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Church Life in Cuba: a journal

    Feb 8, 2005
-story and photos by Dan Dyck


From January 28 to February 4, eighteen Mennonites from Manitoba and Ontario took a Learning Tour through eastern Cuba to find out more about the emerging Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba (EMCC), which has adopted the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as their own. Since 1994, Mennonite Church Canada has been assisting the church with leadership training. l-r, first row: Sarah Pinnell (First MC, Kitchener- Waterloo, Ont.), Anne Winter (Charleswood MC, Wpg.), Marlene Ens (Blumenort MC, Gretna, Man.), Hildi Neustaedter, Henry Neustaedter (Douglas MC, Wpg.), Irene Suderman (Bethel MC, Wpg.), Nyle Martin (Jubilee MC, Wpg.); Second row: Beth Ann Lichti (Listowel MC, Ont.), David Winter (Charleswood MC, Wpg.), Werner Ens (Blumenort MC, Gretna, Man.), George Reimer, Irmgard Reimer, Trudy Federau, Anne Harms, Jake Harms (Douglas MC, Wpg.), Alex Janzen, Jack Suderman (Bethel MC); Not pictured -Dan Dyck (Home Street MC, Wpg.)

Day One

 


When 19 Canadians squeeze into a living room for worship together with 30 or more Cubans, things can get a little tight. The close quarters however, did not hamper the enthusiasm of the worshippers.

   
Holguin — Eighteen Mennonites from Manitoba and Ontario tread up a narrow, spiral metal staircase to the small upper room of a home on a narrow street in this city of about 300,000 – the third largest in Cuba.

Our hosts usher us into the tiny living room of their home, where they have pushed their furnishings into an adjoining bedroom and set up small board benches for pews to temporarily hold the Way to Heaven congregation – a faith community of 58 baptized persons. About 30 people squeeze into the warm room, while the remainder pours out the doorway and onto an unfenced patio area.

After a time of singing, scripture reading, and prayer, three young girls present a liturgical dance. A time to get acquainted follows. Our hosts ask us to describe a worship service in Canada. A member of the Canadian delegation asks how hard it is to start a church in Cuba.

It’s easy, is the response. A small number of people gather to worship and pray; neighbours hear the prayers for the community. Community members begin to notice transformed lives; an alcoholic stops drinking, another individual becomes a more caring person. “Cuban people are very spiritual, seeking for meaning in this ambiguous spiritual calling,” says Pastor Alejandro. More back and forth questions and answers are followed by a generous hospitality snack.


Beth Ann Lichti, Sarah Pinnell, and Anne Winter are engaged in a passionate, Spanish language scripture reading.

When the Cuban church sings, you can’t sit still.

Day Two

Las Tunas — In a living temple constructed of palm tree branches, our group is again warmly welcomed – this time to a joint worship service of the Rose of Sharon and the Mount of Olives congregations. We are shown to the favoured front rows of seats – chairs that have been carried from neighbouring homes for us –a custom that will be repeated many times in the following days. Passionate, boisterous singing soon draws in the Canadians. A guitar, keyboard, trumpet, and rhythm instruments round out the accompaniment. The song selections seem to be chosen spontaneously, and everyone knows all the words.

Pastor Madelin leads the group in a Bible study of the scattered seed story from Mark chapter 4. In small groups, the congregants analyze the scripture passages and then act out their analysis in spontaneous dramatic interpretations – a methodology they credit to their Canadian teachers. There is no shyness or reservation apparent as they share their thoughts on the passage, and the Canadians marvel that no rehearsal or preparation went into the dramas.

Pastor Andres Olivares, president of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba, presides over communion to close the service. A time of conversation follows to get acquainted. How large is Mennonite Church Canada? (35,000 members in 232 congregations) How do you teach your young people? What does children’s church look like in Canada? Are there enough pastors and leaders? How are they trained? As questions draw to a close, a table is spread with fresh fruits and savoury confections like sugared papaya peel and cookies.

Later, Pastor Madelin shows us the future site, currently under construction, of the Mount of Olives congregation in the back yard of a member’s home. Until the church is registered (an application is in process) none of the congregations can build permanent structures of concrete of brick. They must meet in people’s homes, with permission from local authorities. In this particular backyard, a wooden pole structure is being erected. It will later be roofed by palm thatch. Its construction has received approval from local authorities.


Worshippers at the Rose of Sharon congregation in Las Tunas break up into small groups to analyze the day’s scripture selection

Pastor Andres Olivares, president of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba, presides over Communion at the Rose of Sharon congregation in Las Tunas

A generous spread of fruits and vegetables is presented to the group after the las Tunas service.

Pastor Madelin Ramos, vice president of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba, shows us the sanctuary currently under construction for the Mount of Olives congregation.

Day Three

A sleepy eyed troupe of Canadians board the bus at 8 am for what tour leader Jack Suderman says will be the most intense day of the week. By about 1 pm the group pulls into Baire to worship with and meet another congregation. Two leaders, a couple from a nearby congregation, are eager to present an original worship song they have composed. Though the Spanish lyrics are indecipherable to most of the Canadians, Suderman is inspired. “These are solidly holistic, scripturally based, meaningful lyrics that praise and teach,” says Suderman later on the bus.

The Baire congregation meets in the spacious living room of a member’s home, in a large family compound. With access to a plot of land within the compound, the church is digging a well to irrigate garden produce that water a few hogs to help them earn money for the congregation’s needs. There is an ongoing drought in this part of Cuba, making the well a necessity for survival. One of the congregation’s member is a baker, so they share a large cake and an herbal drink with us.

By mid afternoon the group is in Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, called the “cradle of the revolution” in Cuban circles. We stop to meet Pastor Alexander and his wife Aisha, who have recently moved into a large ‘fixer-upper’ in downtown Santiago. They are starting an urban ministry with young people. No worship service has been planned.

We spend time in conversation about what it is like to minister to young people in urban Cuba. Alexander notes the importance of modeling faithful lives to young people, who are keenly observant and quickly discern when teaching and action do not align. Aisha notes that a particular challenge for the church is that Cuban young people are taught an ideology of liberty and freedom “where life can and should be lived without commitment to any particular [religious] belief system.” This subsequently translates into an interest only in things that can benefit them – most often materially.

Personal resistance to a message of transformation and peer pressure to resist are also challenges, adds a young adult member present. With a wry smile he adds. “The men need to be particularly careful as in this culture women tend to dress very [provocatively], so you [have to be careful that you] don’t look around too much.”

A young women notes that in other countries where Christianity has deep roots “… people just assume it is there and let it be. In Cuba, because it doesn’t have deep roots here, before people actually physically resisted it but now they resist it by making fun of you and depreciating your value, and that is very hard. But a few of us have been able to make this change, and [we] would like to see others make this change as well.”

Alexander and Aisha have been particularly moved by the news of Vietnamese Mennonites who have been imprisoned for their faith. They have composed a letter to Cuban officials to inquire whether the government – who enjoys good diplomatic relations with Vietnam – can advocate on behalf of the persecuted Vietnamese. Our time here ends with a meal of freshly caught fish – one of the young adults is a spear fisher – and a prayer circle for the Vietnamese church.

In the evening the bus arrives late in the city of Guantanamo – not far from border of the famous US military base. We walk from our hotel to the tiny nearby home where a joint meeting of two congregations is about to begin a worship service. One of the groups has walked down from the nearby hills to join us; they have been awaiting our arrival for over an hour. Another pastoral couple, Nestor and Nuricel Triama, are anxious to present an original worship song they have composed. In the discussion that follows, one member asks if Canada permits religious programming in the popular media; he would like to begin a faith-based radio broadcast in Cuba.


A member of the Baire congregation greets Trudy Federau in the traditional Cuban way

Werner Ens and a young Baire boy show off what is believed to be a vintage Buick convertible

The congregation at Baire is digging a well to irrigate garden produce that will help them earn money for the congregational needs. Much of Cuba continues to endure a drought that is already one year old

Marlene Ens, Idelsy Olano, and Werner Ens spontaneously break out into the song “Come, Now is the time to Worship” during a time of conversation at a church in Santiago de Cuba. The occasion presents Idelsy with an opportunity to practice her English

A Cuban-Canadian prayer circle forms in support of imprisoned Vietnamese church leaders in Santiago de Cuba

|In every case, our Cuban hosts insist that Canadian occupy the preferential front seats for worship.

Day Four

 


A group of school boys ham it up for the camera in Baraccoa.

   
Much of today is spent on the bus traveling to Baraccoa – a coastal city home to an isolated congregation of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba. The road takes us through scenic hills and valleys lush with tropical vegetation. We stop at a mountain spring, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to refresh ourselves. Within minutes local peasants descend on the bus peddling everything from fruit to handicrafts to chocolate. No amount of shouting from Jorge, our driver, will extricate them from the bus entrance; he eventually – but respectfully and gently – squeezes them out by forcing the door closed manually, while his passengers begin snacking on the goods they have purchased.

We arrive in Baraccoa in time for a brief walking tour and a late lunch. School has just let out. A group of young boys seek our attention and hawk for a photo. Meanwhile Madelin and Andres have received word that plans to meet with the Baraccoa congregation – in the rural outskirts of Baraccoa – have fallen through for reasons we don’t fully grasp. Madelin tries to hide her disappointment. The Canadians are growing accustomed to last minute changes in plans and the more flexible Latin American pace of Cuba.

Pastor Olivares refreshes himself while we stop at a mountain stream. Within minutes (photo on right), a group of roadside merchants descends on the bus with all manner of items for sale, from fresh fruit to trinkets to sweets. The bus driver’s insistent cries to move away from the departing bus are unheeded. Eventually he gets out of his seat and gently but firmly squeezes the doors closed manually.

Day Five

We are on our way to Moa, a nickel mining community on the northeast coast of Cuba. Canadian companies hold a significant share in the ore producing facility here. Moa is also where Pastor Andres grew up and eventually pastored a 1,000 member Baptist church.

Jorge expertly guides the bus through the narrow city streets and hidden corners, skillfully dodging the ever present bicycles, pedi-cabs, motor cycles, pedestrians, horse drawn carts, and livestock. With Andres’ directions, Jorge deposits us at the site of the Cayo Mambi congregation – the oldest EMCC congregation in Cuba and begun in 1925 by Jamaican émigrés.

The wooden church structure has been rejuvenated in recent years, but not without difficulty. Local authorities would not permit the construction of a new facility, but rules allow the renovation of the existing one. Leaving only the stone steps in place at either end, members recycled the existing churches building materials and ‘re-renovated’ the structure, all within a week.

This is the only permanent church structure we have been in that did not also double as someone’s home. The words of greeting and worship from the congregation are brief and genuine. The Canadians are surprised that some of the members speak English – a priority, we learn later, of their now departed Jamaican parents. The song leaders comprise a rhythm band, and as in each previous congregation, an electronic keyboard has appeared and Madelin plays for some of the songs. A drummer beats out the time signature on what I can only guess is a simple, pre-second World War drum kit, the bass drum’s foot pedal mechanism rigged with all manner of wire, rubber, and springs – some of which appear to be recovered automobile parts.

Again, our hosts share with us their best – some cake, a beverage – and each Canadian receives a small carved wooden Bible key chain as a gift. We meet the pastor, as well as member Norma Holt Gallimones and her daughter Gucelia Robles Holt. Gucelia is nineteen, finishing her grade twelve, and hoping to pass the university entrance exams for either languages or medicine. Her brother, who crafted our gifts, wants to study medicine.

On the way back to home base we bid farewell to our Cuban hosts, Andres, Madelin, and Idelsy, before dropping them off in Holguin city. Canadian participants spend the remainder of the trip in reflection and debriefing. Tour leader Jack Suderman collects comments and observations from the group. One says that her faith has been rekindled through the experience. Another notes that this church seems more mature when compared to personal church encounters in Africa and Bolivia. The exuberance of the worship is a common thread that runs through the group’s commentary. One says the Cuban church reminds him of the struggles and faithful striving of the early church in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Another observes how they have taken Mennonite material and “… made it their own, how they are still finding their own way and not trying to be us.” When asked, each participant says without hesitation that they would participate in another Mennonite Church Canada learning Tour.


An all-rhythm worship groups leads singing in the 80 year old Cayo Mambi congregation. It is the only congregation we visit that has a dedicated church structure.

An earnest percussionist beats out the time on an ancient drum kit that has been nursed along for decades.

Lucelia Rables Holt and her mother Norma Holt Gallimones active members of the church in Cayo Mambi, are descendants of Jamaican immigrants to Cuba in the early 1900s. Norma was taught English by her parents, and has encouraged daughter Lucelia in her English studies in High School. Lucelia hopes to enter university next year to study either medicine or languages.

Anne Winter discusses family with a member of Cayo Mambi church, overcoming the language barrier through gestures. The women’s son is studying dentistry.

Day Six

 


A youngster waves to passing tourists from a rural roadside home.

   
There remains much to process about the experience for the Canadian participants. The group experienced Cuba in a way that no other tourist would.

Some struggle to rationalize the homogeneous, low standard of living (when compared to Canadian standards) with the 98% literacy rate, high functioning public health care system, and opportunity for free university education.

The ideological and positive messages of the political revolution that appear on billboards and walls everywhere seem at odds with the capitalistic, but much needed, tourism industry – Cuba’s number one economic stimulator. Cubans enjoy peace without any evidence of the armed militia so evident in other Latin American countries. How a country can, to Canadian eyes, be so simultaneously confusing and logical, progressive and backward, is a mystery.

George Reimer (and others) noted how illuminating the experience was in terms of becoming educated about the political, social, and economic realities of life in Cuba. Trudy Federau shared that her faith in God and the church as God’s instrument, have been restored. Beth Ann Lichti spoke of her prior cynicism about the need for international mission, and how her own thinking has been transformed.

Anne Harms noted how the experience has helped her make the leap from the mission work of the former Commission on Overseas Mission to Mennonite Church Canada Witness. Other surprises for Canadian Learning Tour participants included a new awareness that the ministry in Cuba is just one small slice of what Mennonite Church Canada Witness is doing on behalf of Canadian area conferences and congregations in 39 countries around the world.

Last year, the ministry in Cuba cost $6,000 – just 0.26 percent of the overall $2,345,127 Witness expense budget – a significant multiplier effect given the impact of the ministry in Cuba, said Witness executive secretary Jack Suderman. “The dollar to peso exchange rate in Cuba means that we can do a lot with a little. The high impact is very evident in not only the growth of the Evangelical Missionary church here, but also in the call for leadership training, an indicator that these folks are committed to leading and growing the church from within their own ranks.”

In the end not one participant could think of any good reason why Witness should not respond to the Cuban requests for further leadership training. And when asked, each one said they would do it all again.

And in the midst of it all is a little church that is starting its own revolution of Christian restoration, looking at the Biblical message with the context of a 55 year old political revolution, using new-to-them teaching methods, and reaching out to newcomers. May God bless Cuba, its people, and its church.