made its first mission to Cuba March 10-16. Our visas had been denied twice, usually a few days before scheduled departure, so as the days dragged on with no word since our application last November, we grew more pessimistic.
A week before March 10 the startling “yes” word came, so we mobilized suitcases and duffel bags full of donations to take to Los Pinos Nuevos church in the poor part of Old Havana. I had only briefly met our Missions and Education pastor Paul and one other participant, Norma of the church choir. Our only orientation with the group leader was a conference call. We all met face to face in the Miami airport, having driven or flown from various quarters. The 5 women would all sleep in one room, the 6 men would share 2 rooms. I recalled my childhood days at Girl Scout camp with mixed anticipation.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were Baptist missionaries in Japan in the early 20th century, and I was named after one of their colleagues, but I never dreamed of being a missionary myself. My previous experiences of living in France and Japan had made me feel that expatriate sense of being an unwitting ambassador for my country, but being an ambassador of Christ is a matter of conviction, of will. I’m sure for me it was the appeal of working for God in a godless country that did it. I had to experience Cuba before this so-called loosening of restrictions goes into effect, because I have serious doubts about it.
We were to be housed in the church, an unassuming old row house among blocks of other deteriorating 3-story buildings facing each other across narrow alleys south of the Prado reconstruction area of picturesque Old Havana. We slept upstairs, had our meals and taught the children in the basement, played games with them and attended church in the first floor sanctuary, which we also cleaned from floor to ceiling the last day before we came home.
The children were a wonder and a delight. The after-school program is all neighborhood kids age 5-14, the first 20 selected by the government, the second 20 by the church. The kitchen staff worked from before dawn until after dark every day to feed us, other missionaries and the pastor’s family 3 huge meals a day. They also confected a generous high-protein dinner for all the children after their crafts, games and Bible lessons. For most of them it was probably their only meal of the day.
Linda had bought out Hobby Lobby and Michael’s, and Doug brought a huge suitcase full of Lowe’s wooden bird house kits for the crafts projects. Paul also made up coloring sheets of illustrations from our Bible stories, and we all brought crayons, markers and colored pencils. The kids ate it up, even the rowdy ones. But they most loved the excursion we made to the Havana Zoo, largely because we were joined by the Wheaton College Football Team spring break ministry. Big strong handsome boys had the girls riding on their shoulders and the boys scrapping with them constantly. We all served the children their food together.
I had responsibility for the last of three Bible stories we presented. The meticulous costuming and rehearsal the others had done thoroughly intimidated me, but I had our wonderful Maria-Elena, naturalized American citizen and “Peter Pan” airlift child, who was returning to Cuba for the first time in 55 years, to help me simplify and translate for me on the spot. The children actually listened and responded with understanding to the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before the Passover feast. And Maria-Elena repeated the message of serving those you love over and over again. As we served them their dinner I found enough Spanish to say “I serve you as you can do with your family” as I set each plate of food before a child.
After the last meal we gave each child a backpack full of little things like crayons and socks and t-shirts, and they got to put their birdhouses and some bits of candy in to take home. Almost all of them had written us thank-you notes we read after they left. I kept one from a quiet little boy I remembered well; he thanked us for the knowledge of God he had received from us.
Our last evening was a surprise outing by classic car taxi to the Spanish fort across the harbor where every night of the year, the firing of the 9:00 pm cannon is re-enacted by men in period uniforms with muskets on their shoulders. It was a thrilling, if touristy, end to our visit with a glorious starry night view over the town. On the way back, some of our kids were out in the street as we squeezed past in our convertibles. They cheered and waved at us. It was after 10:00 pm.
I had met a friendly Cuban woman in the office of the Alliance Francaise a few months back. Her father, a psychiatrist, still lived and practiced in Havana. I was looking forward to meeting him if we could make contact with regular people while we were there. Maria-Elena was able to meet and visit her cousins and even see her old family home, now occupied by eight poor people who could not maintain it all (and of course the landlord is the government, so nothing ever gets fixed). But the dear psychiatrist died suddenly of a heart attack a few days before we arrived. I hope the anticipation of our visit was not a contributing factor.
The lady’s godmother showed up unannounced at the church and waited all morning to meet with me. She was a warm and open person, a plant pathologist still working for over 40 years for a salary of $13 a month. The food rationing consists of a pound of beef, a pound of chicken and five eggs per person per month. And it is not free, nor is the rent. No one can save, build or repair anything. She said life was bad, but she did not say it was hopeless. After all, she rode several buses for many hours to come and see us. She asked for nothing, but I wanted to give her everything we have.
My image of Michael Moore’s enviable Cuban healthcare system will remain the elderly man with a bundle who fell on the sidewalk and gashed his head on a marble step. One of our guys was a nurse, so he tried to advise the crowd that gathered around him. But they sat him up anyway and took off his shirt to bandage his head. People did call for an ambulance, but what arrived was a tiny police car with two officers. Three men picked him up without a stretcher, crammed him into the back seat and slammed the door against his bloody head. They drove off fast with the siren screaming. “He’ll make it,” Rob said, “head wounds just bleed a lot.” Norma had us all hold hands and pray for the man before they dragged him off. Nobody noticed us but God.
The night we arrived home I saw Congressman Robert Menendez on C-Span talking about how much worse things are in Cuba since the Obama détente began in 2014. More mob killings, more churches shut down, more political prisoners taken. Then I understood what I had heard from another group of missionaries about their scheduled leadership conference being cancelled and five of the local leaders having defected. We did not see any violence, but the posters of Fidel Castro, ubiquitous images of the butcher Che Guevara, the slogans about never-ending revolution on the walls all made my blood chill. Cuba is a beautiful country full of ignorant tourists from Europe and Canada, fancy hotels all owned by the military dictatorship, and now eager Americans ready to “invest” in the oppression.
If there is another mission to Cuba I haven’t decided if I want to go back. Everything we pay for air tickets, visas, admission to national monuments, souvenirs—most of it goes to the government, nothing to the people. The children were wonderful and they are not starving thanks to Los Pinos Nuevos, but we did not get to serve the elderly as we had hoped. A huge increase in the number of planes arriving in Havana, masses of American tourists will not make their life better. I hear that the children in Guatemala are truly malnourished, so there is more material need there. But the children of Cuba are ready to love God and one another. If we can bring them that freedom, maybe the rest can follow.
I learned that I am an evangelical.