Checked out of the Saint John hotel, packed and ready to go to Matanzas this evening. A few hours in “Old Havana” (Habana Vieja) provides an interesting and educational perspective on the Spanish colonial heritage of Cuba. An old monastery has been converted to a restaurant, complete with servers and all other personnel dressing as friars – men and women alike. It is charming in an incongruous and kitschy sort of way. Some, understandably I think, find the costumes and the commercial co-opting of what was for centuries a place of religious devotion to be mildly offensive.
I am mindful of how much a small amount of money can mean to local workers as I look over a variety of persons deployed for the sole purpose of exacting CUC’s (Cuban Convertible Pesos) from tourists. A CUC to the poor soul dressed in a ridiculous and undoubtedly hot and miserable clown suit, trying unsuccessfully to persuade a disinterested little dog to perform menial tasks that don’t quite warrant the appellation “tricks” … or even “training” in any meaningful sense. “Okay,” to the colorfully dressed woman who offers a picture in return for a CUC, even though the last thing I want is a picture of a stranger in a costume.
I reach my limit after giving a CUC to man with three dogs dressed in eyeglasses, hats, and little bowties, in return for another snapshot. My conscience kicks in a minute too late, and even then I’m still conflicted. I should not encourage the use of animals in this way. Although they show no signs of distress as they pose, it must be difficult for them, especially for extended periods of time. Yet the man trying to supplement a meager and inadequate salary in whatever way he legally can also is deserving of what is a trivial amount from me but a significant and helpful salary for him.
One of the perennial pleasures enjoyed by U.S. visitors to Cuba is the ubiquity of classic cars from the 1950s. Many, especially those used as taxis, sparkle conspicuously amid the mix of old Russian and not-so-old Czech vehicles.
Following lunch, the group travels for an important visit to Cenesex – Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (National Center for Sex Education). This progressive organization offers extensive teaching around sexual issues for persons of all ages, including sex education for youth and a creative nationwide social program designed to increase respect for LGBTQ couples – an ambitious goal, they explain, given the machismo so endemic to the region. To that end, their promotional materials (including posters such as the one here) are creative and, with respect to the sensibilities of some Americans, a bit edgy.
The seminary is quite beautiful, though it is surrounded by crushing poverty. It is an ecumenical venture which originally included Cuban Methodists (an autonomous church in the Methodist tradition, not part of global United Methodist Church) as well as Episcopalians and Presbyterians, but for a variety of reasons the Methodists have withdrawn from the ecumenical partnership. More than 20 denominations are represented among the students, and their witness for unity and quality theological education is quite inspiring.
The evening brings a reunion with Gary Paterson — Moderator of the United Church of Canada (UCC) — and his husband, Tim (the first openly gay person ordained in the UCC, in 1992), in a presentation and group discussion with faculty, staff, and other visitors, about the UCC’s history. The sharing of Gary’s and Tim’s story is quite moving. Their point is clear: the way to deal with the divisions of inclusivity relating to sexuality is to tell stories, to engage in meaningful dialogue and, in short, to put a human face on the matter. They have without a doubt practiced what they preach in this instance.
Late-night fellowship with students from Boston and from Brite adds a lively end to a long day.