One of the essential elements contributing to the transformative character of this immersion was the leadership of Dr. Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins School of Theology. The scope of his knowledge about a constellation of issues related to Cuba, augmented by his own heritage and personal experiences as a native Puerto Riqueño, was invaluable. More importantly, his authentic personhood, so clearly visible in his transparent love and appreciation for the people of Cuba, invited us and opened us to the opportunity of entering into the experience in ways that words fail to fully express.
More or less midway through our immersion experience, Dr. Cardoza-Orlandi gathered us around several tables pushed together on an outdoor patio in the heart of the ecumenical seminary at Matanzas. There, as part of our shared journey up to that point, we considered some questions together.
What theological insight have you gained or experienced relating to Cuba and the people of Cuba so far?
The answer that came swiftly to my mind and heart was the call to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
In the United Methodist tradition, our baptismal vows include the following question: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Like most of us, perhaps, I do not find it difficult to resist injustice when I believe some small slight has been inflicted on me. In better moments, I also am capable of indignation about the injustices and oppression perpetrated against others as well – mindful that countless human beings (and other creatures, too, for that matter) suffer on a far greater scale than I will ever likely know from the vantage point of my own relative safety and affluence. In such cases, my reactions often include outrage or anger characterized by combative defiance and expressed in a somewhat abrasive or adversarial fashion.
In Cuba, I was moved time and again as I saw in others the power of love at work against “evil, injustice, and oppression” on a vast scale. By “the power of love” I mean resistance manifested not in anger or self-righteousness but in a positive concern for social justice and human well-being. Rather than rebelliousness springing from party politics, I witnessed constructive engagement – often at great personal sacrifice. Instead of doctrinaire posturing, I saw the poor and marginalized working for the greater good with gentle but powerful strength, rooted in a humility of spirit so palpable at times that it overwhelmed me with wonder and tears:
• The aged and vibrant Raul Suarez at the Martin Luther King Center, tirelessly working alongside the poor in his own neighborhood, even when that effort also required him to do the hard work of grappling with political powers on a national and international scale as an elected delegate to the National Assembly;
• Wanda, serving and equipping the weakest and most vulnerable among the poor in a desperate Matanzas neighborhood, with joy visibly radiant in her smiling face and in the faces of those touched by the work of the Kairós Center;
• Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentín, president of the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, declaring to our group that he was unapologetically socialist – not a Leninist or Stalinist, but a believer in the ideal of a government that exists and works for the greater good of all its citizens, even as he grieved the lack of a viable economic system to support that noble aim;
• The Episcopal priest Carlos Tamayo and his medical doctor spouse Arianna, sharing their home, hearts, and bodies, along with all the other resources available to them, to make a life-changing difference by providing food, clean drinking water, and spiritual sustenance for the struggling people scattered across their desperate rural community.
“Do not be overcome by evil,” the scripture says, “but overcome evil with good.”
Dr. Cardoza-Orlandi posed another question for us, a more difficult question, at least for me:
What have you learned about yourself?
The answer is not easy to articulate. The best I can say is that for a few days I recognized within myself a capacity that too often remains underdeveloped – the capacity to recognize and delight in the goodness inherent in a multitude of friends and strangers alike.
I am not speaking here about Pollyannaish notions of simple beauty and uncomplicated lives, oblivious to the reality of human suffering or corrupt powers. On the contrary, the profound beauty I’m describing was all the more powerful precisely in the context of crushing challenges and privations.
As I dutifully strove to preserve with my little camera at least some small measure of our experiences and encounters, I found myself repeatedly exclaiming, “You are beautiful!”, to old and young, men and women, the poor and the privileged, fellow-travelers from Perkins School of Theology and native Cubans in their splendid diversity.
It was the beauty of kindness at work:
• in the gracious acceptance and sacrificial hospitality we experienced from our hosts;
• in the generosity of strangers extending warm greetings, humoring our occasional cultural missteps, or just lending a hand without any trace of resentment nor expectation of recompense;
• in the making of new friends, like Augusto my bird-watching guide and companion; or Yulia, our interpreter of different languages with a common heart;
• in the vulnerability of deep and honest sharing during sometimes painful or difficult dialogues.
I knew from the outset the importance of one vital principle undergirding the commitment of Perkins School of Theology to immersion experiences like this one: that our purpose as travelers is not for us to teach or even to serve those we encounter, but rather to learn from and about persons in a cultural context different from our own.
I expected to learn about and enjoy Cuba, and in the process to make new friends and gain new insights. What I did not anticipate is the intensity of memories and bonds that abide, somehow transcending cultural contexts.