I awaken to sunrise over elegant old hotels and ramshackle apartment high-rises in Havana, Cuba. The golden light paints sky and sea before pouring through the window of my room on the 12th floor of Saint John’s. It is beautiful, and the excitement of being here makes it easy to disregard any fatigue from the long day yesterday.
I am told that most hotels in Cuba now have 110 volt electrical systems. Saint John’s – an older but comfortable hotel – only has 220 volts. This means hitting the street first thing in the morning in search of an electrical outlet compatible with my little water heater. Happily, I am successful on my first attempt, a small outdoor snack shop directly across the street from the hotel. They have not yet opened for business, but the woman making preparations for the day takes my strange request in stride and soon water is steaming from the spout. My first Spanish vocabulary lesson of the day is “hervir” – to boil. She refuses my appreciative offer to compensate her a little. “No,” she says with a friendly smile, “es un favor.” In a country where the official government salary is about $20 US for an entire month’s work – including doctors and other professionals – I give silent thanks for this generous act of kindness on her part as I sip my yerba mate and work my way through morning routines in a distant place.
Our first activity of the day is worship at the Christian Pentecostal Church. Our hosts are friendly and exuberant. We are joined for this event – as well as several other activities in the days to come – by a group of students and faculty from Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.
I sit on an ancient plastic chair beside a kindly man who introduces himself as Pablo, and soon learn that he is 77 years old. “When did you come to know Jesus?” he asks me in Spanish that is sufficiently slow and clear for me to understand. For him, it was 17 years ago. He had never heard the gospel nor attended a church. One Sunday morning as he passed by this congregation’s store-front door, he found his curiosity aroused by the jubilant singing and dancing within. As he stood alone in wonderment at the threshold of the small worship area, he recalled, “It was as though hands suddenly pushed me forcibly from behind and into the church.” The palpable force of this inexplicable experience still moves him. “Two years later,” he continues, “I became a Christian.”
Church leaders welcome Dr. Carmelo Alvarez, Missionary Consultant for the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Disciples of Christ and Dr. Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi from Perkins. Both are well-known and obviously quite loved and respected by our hosts in Cuba. Carmelo introduces the delegation from Brite while Carlos introduces those of us from Perkins, as they share a word of greeting with all assembled.
The preacher for the day is the Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President (judicatory head) of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. She is traveling with the group from Brite. “Unity is God’s gift to us,” she says, preaching from Ephesians. “We just have to open the gift.” It is a gift we are experiencing firsthand, in the energetic worship we share with new friends and in the gracious welcome we receive.
At a lovely lunch on the covered patio of a local restaurant, a colleague recounts with mock impatience how she ordinarily would be on her iPhone busily checking e-mails while she waited for the food to be served. “Do you feel the breeze on your cheek right now?” I ask her. As she smiles and nods, I wonder aloud that this gentle breeze comes to us cooled by Bay waters. In Havana. In Cuba. It is a sacred moment of awareness experienced while breaking bread.
The afternoon takes us to a fascinating lecture on challenges faced by families in Cuba, presented by perhaps the foremost social scientist and researcher on this subject in Cuba. Through a translator, she explains that to speak of “family” for many Cubans is actually to speak of two families – one with relatives (including many children) living abroad and one remaining in Cuba. Demographics indicate that Cuba may soon have the population most advanced in age of any Latin American country.
Early evening takes us to experience Cuba’s National Ballet. State sponsorship of the arts is apparent both from the size of the ballet company (I’ve never seen so many male ballet dancers at one time!) and the extraordinary quality of their performance. The weary appearance of the fine facility indicates that such support does not spring from ample economic resources.
An abundant evening meal finds me sitting next to The Right Reverend Gary Paterson, Moderator (judicatory leader) of the United Church of Canada, whose delegation has joined us for dinner along with the group from Brite.
We finish the wonderful food and conversation ready to retire to our rooms a bit earlier this evening, in hopes of catching up on the sleep we missed last night. But I spend an hour or more gazing out the window and reflecting. Time set aside for blogging is cut short when the battery of my computer is exhausted.