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.)
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.
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.