Perkins School of Theology in Cuba

Dr. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins School of Theology, is leading the Spring 2014 faculty immersion trip to Cuba March 7-16. Nine participants will examine the history of Cuba, its religious and cultural sources, and will visit Christian communities including the Seminario Evangélico de Teología de Matanzas.

Participation of Perkins faculty members in this immersion experience is made possible by The Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions at Perkins School of Theology. The Center is funded by a grant from The Luce Foundation. Dr. Tim McLemore, Associate Director of Public Affairs, Perkins School of Theology, is traveling with the faculty immersion group and writes from Matanzas, Cuba.

Reflections: Our purpose as travelers

Immersion Leader: Dr. Carlos Cardoza-Orland

Immersion Leader: Dr. Carlos Cardoza-Orland

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.

 Table Talk at Matanzas Seminary

Table Talk at Matanzas Seminary

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:

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Wanda with Natalia Marandiuc at Kairós Center, Matanzas

• 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;

Matanzas seminary president Reinerio Arce Valentín

Matanzas seminary president Reinerio Arce Valentín

• 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.

Memory in caricature from Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba

Memory in caricature from Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba

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Our journey home

I thought the adventure was supposed to be in Cuba.

Although reflections on my last night in Cuba kept me awake until after 1:30 a.m., my energy was not diminished when I awoke at 6:30 a.m. My friends across the street again agree to heat water for my morning maté, starting the day off on a pleasant note. I did most of my packing last night, and thus have ample time to write a little on the blog and enjoy an unusually large breakfast in view of our day’s schedule and the likelihood of having to forego lunch. We meet in the lobby of Saint John at 10:45 a.m., which gives us some margin before our scheduled 2:30 p.m. departure to Miami.

Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi (left) expresses appreciation to our translator Yulia and driver Augusto in the lobby of Saint John Hotel, as Lizzie Oquendo (right) looks on

Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi (left) expresses appreciation to our translator Yulia and driver Augusto in the lobby of Saint John Hotel, as Lizzie Oquendo (right) looks on

Saying goodbye to my birding friend Augusto and our helpful translator Yulia proves to be a tender moment for most of us. They have been with us almost from the moment we arrived until we entered the airport to depart. We are thankful that our immersion leader Carlos collected expressions of appreciation to present to our companions on behalf of the entire group. I don’t believe I will ever forget what gracious and thoughtful hosts – and friends – they have been for us.

The Cuban personnel at the airport are polite and efficient, and they wish us well when returning passports after their official review of our documents. The terminal is crowded, but not uncomfortable. I remember terminals like these from the early ’60s. The facility is all on one level at the edge of the tarmac. Passengers pass through glass doors and walk across the tarmac to ascend a rolling staircase/platform that is wheeled up to the aircraft – that is, when the aircraft arrives.

I recall how, when heading to Cuba, our flight was delayed at Miami for more than a half-hour. As we approach that time frame while waiting in the José Martí airport today, Natalia asks Carlos, “What time does our plane for Miami board?” To which Carlos unhesitatingly replies, “Whenever it gets here.” As it happens, it doesn’t “get here” until about 4:30 p.m. – a full two hours behind scheduled departure. It is parked far enough away on the tarmac to warrant buses for ferrying us from the terminal to the rolling stairs/platform. One among us comments that she finds it interesting to observe how the delays all have been related to American and not Cuban arrangements.

The delay means we have eaten away the extra margin of time allotted for today’s travel, resulting in our arrival at Miami on a tight schedule: it is 5:30 p.m. and our next flight is scheduled to depart for Charlotte at 7:15 p.m. From there we are to catch a connecting flight on to Dallas. But we have only begun the day’s adventures.

From our point of arrival at MIA, a seemingly interminable walk through a veritable labyrinth of tunnels finally brings us to the bright and efficient kiosks designed to help travelers get through customs in record time. However, to a person, our expedited arrival is rejected and all of us are selected individually for a personal interview with customs officials. It is not hard to figure out that arriving from Cuba is a red flag apart from any other mitigating issues. But the U.S. customs officers are pleasant and efficient, and we pass through with no searches or further delays. Waiting to pick up our baggage – first at one baggage claim area, then, inexplicably, moved to another – does not take as much time as waiting to pass through one more checkpoint to show our passports. By the time we reach a line of more than 30 people at the U.S. Airways counter, it is 6:45 p.m. Fortunately for us, this domestic flight has been delayed considerably, and we still have hope for checking bags and making the plane.

But the roller-coaster has a few twists and turns still in store. Severe weather has resulted in the cancellation of many flights from Charlotte to connecting cities. The good news is that the delayed departure allows us ample time to make our flight to Charlotte. The bad news is that we will be spending the night in Charlotte and catching a plane to D/FW the next morning. The worse news is that, because the cancellation is weather-related, we will not have lodging provided for us by the airline. Except for those who choose to find a hotel shuttle and pay their own way for a room, we’ll be spending the night in the Charlotte airport. What’s more, we have to check our luggage NOW, leaving us without toiletries and other items we may need in the morning.

Gourd for yerba maté, with bombilla, Bridwell Library thermos, water heater

Gourd for yerba maté, with bombilla, Bridwell Library thermos, water heater

Upon hearing this news, I kidnap my bag from the scale where it is being checked at that very moment. As the harried attendant gapes, I proceed to retrieve and lay out on the floor my yerba maté, Bridwell thermos, maté gourd and bombilla, and my bottle of honey. I haven’t eaten since 9:30 a.m. and it is now nearly 8 p.m. My patience is sufficient for all of this. Except… I WILL have my tea in the morning. It is a consolation, so to speak.

The suitcase is noticeably lighter when I return it to the scale. This means, of course, that my carry-on (more accurately, my “carry around”) load is considerably heavier.

Even with a two-hour delay of the flight from Miami to Charlotte, we are left with a tight schedule. I have texted my wife, Nancy, several times while standing in lines. But most of the lines through security checkpoints do not allow use of cell phones, and in any case the crowds on all sides make it impossible to hold a conversation. I have not spoken with her since the day we left Miami for Cuba.

We walk back from the U.S. Airways counter to TSA checkpoint number 3 (Concourse D). For reasons unclear to us, they insist that we must go to security checkpoint number 4 (Concourse E, from which our flight departs). It is a long walk, and I have my computer bag in one hand with the Bridwell thermos under my arm, and the hot water heater in my other hand – its electrical cord trailing beside me like the switching tail of a mutant white rat.

There is also the matter of my bottle of honey. It is a 12-oz. bottle, which exceeds the 3-oz. limit for any liquids that must pass through TSA security. As we approach checkpoint number 4, the others move ahead while I stop for a moment to inquire whether the lone vendor in the last available store might have a clear 3-ounce bottle I could purchase, in hopes of transferring sufficient honey for tomorrow’s tea. Alas, she does not. When I walk the last 100 steps to TSA checkpoint number 4 where my colleagues have just passed ahead of me, I am informed that this checkpoint is now closed, and told that I must walk back to TSA checkpoint number 3. In Concourse D. It’s a Very.Long.Walk.

A shoelace has worked loose, and it drags alongside the white rat’s tail. I arrive at TSA checkpoint number 3 to discover an agonizingly slow and Very.Long.Line. The clock is ticking. It will be a Very.Long.Walk. BACK to Concourse E once (if) I ever clear security in Checkpoint 3. With my oversize bottle of honey. I am not surprised to be called aside for questioning about my sweet golden contraband. “You’ll have to check this in your luggage,” I am sternly informed by the uniformed officer with gold badge gleaming in the depressing fluorescent light. I erupt in a babble of explanation – our connecting flight is cancelled, I’ll be sleeping in the Charlotte airport, and… While waiting in the very long line at TSA Security Checkpoint number 3 I have been reading the fine print. About baby bottles. And diabetics. “I need it because of low blood sugar,” I blurt out. Which is true. It is not a medical condition. But it is indubitably correct to say that my blood sugar will be lower tomorrow morning without honey to sweeten my essential morning tea.

The stern face transmogrifies into a gentle smile almost immediately. “Oh, sure,” he says in a kindly tone. “I’ll have to check it out in our machine, but no worries.” By now boarding time is approaching. And before me there remains a Very.Long.Walk. to Concourse E. I still haven’t spoken with my wife. Our last conversation was when I called her from Miami on the morning of our departure more than a week ago. I miss her terribly. She has texted me that she is fighting back tears as she reads my terse messages about our schedule. But with my overstuffed computer bag in one hand and various accoutrements from my luggage in the other, I don’t have a free hand with which to hold the phone even if I could somehow talk while navigating the Very.Long.Walk. to Concourse E. When I finally arrive at the designated gate, I find the flight is only a few minutes from boarding. A desperate run to the closest eatery gives me a small pre-made pizza for temporary sustenance. Then it’s boarding time. I finally call Nancy for a 60-second conversation from inside the plane as it prepares to taxi toward the runway. “I’ll call again when we land in Charlotte,” I promise. ETA 11:15 p.m.

We disembark in Charlotte about 11:30 p.m. All the restaurants and shops close at midnight. There is just enough time to grab a bite. I finally have the first conversation of any substance with my beloved Nancy in 10 days. By 1 a.m., I’ve located an electrical outlet in a nearby terminal where there is a quiet corner and, most importantly, a row of chairs without arms between each seat, thereby allowing room to lay down on something other than the airport floor.

About 2 a.m., after piling miscellaneous items somewhat precariously on the laptop bag at my feet (a sort of improvised security alarm should anything be moved while I’m dozing), I close my eyes and enter into a fitful series of cat naps. Neck aches drive me to wad up my blazer up for a pillow after an hour or so. I wake once-and-for-all at 5:30 a.m.

The electrical outlet doesn’t work. When I locate another, a folksy young fellow traveler with a pronounced Southern drawl approaches to share a socket so that he can charge his phone. When he discovers that his charger has broken, I let him borrow mine. Michael looks young to already have been a professional photographer whose credits include working for People magazine for several years. He is returning from the Nascar races in Orlando and hoping to get back home to Nashville today.

There is a comfortable bond that unites newly-minted veterans of an all-nighter in the airport. Soon Michael and I are joined by Colin, an older gentleman (about my age) who is a medical doctor for the student body at UVA. His phone charger is trapped in his luggage, and he borrows mine after Michael’s phone charges. Colin is hoping to get back to Charlottesville today. And he’s carrying what I soon will discover to be a 1923 Gibson mandolin. It is a beauty, and he pulls it out for a minute to play a lively jig in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

When Colin discovers I’ve just returned from Cuba, he asks what parts of Cuba we visited. I patiently explain that the town of Matanzas is in an adjoining province of the same name, about 100 kilometers from La Habana, he says to my surprise: “I know it well. That is where my father is from.” His father left Cuba in 1950 to study engineering at the University of Michigan. ¡Increíble!

A thermos of maté followed by a slice of hot pizza (yes, it’s 6 a.m.; but the store just opened and it’s nice and fresh! Besides, I’ve pretty much been up all night.) leaves me ready to face the middle seat on our plane back to Dallas. Everyone else in our group is at the gate when I join them. Departure is delayed only 30 minutes or so, and I’m finally back at my apartment in Dallas about 11:30 a.m.

But not really. My body is home and my heart has never been happier to see Nancy. Yet some ineffable piece of me remains in Cuba. And a great deal of Cuba remains in me.

Home again.

Home again.

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Beyond boundaries, a larger world view

Bahama Mockingbird with breakfast bug

Bahama Mockingbird with breakfast bug

Tomorrow we head back to the U.S., which means this is our last full day in Cuba (and I do mean full day!). Notwithstanding the many activities in our schedule, I have from time to time been enjoying short forays around the campus at Matanzas – and earlier, in Havana, too – to indulge my love of birding. Absent the help of a printed field guide for birds in Cuba, I am delighted to discover that many of the birds here are recognizable and quite similar to North American species with which I am familiar.

Each day in Matanzas I have enjoyed the song and antics of a Bahama Mockingbird – a “life bird” for me (that is, a bird I’ve never previously seen and therefore can add to my “life list” of cumulative bird species sightings).

This Mockingbird, an unmistakably close relation to the ones that are so common back home, reminds me of an embarrassing lesson I learned many years ago. In my earliest days as a birder, I carefully perused various Field Guides to the Birds of North America. I found it curious that the names of two common birds, Cardinals and Mockingbirds, both were preceded by the word “Northern.” When I saw that the range of these birds extended to the extreme southernmost parts of the United States, I scoffed at how ridiculous it seemed to call them “Northern Cardinals” and “Northern Mockingbirds.” Then I ran across a mention of the Bahama Mockingbird. Busted!

Perhaps I feel the sting more keenly because when I was younger I actually lived for extended periods in Mexico, Brazil, and in what was then known as the Panama Canal Zone. As a result of these experiences, I suppose I felt I had garnered a somewhat less parochial perspective about the world than many of my fellow Americans. Yet (this is difficult to admit) as a novice birder, no doubt influenced by the regional character of North American birding guides, my narrow perspective lacked meaningful reference to a world beyond the borders of my homeland.

Zunzún (Emerald Hummingbird), with distinctive white ocular patch and forked tail

Zunzún (Emerald Hummingbird), with distinctive white ocular patch and forked tail

This is perhaps a parable of sorts when it comes to the value of immersion experiences like this one. Much of what is gained here cannot be put into words. But as the term “immersion” suggests, our time here is much more than a simple visit. It is an opportunity to shift our perspective beyond the boundaries within which we usually center ourselves, an invitation to welcome a larger world into our world view.

Back to the birds for just a moment. There are two types of hummingbirds in Cuba – the Emerald Hummingbird (known locally as zunzún) and the Bee Hummingbird. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird alive and is found only in Cuba. Although I missed seeing that treasure, less than 15 minutes before our departure I was thrilled to capture fuzzy but readily identifiable images of a male Emerald Hummingbird – thanks in large part to the keen senses of our driver throughout this immersion, Augusto. Augusto also found and shared with me the location of a zunzún nest. Together we became fast friends tracking a variety of other birds, as well, which I am eager to share with fellow birders but unwilling to inflict on other innocent readers of this blog.

Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentín, President of the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary addresses the group, with Dr. Rebekah Miles and Dr. Tamara Lewis

Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentín, President of the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary addresses the group, with Dr. Rebekah Miles and Dr. Tamara Lewis

The journey from Matanzas Province brings us back to La Habana for a meeting of our group with the President of the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary, Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentín, followed by lunch at the Presbyterian Church. Reinerio is wise as well as learned, and leaves a deep impression.

Next is a visit with a distinguished Methodist pastor, Humberto Fuentes, who warmly welcomes us into his home. He is an enchanting storyteller, and his thoughtfulness is apparent as he shares his experiences and responds to our varied questions.

Pastor Humberto Fuentes welcomes the group into his home for dialogue and refreshments.

Pastor Humberto Fuentes welcomes the group into his home for dialogue and refreshments.

From the home of Pastor Fuentes we go to enjoy our final evening meal in Cuba at a restaurant where we meet with the new Decano (dean) of the Seminario Metodista in Cuba, Alfredo Rafael Gonzalez Carballosa, a 2006 alumnus of the Course of Study at Perkins School of Theology.

The long, rewarding day concludes with la ceremonia cañonazo, which has been celebrated at 9 p.m. each night for hundreds of years. It dates from the days when a single mighty blast from a massive cannon announced across the entire city the imminent closing of the gate to the city walls for the night. The elaborate ceremony features dozens of persons dressed in Spanish colonial uniforms marching with drums and torches in preparation for firing the massive armament. While it clearly is designed in some respects as a draw for tourists (who have the opportunity to avail themselves of souvenirs from dozens of street vendors), it also appears to attract many locals. Those who did not remember to cover their ears in time will testify to the intensity of the thunderous discharge precisely on the hour.

Back at the Hotel Saint John for one last night in Cuba, I cannot fall asleep. I do not want this trip to end. I will rise early with a few hours of sleep and a rush of excitement propelling me into our day of departure.

Alfredo Rafael Gonzalez Carballosa, Decano (dean) of the Seminario Metodista in Cuba and a 2006 alumnus of the Course of Study School at Perkins (center, holding T-shirt), with United Methodist-affiliated members of our group: (from left) Tamara Lewis, Tim McLemore, Rebekah Miles, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Jeannie Treviño-Teddlie, plus immersion leader Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi

Alfredo Rafael Gonzalez Carballosa, Decano (dean) of the Seminario Metodista in Cuba and a 2006 alumnus of the Course of Study School at Perkins (center, holding T-shirt), with United Methodist-affiliated members of our group: (from left) Tamara Lewis, Tim McLemore, Rebekah Miles, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Jeannie Treviño-Teddlie, plus immersion leader Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi

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Our warm welcome in Cuba

Early morning laborers harvest produce at Matanzas seminary

Early morning laborers harvest produce at Matanzas seminary

A sunrise walk back to the beautiful ocean overlook in front of the Matanzas seminary chapel reveals a number of laborers at work with the morning’s harvest. The seminary produces a substantial portion of the food we eat each day, with sufficient extra to provide much-needed fresh produce for sale to the local community at below-market prices. At the same time, it provides valuable employment for local workers.

Today’s journey will prove to be a high point on this immersion experience. It is a drive of several hours to visit Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Episcopal Church, a house church in the rural area of Cuatro Esquinas. While enjoying the scenery en route, I become mindful of a dear friend who is intrigued by antique tractors, of which there are an abundance here (mostly Czechoslovakian, assembled in China). In the process, I almost overlook a striking scene: two farmers plowing behind oxen. In addition to growing tobacco for the famed Cuban cigar, Cuba also produces a lot of sugar cane.

Religion in Cuba is a complex issue. Many church properties were expropriated by the Cuban government in the early years of the revolution, and a number of them still function as buildings for official government use. In the more recent past, however, Cuba has become far more tolerant of a diverse panoply of religions. Christian churches that share concern for the plight of struggling communities are increasingly invited to work with the government in addressing common concerns of social and humanitarian well-being. (The Martin Luther King Center in Havana is a preeminent example of a successful partnership, though these kinds of relationships also are fraught with tensions and challenges at times.)

Lizzie Oquendo holds a bottle for purified water in the living/dining room that serves as a worship space for the Episcopalian house church in rural Cuatro Esquinas, Cuba.

Lizzie Oquendo holds a bottle for purified water in the living/dining room that serves as a worship space for the Episcopalian house church in rural Cuatro Esquinas, Cuba.

Presently, new or growing churches are not allowed by the government to construct new facilities. This has resulted in a number of flourishing “house churches” like the Episcopal house church we visit today. A home that has been in the family of the pastor’s wife for decades now includes a worship space – created on demand by rearranging the tables and furnishing of the living/dining area.

The priest Carlos Tamayo, and his wife, Arianna, welcome us warmly and share with us simply and unreservedly. The level of sacrifice at work in their ministry here is immense. In addition to obvious matters like parishioners using kitchen and bathroom facilities in the personal home of the pastoral family, one result is that Carlos is effectively on call 24/7.

Cristo Rey Episcopal priest Carlos Tamayo, with medical doctor spouse Arianna

Cristo Rey Episcopal priest Carlos Tamayo, with medical doctor spouse Arianna

After petitioning the government, Cristo Rey Episcopal secured the use of 130 hectares of land, on which they cultivate a variety of crops. When harvested, these crops in turn are sold back to the government at a rate set by the government. The government then sells the food back to its citizens at a rate considerably below that which they pay for the food, subsidizing food production in order to make it more available and affordable. The church serves the hardscrabble poor in this rural area as well, in a variety of ways – including free access to purified water via faucets outside the back of the house/church.

Arianna is a medical doctor. Because of the departure of the other doctor in that community sometime back (more about this, below), she is solely responsible for the health of about 1,000 people in the community. She confesses, as she shares with us her story, that after riding on the bicycle three miles each way to visit a family in need, she sometimes finds it difficult to sustain her energy. “But when I grow too weary and complain to Carlos about this,” she adds – with a sweet smile in spite of tears pooling in her eyes, “he always tells me the same thing: You serve for the glory of God.”

Her pay, like all professionals in Cuba – engineers, attorneys, medical professionals – is 500 pesos per month. That is $20 USD. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the loss of aid that Cuba had received for decades, the economic situation is desperate for many Cubans. The government simply lacks hard cash with which to pay a more sustainable salary. It is for this reason that many professionals augment their income with additional work as taxi drivers or in other positions that make hard currency available.

The other doctor for the Cuatro Esquinas community, we are told, left after a hurricane devastated the area – including the home and automobile that the people of that community had rallied to provide him upon his initial arrival there. He made his way to the United States where he currently works installing windows.

Such heartbreaking stories abound. Carlos described a friend who was an extraordinarily gifted lawyer in a neighboring community – a good man who did remarkable work. When his situation finally became unsustainable, he set out in a boat for Florida. He was never heard from again, lost at sea. It is a huge loss not only for Carlos as a friend but also for the entire community.

One of the enduring impressions I bring back with me from Cuba is the unfailingly gracious welcome we have received – from friends and strangers alike. The U.S. economic sanctions currently in force (described by Cubans as a “blockade”) have devastating consequences for daily life. Yet we never once will experience any personal resentment – whether overt or indirect. When comfortable conversation affords me an opportunity to point this out, I repeatedly receive a similar reply – usually in a warm tone tinged with puzzlement: “You are not your government. It is not your fault!”

The long journey back to Matanzas from Cuatro Esquinas allows time for reflection and conversation. Many among us will describe this day’s visit as one of the most powerful experiences of this immersion.

The evening brings beauty almost beyond imagining. The Matanzas Chamber Choir presents a concert in the seminary chapel. It is entirely a cappella, performed without printed music, covering a variety of genres from an opening Kyrie Eleison (in Latin) to rhythmic Afro-Caribbean to contemporary. Shenandoah is an unexpected and unexpectedly powerful encore. It is the finest live a cappella performance I have ever heard, an uplifting finale for an unforgettable day.

The Matanzas Chamber Choir presents a Friday night concert in the seminary chapel

The Matanzas Chamber Choir presents a Friday night concert in the seminary chapel

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Through grief to joy

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.

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Walk and reflection

The day starts with a generous breakfast in the seminary’s large dining hall. Even with all the activity of the past days, a trend is apparent among many of us – the ample and tasty meals are definitely, shall we say, preventing any concerns about undue weight loss!

Wanda, director of the Kairós Center in Matanzas, in an animated conversation with Perkins Professor Rebekah Miles

Wanda, director of the Kairós Center in Matanzas, in an animated conversation with Perkins Professor Rebekah Miles

A brief worship service in the seminary’s beautiful chapel readies us for a trip to the Kairós Center. (The seminary’s architectural character reflects the fact that this special place is a gift from their Episcopalian partners.) The Kairós Center describes itself as a “Christian center that cultivates and promotes liturgy that integrates art and social work with an ecumenical focus, renewed and contextualized in the Cuban culture.”

The description of the mission is accurate, but it does not capture the concreteness, and more importantly, the joy evident in the huge impact made on the lives of the poor – especially children and the elderly or disabled – the Center is called to serve. The mission of the Kairós Center is “to offer liturgical training to Cuban churches and partnerships that encourage a discipleship of service and human solidarity, integrating art and social work in a renewed fashion that keeps with the spirit and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.” The best way to express the positive energy at work in this place may be to find it in the face of the Center’s director, Wanda.

Nature itself rebels against the excesses of humankind, finally reclaiming its own equilibrium.

Nature itself rebels against the excesses of humankind, finally reclaiming its own equilibrium.

The group takes a walk through the city before driving back to the seminary. Along our journey, a bookstore offers a new volume of contemporary poetry for the equivalent of about 50 cents (USD). An art gallery celebrates traditional and contemporary art, jewelry and sculpture. An old metal gear left long ago leaning against a tree, symbolizing victory over oppression, is now part of a small park. It is intriguing to see how, over the course of decades, the tree has grown, almost handlike, around the powerful symbol. As though nature itself rebels against the excesses of humankind, finally reclaiming its own equilibrium. Equally compelling, a bronze sculpture of liberation, set in front of a statue of José Martí in a city park, invigorates and and inspires several of us.

Bronze statue in front of a José Martí memorial in a Matanzas park

Bronze statue in front of a José Martí memorial in a Matanzas park

As we walk the sidewalks of the city, two local women preparing to enter their place of worship cheerfully respond to a colleague’s inquiry about their striking dress. The women practice Santería, an Afro-Latin religion that is common here in various forms.

Practitioners of Santería, an Afro-Latin religion

Practitioners of Santería, an Afro-Latin religion

The afternoon concludes with a visit to the Cathedral and a striking Afro-Caribbean Madonna and Child, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.

In the evening, an informative series of dialogues, first with the Seminario de Matanzas faculty members and then a separate meeting (sans faculty members) with students and the visiting groups from Perkins, Brite and Boston. I become aware (and ashamed) of my own latent prejudices upon realizing my surprise at finding such fine faculty, possessing Th.D.’s or Ph.D.’s from some of the great theological centers in the world.

A big challenge for the seminary is simply acquiring enough printed textbooks. Another impediment is limited Internet availability: two computers with basic dial-up modem access: one for use by all the faculty, and a second for the entire student body, each mostly restricted to sending e-mails. Both functionality and hours of availability are limited. In the face of such obstacles, I leave quite impressed with the breadth and depth of quality theological educators. This impression is confirmed by our positive experience with the students, who come at great sacrifice and whose openness to the diverse traditions represented among them is advanced far beyond most of the ecumenism I am familiar with.

The decision to attend the evening dialogues comes at the expense of what is, for me, an unexpected option to see members of the Yale Glee Club performing in Matanzas. Ironically,  several weeks ago I declined an invitation to see the famed Yale Whiffenpoofs sing in Dallas because the performance was scheduled for this same day, when I was scheduled for this Cuban immersion experience.

I enjoy the nice quarters provided for us by the seminary. Spare by some standards, but clean and comfortable. The wooden jalousie windows offer a pleasant view, and air-conditioning is available for those who desire it. I share a bathroom with one other person, assigned to an adjoining room. An in-line hot water heater provides slightly warmed water from the shower head. Not the steaming hot torrent I am accustomed to, but pleasant, and more than adequate. And considerably better than the intermittent, or some would say non-existent, hot water at the Saint John Hotel back in Havana.

One of our seminary hosts, Betty, serves us cookies and juice every evening before we trek up the outdoor tile steps of our three-story plastered cement-block dormitory building. Stepping outside for a late-night nip of fresh air, I am aware that Betty is still hard at work hand-washing clothes, an optional service chosen by some in our group that is both invaluable for seminary guests and an important source of extra income for Betty. Eventually I notice that Betty’s schedule begins hours before dawn, when she joins several others to prepare our breakfast. She also helps prepare our lunch. As far as I can tell, she cannot be getting more than four hours of sleep each evening. Betty is unfailingly warm (some might say, motherly) and cheerful.

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Meaningful dialogue on diversity

A blending of cultures with hopes of much-needed salary supplementation

A blending of cultures with hopes of much-needed salary supplementation

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.

Taxi: ’55 Chevy Bel Air

Taxi: ’55 Chevy Bel Air

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.

Two who are the same also make a couple…Diversity is Natural

Two who are the same also make a couple…Diversity is Natural

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.

In front of the chapel at Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary  (from left, back row) Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Lizzie Oquendo; (second row, from back) Tamara Lewis, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Natalia Marandiuc; (third row from back) Tim McLemore, Rebekah Miles;   (front row) Julia Fornés Keyvabu (local translator) and Jeanne Treviño-Teddlie

In front of the chapel at Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary (from left, back row) Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Lizzie Oquendo; (second row, from back) Tamara Lewis, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Natalia Marandiuc; (third row from back) Tim McLemore, Rebekah Miles; (front row) Julia Fornés Keyvabu (local translator) and Jeanne Treviño-Teddlie

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José Martí, Martin Luther King Jr., and religion in Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba, and Jose Marti memorial by Tim McLemore

The José Marti memorial and the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

Our group is off today to Plaza de la Revolución to see the memorial and museum honoring José Martí. He was considered by Fidel Castro to be the intellectual author of the revolution, and the story of his 42 brief years of life (mid- to late-1800s) is riveting. First imprisoned by the Spanish in Cuba for revolutionary ideas at age 16, he was deported to Spain after six months. There he earned a university degree, excelling in several fields.

His poetry – along with 89 quotations inscribed throughout the museum walls – is inspiring. The breadth of his accomplishments is breathtaking, and he is remarkable by any measure. Much of his best writing is from years spent in New York. He returned to Cuba to fight against the Spanish and died in a skirmish at age 42. I had no idea that he was the one who penned the words of the song we know as “Guantanamera” (“Yo soy un hombre sincero…”). And I am embarrassed by my ignorance about him beyond his unexpected appearance in pop music more than a half-century after his death.

From the museum, we proceed to the Martin Luther King Center, a remarkable grass-roots ecumenical endeavor related to Progressive Baptists. The presentation by the diminutive Raul Suarez – once referred to by Fidel Castro as pastor of all the Cuban people – leaves many of us moved to tears with admiration and compassion for a remarkable Christian witness. As he concludes his presentation, he confesses that he had been quite tired before joining us and adds that he usually does not meet with visitors at this time of day. But with a vibrant smile he declares that his energy has been restored by our warm reception.

Raul Suarez by Tim MeLemore

Raul Suarez, once referred to by Fidel Castro as “pastor of all the Cuban people.”

I am incredulous when I later learn that Raul is 87 years old. The humble pastor’s ministry touches the immediate neighborhood, national political debates, and international politics. He is one of the few non-Communist delegates ever to be elected to the Cuban National Assembly.

As we hear firsthand about the effects of U.S. policies as perceived and experienced by the Cuban people, several of us begin to realize the sacred character of the gift we are experiencing – the overwhelming hospitality of a people who might easily dismiss us as stereotypical enemies but choose instead to love and accept us as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We enjoy another lovely lunch followed by a trip to a different ecumenical center, where Caridad Diego, the highest official in charge of religious affairs for the Communist Party in Cuba, shares her perspectives. Later, when we discuss the varying stories we’ve already heard in only two days, Carlos reminds us that we are there precisely to listen carefully to many different viewpoints. It is helpful for us to learn about the complex character of the Cuban government’s relationship with religion and religious organizations, and how, in the past 20 years or so, the government has increasingly partnered with churches for a variety of social projects and has granted them more autonomy.

Supper at the Hotel Nacionál is a special treat, and the live music here – as at most of the restaurants we’ve enjoyed – is fun. But the real treat is the dialogue at the table after dinner.

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Kindness, connections, a new rhythm

9Mar-HabanaSunrise  095

Sunrise over La Habana.

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.

9Mar-Pentecostal-Pablo 114

77-year-old Pablo, at the Christian Pentecostal Church worship, who said that his conversion to Christianity was “palpable.”

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.

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Journey to La Habana

Part I

I am determined to go on the immersion experience with or without my luggage (which was “MIA” upon my arrival yesterday from Dallas via St. Louis to the airport known as MIA — Miami, although the airline indicates that it will arrive this morning before we depart for Havana).

If I have to travel light, I can make do. I have learned that there are state-run stores (often with limited stock) as well as the beginnings of some private enterprise in Cuba – both state-licensed ventures and informal individual businesses that are tolerated by the government. Beyond that, shopping in Cuba – how many stores will be available, what items they may or may not stock – remains a mystery to me.

While the rest of the group plans to leave the hotel in Miami about 11 a.m., I take an early shuttle and arrive a little after 9 a.m. To my relief, the issuers of the “Property Irregularity Receipt” confirm that my luggage was scanned and loaded in Dallas and is indeed set to arrive about 9:45 a.m.

Upon retrieving it, I find a corner in the airport lobby and begin liberating the items that TSA helpfully bagged and secured with profligate amounts of plastic and tape. I plug in my hot water heater (filled with bottled water that costs about 25 cents per ounce), and enjoy a nice long break for morning tea.

About four hours later, the group makes it through interminable lines where passports and visas are checked and double-checked, baggage is weighed and costs assessed, and security scrutinizes shoes, belts, the carry-on laptop bag, and so forth.

I am sitting at Terminal F10 in Miami International Airport, awaiting the departure of our flight – originally scheduled to depart at 5 p.m., but delayed a half-hour. This almost certainly will be my last convenient opportunity for Internet access. Notwithstanding the long lines and delayed luggage, the process has gone smoothly – evidence of ample preparation (and more than a little experience) on the part of the Perkins School of Theology Global Theological Education program and our immersion experience leader, Dr. Cardoza-Orlandi.

Our group at Miami International Airport

Faculty of Perkins School of Theology prepare to depart for the immersion trip to Cuba. From left: Rev. Jeannie Trevino-Teddlie; Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner; Dr. Natalia Marandiuc; Aida Oquendo Graulau; Dr. Rebekah Miles; Dr. Karen Baker-Fletcher; Dr. Tamara Lewis; and Dr. Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, trip leader.

Part II

The flight from Miami to Havana (more accurately, La Habana), Cuba, took less than an hour. Upon arrival, we were delayed slightly as Cuban airport officials scrutinized our visas. But the paperwork we carefully filled out was perfunctorily accepted without review and added to a large and messy stack of similar forms. Our gracious hosts awaited us outside the airport, on time and with warm greetings.

A boy – probably about eight years old – is lined up with a crowd pressing against cordons that allow room for new arrivals to exit the airport building. He shouts a question at me in Spanish, and has to repeat it three times before I can make out what he means. “What time did your flight depart the United States?” After telling him that ours was the 5 p.m. flight (which didn’t actually take off until 5:30 p.m.), another bystander takes pity on my visible puzzlement and explains to me that they have been waiting several hours for a flight that was scheduled to depart at 1:30 p.m. I feel better about our half-hour delay.

A stop by the hotel is followed by a lovely dinner in a local restaurant at 8 p.m., complete with live music and flamenco dancers. Later, a few of us wander about to enjoy more live jazz and local color. A trip to the beautiful gardens about two blocks away at the Hotel Nacionál affords a beautiful overlook of the ocean. Although it is now midnight, we estimate there are at least a thousand people gathered on the sidewalk by the sea wall. Closer investigation reveals hundreds upon hundreds of young people singing, talking, occasionally dancing.

As we process this novel experience later, several thoughts come to mind. First, where discretionary spending is limited, there likely is no better place to gather on a Saturday night in such a pleasant climate. Second, the absence of electronic devices – none of the youths appears to have cell phones or tablets – contributes to a much higher level of social interaction. The people crowded together on the sidewalk seem to take little or no notice of us as we walk around in astonishment. We see one or two (unarmed) police officers, but they are scarcely noticeable amid the teeming masses. There is no real disruptive behavior, just a massive emanation of youthful energy seething amongst the huge crowd of teens. The skin colors assembled together here cover the whole spectrum from light to dark. Couples here seem indifferent to the color of their partner’s complexion.

As the day comes to a close, I reflect long into the early morning hours about the many pedestrians we saw on the streets wherever we went. It is invigorating and completely non-threatening. I feel comfortable and, I confess, a little surprised not to have been bothered by anyone.

Cuba is an hour ahead of Dallas; turning the clocks ahead yet another hour tonight means 2 a.m. here feels somewhat equivalent to what my body would have interpreted as midnight in Dallas a couple of days ago. Either way, it’s past my bedtime.

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