Death hook at Museo Ruta del Esclavo, Cuba

A rusting hook used to chain prisoners set before the firing squad.

There have been one or two occasions in our short stay to date that have moved me to the point of tears. One has been our visit to the Museo Ruta del Esclavo – an old fortress and prison, now a museum, that was at the heart of the slave trade for several centuries.

One overwhelming moment was a look at the wall where executions took place. The remains of an iron bar – to which doomed prisoners were chained in their final seconds of life – rusts above a huge rugged gouge (several feet deep in some areas) where bullets through the years have worn through the fortified coral-stone walls. The sheer magnitude of death, and sense of the horror of those who suffered it, makes my stomach and chest ache.

Not long after, we see an actual manacle on display indoors. The crude iron cuff with only a few links of chain still attached is clearly a heavy burden almost beyond my imagining. For reasons I cannot completely explain, I do not feel that I have the right to pick up the manacle myself. I invite Dr. Karen Baker-Fletcher to pick it up so that I may preserve this experience visually. She grasps it boldly, her fist – and her jaw – tightly clenched. Later, when I have recovered my composure somewhat, she describes it as a cathartic experience.

Karen Baker-Fletcher with manacle

Dr. Karen Baker-Fletcher grasps a manacle and chain.

On the other hand, meeting with the “Weavers of Hope” later that afternoon provided a sense of joy comparable to that I experienced previously at the Kairós Center. The ministry began as an opportunity to help spouses of students acquire helpful skills and generate much-needed additional income. The participants in the program – which actually consists of crocheting rather than weaving – critique the quality of each other’s work and offer assistance and encouragement with technical skills and artistic designs.

Note: In the early days, women were welcomed but segregated into “Christian Education” rather than pastoral ministry education tracks. That practice has long since been repudiated, however, and the current population of theological students at Matanzas is almost exactly 50 percent male and female.

An afternoon presentation at the seminary by Dr. Omar Milián, head medical consultant to the office on AIDS in Matanzas, gave us a sense of the many strengths – and also a few challenges – faced by Cuba’s medical system.

Cuban fiesta for Dr. Tamara Lewis

The entire seminary community celebrates a fiesta in honor of Dr. Tamara Lewis (front, with red purse), following completion of her Ph.D. last month.

The evening brings a surprise for one of our own: Una gran fiesta honoring Dr. Tamara Lewis’ completion of the Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. The entire company gathers for an exuberant celebration laden with local food.

I choose to forego an evening concert by el grupo musicál Agua Viva (Living Waters band) in favor of a 12-block walk to Hotel Velasco for much-needed Internet access and my first dispatch of these Cuba blogs. At $4.50 (USD) per hour it is a bargain, and the Wi-Fi speed is much better than I had hoped.

In the morning, I find that the stories of fellowship, dance lessons, and crazy fun leave me happy (and a little amused) for the good time my colleagues have experienced. But honestly, given my personal preference for avoiding any futile attempt at appearing to approximate movements which might even remotely be described as having a vague semblance to dancing, I made the right decision.

The walk back from Hotel Velasco underscores something that has left a deep impression on me during my time in Cuba. I am walking alone more than a half-mile on narrow dark streets, at 10:30 pm, in a town and a country previously unknown to me. There are fewer pedestrians at this time of night in this part of Matanzas than there have been at all hours in Cuba, but about every other block I share the diminutive sidewalks with a few men and women – walking both in couples and singly. I clutch my laptop under my arm – easily visible because I have chosen not to carry my computer bag and accessories due to the distance of the walk in relation to the brevity of my time online. It is a place where, apart from hotels and other commercial centers, English is not widely spoken; a place with different customs and cultural norms than the ones in which I have been steeped for much of my life. And I am completely unafraid.

Moon over Matanzas, Cuba

Moonlight in Matanzas, Cuba.

I have not once been threatened or harassed at any time or place this past few days. On one occasion, a man did come up to me (in broad daylight on a crowded sidewalk) asking in English with a conspiratorial whisper, “What do you want, my friend?” When I smiled and replied in Spanish that I was completely content and that there was not anything I wanted that I did not already have, he studied my face for just a moment before widening his mouth to a more authentic smile that quickly worked its way up his face from toothy grin to brightened eyes. He nodded and left me with a warm greeting as he moved on. On my walk back to the Matanzas Seminary, men and women alike greeted me quietly and courteously, with no more trepidation apparent on their part than I myself felt.

In many – no, in most places in Dallas, I would not dream of walking alone late at night, especially with a computer in tow. Now, as I stroll placidly block after block in the deep shadows, amid buildings with peeling paint and crumbling plaster due to decades of poverty and economic privation, I’m not sure what to make of this. It has captured my imagination…and my heart.

Agua Viva (Living Waters) band, Matanzas, Cuba

Agua Viva (Living Waters) band preparing for the baile.