UMVIM team members find Cuba compelling

August 17, 2007

Robin and Steve Brown, members of Christ Church UMC in Santa Rosa, California were part of a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team, led by Mike Turgeon, that went to Cuba recently. Robin, who is also the Administrative Council chair for CCUM, wrote the following reflections about their trip.

I have been pondering our trip to Cuba for almost a week now, and still a jumble of thoughts continues to roll around in my consciousness. Cuba was a trip about people and it defied emotions. Cuba’s beauty is in the man-made Colonial buildings. It is pulsating and noisy.

Cuba assaulted our senses as soon as we arrived in Havana. The streets were crowded with people wearing brightly colored tight clothing; music emanated from every street corner, horns blared, traffic screeched; the humidity was stifling. We definitely were not in Santa Rosa anymore.

I went to Cuba with few expectations so I was overwhelmed with all the historical and political implications of this trip. It is difficult as Americans to imagine anyplace on earth where American Visa is not accepted, where U.S. dollars are not coveted, or where there are not at least some small vestiges of American culture (no McDonalds, no Starbucks!!). The trade embargo has kept most things American out of Cuba. It has also kept out American businesses and dollars that the country sorely needs. It is a failing economy, a country where a worker earns only $30 a month regardless of the job one has (although middle- and upper-class families do manage to get money sent from relatives living in Miami).

On the positive side there is free and mandatory education for all and Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. There is also free medical care for all, and housing is provided by the government. But there is not much available to purchase in the shops, food is rationed, few medicines are available, and not all of the housing is adequate. In fact, we saw a lot of what we would call slums or tenement housing.

Havana is like a city that time has forgotten. The streets are filled with old American cars from before 1959, the year of the revolution. Some are in fabulous condition and others look as though they are held together by duct tape and a prayer. Many of the beautiful old houses are now multiplex units. Some are crumbling, most need paint, but glimpses of what they must have been like 50 years ago still remain. Large billboards adorn the highways and many street corners. The billboards are derogatory and demeaning to the U.S. government while at the same time extolling the virtues of Che and other Cuban heroes, and the Revolution.

Old Havana was amazing in its narrow maze of streets crowded with old churches, cathedrals, restaurants, small shops, and numerous museums. Since being named a UNESCO historical site, some restoration work has been done. It must have been a magnificent city before the Revolution.

We had come to Cuba as part of a VIM work group. I thought that we had come to help build a Methodist Church, and in fact we spent five days at the work site doing somewhat limited work. It wasn't until the end of our week that I finally got it: I realized that our main job was not to hammer a few nails, or sort piles of wood. Our main job was to build relationships among the Cuban people and especially among those Methodists at the church. It gives them strength and courage to continue each day in their meager conditions to know that we care about them, that we feel they are important and significant, and that they have not been abandoned or forgotten.

The people are by far Cuba's greatest resource. They were overwhelmingly friendly, generous, cheerful, and caring. We were amazed by the love that they showed to us over and over in spite of their poverty. They are eager to speak to Americans and we were repeatedly stopped by young people wanting to talk on our evening walks.

Our work days were very similar. We arrived at the church (our work site) each day around 9:00 and began our tasks for the day. Most of the men worked on the roof while the women removed nails from wood and sorted lumber. There was always a snack break at 10:30 that was juice or coffee and a small cake or crackers. Then we worked for another hour until our two-hour lunch break at noon. Lunch was prepared by the women of the church and was always delicious, plentiful, and very fresh. My favorite was all the fresh fruits, especially mangoes. After a long break, we worked another hour or two before we departed for our home at the Methodist Center around 3:00. Before leaving we always had an ice cream snack. Ice cream in Cuba is especially rich and creamy and very delicious.

I can't overstate how incredibly HOT and HUMID it was ALL the time. We were indeed grateful for the air conditioning in our bedroom.

We stayed at a Methodist Center where the accommodations were very simple and spartan but clean, included a delicious breakfast and dinner, and were in a super location. So each afternoon we were free to explore Havana, which was truly a highlight.

The city hugs the coastline of the Straits of Florida. The walk down by the sea, called the Malecon, was always full of people of all ages walking, talking, or just sitting. I figured it was so popular because it was free, and cool – two desirable commodities in this town!

Our evenings were spent using the internet at the Habana Libre Hotel (formerly the Havana Hilton, the place where Castro first set up headquarters following his overthrow of Batista), which was expensive and painfully slow; sipping lemonade at the old and venerable National Hotel (their photo gallery is a Who's Who of the rich and famous in the entertainment and sports world); and joining the rest of the Cubans wandering the streets enjoying the free street fairs and lively music.

On the weekends we explored other parts of Cuba and had a chance to spend some time on one of the beautiful beaches of Veradaro. We also spent a good part of our Sundays at church services that lasted longer than two hours!

The Methodist Church in Cuba is very dynamic and fundamental in its philosophy. There was much praise music, dancing, clapping, singing, and drumming during the service. The Church is also growing by 10% a year. The people were very open about their faith, and there was a great deal of participation of all ages in church activities. In fact, the church was open every day that we were there. There was a seniors’ group meeting one day, a children's choir another, and a prayer service another day. It always felt like a place where things were happening. Located on a side street of Guanabacoa, it encouraged people to stop in.

While we were there we attended a growth group one evening in the home of one of the members, where around 20 people had come to learn more about the Bible. Another evening we attended a Mission service, with a group that was preparing to become a new church.

One new experience for us was watching people receive a blessing during the worship service and then return to their seats dazed, as if in a trance, and speaking in tongues.

Saying good-bye after 10 days was a sad and poignant experience. The pastor made a magnificent meal consisting of three whole baked fish, avocados picked from his tree, rice, beans, and fresh fruit. The people at the church had gifts and more hugs for us. We promised to return when and if the country opens up to tourists again. Until then, we will carry these people and their struggle in our hearts and will remember them in our prayers.