The morning shower. It’s a ritual most of us take for granted in the United States. But in Cuba things are different. Some mornings we either had no water, or only a trickle would come out of the showerhead. The next morning we would have plenty of water, but it was freezing cold. However, when we had water and it was hot, the experience reflected the beauty of the land and its people.
The above description is a good metaphor for Cuba. There, the contrasts and ambiguities are extreme. Beautiful, immaculate tree-lined streets surrounded by well-kept homes abut dilapidated neighborhoods that have not seen a can of paint in decades. Vintage ‘40s and ‘50s American-made vehicles, kept running by the Cubans’ inventiveness and creativity, share streets full of potholes with new European models. People struggle to make ends meet with their meager 50 Cuban pesos per month salaries ($54), standing in long lines to purchase bread, rice or beans. Few can afford to eat a first rate meal sold in paladares - small, neighborhood restaurants mainly patronized by tourists paying with dollars. These are the signs of the “double economy” allowed by the Cuban government after the demise of the Soviet and Eastern European Communist Block, Cuba’s main allies and suppliers for many years.
I traveled to Cuba for the first time last May, invited by the Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada en Cuba (Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba) to visit the churches in the Matanzas Presbytery. The relationship between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Cuban Church has a 120-year history. Over the years, several U.S. Presbyterian presbyteries and individual congregations have established partnerships with Cuban churches. The purpose of my visit was to renew the partnership between the Presbytery of South Louisiana and the Matanzas Presbytery. Our goal was to continue a dialogue towards a better understanding between the two churches in the midst of an uncertain political landscape.
While my time in Cuba was brief, barely seven days, the experiences and emotions were very intense. I made a point to engage in conversations with taxi drivers, hotel and restaurant workers, and just plain people in the streets. However, most of my contacts were with lay and clergy members of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. And of course, as in all contexts, our partner churches in Cuba also reflect the tensions and contrasts of the society in which it lives and ministers.
In Cuba, the church is going through a period of growth, no doubt prompted by the need for people to find meaning in the midst of their complex society. After decades of absence when many churches were forced to close their doors, people are flocking back, thirsty to hear the Word of God and to share in the fellowship found in the community of faith. It helps also that the church in Cuba is becoming more responsible for providing social services once exclusively the purview of the socialist government.
Cuts in resources, both a product of the U.S.-imposed embargo and the absence of Soviet help, prompted this shift. The Protestant denominations, as well as the many evangelical groups, are experiencing this revival. Leaders of the more than 12,000-member Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba told me that approximately 70 percent of their members are new to the church. This has created new challenges for pastors and church leaders who strive to serve their communities in response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Particularly, I witnessed the many ministries provided to the low-income population in the small rural communities. Under the leaderships of the pastors, these thriving congregations organize home Bible studies, prayer meetings, youth activities, medical supplies, clothing, tutoring and meaningful worship services. Most Sundays, extra chairs need to be placed throughout the sanctuary.
In Cuba, Christ is alive! The relationship between the U.S. and Cuban Presbyterian churches is stronger than ever. Cuban Presbyterians particularly praise the Presbyterian Church (USA) for their support of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination in the midst of continuing threats by the current U.S. administration. The Cuban church has chosen a policy of engagement with the Cuban government, which has resulted in more religious freedom and privileges for Cuban Christians. They decry the excesses of the revolutionary regime while defending social gains, such as socialized medicine, universal education and the desire to develop a classless and just society, what they consider to be “characteristics of the Kingdom of God.”
After I returned home, several of my fellow church members asked what they could do to help. I told them to pray for Cuban Christians. Pray for Cuban pastors and leaders. Pray for the churches that minister holistically to the needs of their communities. Pray for the restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba. Above all, pray for reconciliation between sisters and brothers in Christ, separated by only 90 miles of water, but thousands of miles of ideologies.
Human Condition is a column for Advocate readers about poignant or funny stories, approximately 600 words in length. Send submissions to: Human Condition, Sunday Advocate Magazine, 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810. Manuscripts will not be returned but are kept on file for one year to allow early submission of seasonal stories (Christmas, Halloween tales, etc.). There is no payment for Human Condition.