Tomorrow marks one month since I’ve been back from Cuba and I’m still not sure what to write about. I started out a draft of this giving an in depth analysis of the struggle of summarizing this trip but, lucky for you, I realized that no one wants to read that.
Sorry in advance to those who think even my regular updates are too long.
WHO: I went with Ben and June Hiebert and Mark and Bonnie Swecker. This was Ben & June’s 48th trip over the past 20 years and Mark and Bonnie’s 4th.
WHAT: A trip to Cuba. More on this later.
WHERE: Mostly Santa Clara, right in the middle of the country (home of Che Guevara’s gravesite and one of the biggest universities) and a few days in Habana (evidently that’s what it’s called, one of the many things I didn’t know ahead of time).
WHEN: September 21st – October 5th.
WHY: To facilitate production and distribution of Christian literature and meet with individuals and small groups associated with one of the churches in Santa Clara. I mean that’s why they were going, I was invited to bring down the average age of the group and offer sporadic poor translation (but, as someone told me a few months back – the best ability is availability, and that I have).
HOW: Legally I went on a religious Visa with a letter from my home church saying I was going to do religious work (what that means is I gave them a letter I drafted from a template and Lee Gerke signed it). With this Visa you can fly directly from Miami on a charter flight. Financially even before I even decided to go my trip was paid for. Practically I had to get time off work and I asked, via text, and they granted.
Back to the what.
What housing was like: We flew into Santa Clara and stayed at little hotelish place. Initially I was going to stay in the home of someone from the congregation but staying in homes on a religious Visa seems to be a grey area. The hotel was a home with 5 converted individual rooms and bathrooms. The rooms had hot water and mini fridges and air conditioning, I was not rouging it
What we ate: We would eat breakfast at the hotel including lots fresh fruit, instant oatmeal we packed from home, and coffee. I usually don’t drink coffee and the first few days back, when I switched back to tea, were rough. Lunch and dinner we ate at either the church building or a home where they would serve us deliciously extravagant meals. I was warned ahead of time that I would be eating a lot of beans and rice and somehow was under the impression that there wouldn’t be much more than that. But no, every lunch and dinner we would have beans and rice (together and separate) and the most delicious mangoes in the world and like three types of meat and fried plantains, and green beans and usually flan too (but sometimes ice cream or arroz con leche or pudding). So no, I did not come back looking haggard and skinny like a real missionary. Dinners were especially lovely because each night a few families would get together and prepare us a meal and usually they would eat with us (unless the table was too small or they ran out of dishes, then they would watch us eat and then eat later). After dinner we would either go to a neighborhood Bible study with them or an extended time of fellowship around the table. They didn’t even make us feel high maintenance drinking bottled water and passing out hand sanitizer.
These dinners were a great time to eat, hear about their sincere love for the Lord, and laugh. During one of the most entertaining meals, along with all the usual fare, we had a bowl of shredded meat. We asked what it was and they said “a surprise.” This turned into a half hour of Mark and Ben (mostly) playing 20 questions with our hosts while trying to guess the animal. It lives in trees. No it’s not a monkey. It has a tail. It has hair. It has the diet of a rabbit. No, it’s not in the zoo. Etc. All done through my translating. Finally they told us what it was…Hutia. Unfortunately the name didn’t help so they let us know that it’s pretty much like a giant rat. Google it. Another memorable food experience was in Habana when we offered to take our hosts out to dinner, their choice. They picked a pizza place…in China town…Los Tres Chinitos y Mas. Actually pizza wasn’t on their main menu so we had to ask for a special menu. It was much how you would expect pizza in China town in Cuba to be.
What the church was like: The church we worked with in Santa Clara was really amazing. Technically it’s a house church, so not affiliated with any denomination but the “house” had converted the back yard into pretty much a building, with a stage and cement floors and a permanent roof, but with only half walls around it. 100’s of people meet there on Sundays and various groups for leadership or prayer or youth during the week. The church started 20 years ago out of a college aged ministry and still most of the leadership is young couples dedicating their lives to spreading the gospel and encouraging believers in their daily walks. But, because most Cubans don’t have convenient transportation, a lot of church activities aren’t at that building. During the week there are 150(!!!!) discipleship groups (Bible Studies) in homes all over Santa Clara with 15-30 attending each group. Most nights after dinner we got to go to one of these groups, not to lead or teach, but to see what God is already doing there. We would sing and share scriptures and prayer requests and praises and have some Bible teaching. They weren’t using methods, or curriculum, just sharing the Lord together. There were special groups too, some for youth or kids and one group that visits and serves the sick and needy. I asked what they meant by serve and they said you know, bringing food, washing dishes, babysitting, praying…meeting practical needs.
What our days were like: I’ve covered food and evenings but the days varied a lot. Usually after breakfast we would head over to the church and see what was going on there. Sometimes we would meet with people one-on-one. And by “we” I mean they would and, since the good Cuban translators weren’t always available in the daytime, I would translate. On topics like marital problems, or safe driving practices, or baptism, or how to repair a violin…you know…Spanish 1 stuff. In the afternoons we would usually head back to the hotel for rest time or to walk around and shop at some of the 100 stores that all sold the same few items. And by few items I mean, if they had what you wanted, they would have it everywhere and if they didn’t have what you wanted, no one would have it. Like tape. They used to sell it, now they don’t. So we learned if you need tape you ask around until someone you know has some for you to use and the people are lovely and generous so if they have it (or know someone who might) and you need it they will go out of their way to help. I think toilet paper falls into the same category (that’s why we packed our own).
What Habana was like: For 3 nights we went to Habana and there we were able to stay with a family that they’ve worked with in the past. Most organizational headquarters are in Habana so we met with a few denominations, printing presses and the Cuban Bible Commission. The Bible Commission is the secular governmental organization that receives all the shipments of Bibles and literature that Ben and June get shipped into the country. They then distribute the containers full of literature to denominations that are recognized by the government. Meeting with them we were able to receive Bibles and pamphlets and pass them out to believers we knew who did not have adequate resources. We were also able to purchase Bibles from one of the churches there and bring them back to Santa Clara with us These were study Bibles that were only $4 and exclaimed to be the most beautiful Bibles they had ever seen. Also in Habana we meet with two organizations who had printing presses and were able to leave them money to print tracts that they will be able to use to further the gospel work. And in Habana there were lots of classic American cars (proportionately, overall there are very few cars at all) and we saw the embassy and China town.
What other things stood out: My life is very dependent on internet, phones and technology in general but I can survive with out it, the Cubans do it all the time. I really don’t understand the role the government plays in the everyday lives of the people but there were quite a few conversations peppered with, “don’t tell anyone about this,” and one “Joy, don’t say that…you don’t know who’s listening” and I never had any clue what the big deal was. I also learned that while I’ve always used the word ahorita as “right now” in Cuba it means “in a little while.” So when someone kept asking me for clarification if I meant ahora or ahorita they weren’t asking me if I meant “now” or “right now.”
What else is going on: This weekend I’m going to San Diego and next weekend to New York. Yesterday at work I learned what materials we actually process. Today at work we had no internet (flashbacks to Cuba) so I spent some time on this email and then left early.