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Cuba Connect

Since 2005, Plymouth members and members of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba have forged friendships spanning cultural, political and economic barriers.

Our next trip to Cuba, tenatively scheduled for Jan. 2–12, 2015, is full.

A license from the Department of the Treasury has allowed members of Plymouth to visit Cuba periodically for the purpose of continuing this friendship.

A group meets regularly to discuss developments and current events that pertain to U.S./Cuban relations. They've also sponsored Spanish classes to aid travelers in building friendships.

E-mail Nancy Albrecht, Jeff Sartain, or Cathie Crooks for more information.

Excerpt from a sermon by Cathie Crooks, after her 2012 trip to Cuba

This past February, thanks to our Cuba Connect initiative here at Plymouth, I had the privilege to travel to Cuba with 10 other members of our congregation to visit our sisters and brothers of Iglesia Bautista Enmanuel, Emmanuel Baptist Church, in Ciego de Avila. When I’ve been asked by family and friends if I’m glad that I made the trek to Cuba, I find myself answering, “Yes! It was a reboot of my life.” As many of you know, there is nothing quite like it: leaving behind the familiar stuff of our daily lives—that which defines us or, perhaps, tries to—and landing in a brand-new place. Being immersed in a culture so unlike our own seems always to reveal the things that really matter…and the things that really don’t.

I loved living out of a backpack and wearing the same clothes day after day. I loved the fun and the friendship of my fellow travelers. I loved the warmth of the Cuban sun and the expanse of the ocean that stretches out along the Malecón, a 5-mile esplanade that hugs the coastline in Havana. I loved Old Havana and its proud cuisine and its vibrant music and its bold flamenco dancing. I loved riding on the bus, covering much of the countryside, experiencing the distinct personality of each village and each town and each roadside rest stop. I loved visiting monuments and museums and historic sites and learning so much about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and the Revolution. I loved touring the studios of the visual artists whose works have been inspired and shaped by the Revolution. And the warmth and welcome of our Cuban sisters and brothers was, of course, the greatest gift of all; our beloved trip-leaders, Eduardo, who is the pastor of Bautista Enmanuel, and Tury, who is a journalist and a member of that congregation, were simply brilliant.

In addition to all that I loved about being in Cuba, I experienced, too, a freedom there; the freedom of living more simply, if only for a few days. I felt liberated by a “falling away” of the attitude of entitlement that we in the North carry: the attitude that all manner of material comforts should be ours. Yet, in the midst of the freedom that was mine, I was keenly aware that for many of the people in Cuba some small measure of material comfort might be received as salvation.

In city and in countryside, the majority of buildings are rickety and ramshackle. Whole families live in one- or two-room houses or apartments and are often lacking basic comforts—hot running water, toothbrushes or toilet seats. Over-the-counter medications such as those used to ease a child’s fever or relieve an old person’s backache are hard to come by. Though education is free for those who wish to pursue it, often even those who are well-educated and -employed don’t earn enough to provide for their families. For example, I was welcomed for a night into the home of a young couple who have two little girls. They live in very humble quarters, up a winding staircase on the fourth floor of a concrete apartment building. The fellow is a doctor, an internist, highly qualified and capable. Yet he is unable to provide food for his family after their monthly allotment runs out. Though food and housing and health care are provided for all in Cuba, resources are scarce, and the standard of living is lacking to be sure. Dogs and cats roam the streets of Cuba, and most are homeless. Many are emaciated and sick or injured. Horses are malnourished, backbones visible beneath their hides. They work tirelessly in the fields nonetheless and in city streets pulling carriages filled with pedestrians.

It is against this backdrop of Cuban reality—its pride and its poverty, its history and its hope—that the people of Bautista Enmanuel welcomed us into their hearts and homes. And it is against that same backdrop that we had the privilege of worshiping with them on the last morning of our stay. Into the sanctuary we made our way—a room that we might consider to be the size of a very large living room. On either side of a center aisle there were a dozen or so wooden pews. At the front of the sanctuary stood a simple wooden lectern—a piano to its right and a vase of flowers to its left. By the time worship began, the pews were filled, and chairs had been brought in, and people were standing and sitting in the hallway just beyond the doors and leaning in from outside through the windows at the back. A young woman led us in singing—loud, passionate, joyful singing! Tury led us in prayer, and members of the congregation joined their prayers with his; a boy played his violin and a girl read the scripture for the morning; Eduardo translated the meditation that I had been invited to preach. And we who were guests knew that we were standing on holy ground. Our relationships with Tury and Eduardo, grounded in mutual love and respect, and with their whole congregation were, indeed, born of God. Yet, little did we know that we were about to experience one more encounter with the holy, before worship’s end.

Among those gathered for worship that morning was Noel, the former and recently retired pastor of Bautista Enmanuel. Though he did not know it, he was to be honored at the conclusion of the service as his 70th birthday was just a day or two away. As worship drew to a close, Eduardo, for whom Noel has been a beloved pastor and teacher for many years, invited him to come forward. Visibly surprised, Noel, a man slight of stature, but strong of spirit—and one who is blind—quietly and humbly followed the sound of Eduardo’s voice and made his way to stand beside him. With his arm around Noel’s shoulders, Eduardo looked into his face and spoke tender words of love and appreciation to him, his mentor and his friend. Then, Noel’s wife of all the years, Omara, also small of stature but strong of spirit, joined them at the front of the sanctuary. She spoke through tears of fidelity and love—a testament to their married partnership. And then, in a voice clear and true, the young woman seated at the piano sang a beautiful song composed in honor of Noel by one of his colleagues in Central America—a song celebrating Noel’s prophetic voice, a song that Noel was hearing for the very first time. Finally, members of the congregation, together with Eduardo and Omara and one of our own Plymouth travelers, Bryce Hamilton, encircled Noel and laid their hands on him, each person, in turn, offering aloud their prayer for him and their blessing.

Had I known nothing more about Noel than that which I have just shared with all of you, witnessing such an outpouring of love would have been moving enough. But knowing even a little more of his life’s story and witnessing such a tribute to him—and his response to it—totally undid me. There he stood, just a couple of feet away. He held his arms carefully and closely to his body, his head bowed slightly toward the floor. As he listened to all that was being offered on his behalf, he wept silently throughout, and I could see the gentle rising and falling of his chest. In his countenance, I could see his humility…his unspeakable gratitude…and his unwavering faith….

For this is a man who had endured 13 months of captivity in a “work camp” in 1959 at the time of the Revolution, when religious leaders were considered suspect and, with gay men and lesbians and criminals, were forced to live under severe scrutiny and harsh conditions. This is a man who had learned during his captivity, when he was just in his 20s, that he, like his father and grandfather before him, would progressively lose his eyesight and eventually be blind, and by the time he was in his 50s, he was. This is a man who, with his beloved, Omara, had chosen not to father children because of the genetic blindness that he would surely pass on. This is a man who, until his retirement, had ministered in this congregation that now celebrated his life; who Sunday after Sunday hailed a New Creation, God’s realm of justice and peace for all, in his preaching and in his teaching; who had befriended the members of the Communist party in Ciego de Avila and mentored the disabled son of one of them—one who was now present in worship to pay tribute to Noel and to give thanks for his steadfast friendship and love. This is a man who, since his retirement, has been traveling the world—all alone—navigating airports and cafeterias and cities far and wide to educate and advocate for people with disabilities within the church and beyond. This is a man who, when asked by a well-meaning woman if she could touch his eyes, replied, “That won’t be necessary”; and when she persisted with, “But I want to pray for a miracle,” he, filled with gratitude for the fullness of his life and the calling that is his, simply replied, “The miracle has already happened.” This is a man in whom I could see with absolute clarity the purity of soul, a soul that knows in every corner of its being that life flows on and love prevails no matter what trials or tribulations or terrors befall us. And in that moment, I felt the presence of Jesus rising in our midst.

I think that the kind of faith, the kind of knowing that Noel embodies is the kind of faith that Jesus promises to Thomas when he appears again in the Upper Room that night. It’s a faith that’s not founded on certain “beliefs” about God or about Jesus but is, rather, a faith, a knowing, found deep within us, a divine thread woven into the fabric of our human beings. It’s a faith that knows that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Giver of Life is moving us—individually and collectively—toward wholeness; and the Source of Love is moving our broken creation toward something brand new. It’s a faith in which—when we attune ourselves to it—our fears are lessened, and our inner calm is deepened, and our courage is strengthened, and our joy finds its home. It’s a faith that will be revealed to us when we choose to look deeply within our own souls and truly listen. It’s the kind of faith by which we are blessed.

 

Planting trees symbolizing friendship

Planting trees to symbolize our growing friendship with the people of the churches in Ciego de Avila and Bolivia, Cuba.

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