Today I Saw God
We had just finished a delicious dinner of rice, beans, pork and fruit, when Inervis, the leader of the camp crew, asked us to join her and the fellow staff members in the yard. It was our last night in Camp Canan, which is where our group spent the majority of our time during this 10-day mission trip to Cuba. Much of our journey included getting to know the people and culture of the country while sharing resources collected in America with a variety of small village churches. However, this camp served as our home base, and we generated a special bond with the staff.
Our group stood in a circle per Inervis' instructions, and I anticipated another fun evening of singing and fervent Cuban prayer. However, instead, I see our friends grinning at us with the anticipation of a surprise. After an unnecessarily kind speech thanking us for our time, they excitedly presented us with individual gift bags. Each of the twelve Americans in our mission group was given a Cuban souvenir. As I looked at my tiny pink and brown leather purse, I experienced an unexpected reaction. Rather than mere excitement or sadness as we neared the end of our trip, I felt almost frozen with shock and shame at the lavish generosity of our friends.
You see, I had learned quite a bit from my Cuban neighbors during this time. I discovered that the average monthly salary in Cuba is a mere $25. Monthly! ( This includes doctors and professionals. I saw the humble two-room houses that most people shared with too many people, dilapidated buildings and infrastructure that was truly lacking. I strolled along a street with chickens, pigs and dogs that freely roamed the villages. I learned that electricity, hot water, air conditioning and window screens to protect people from mosquitoes were luxuries reserved for the wealthy. I saw the ration books used to provide each family their monthly allotment of rice and beans and discovered that only tourists were allowed to eat their precious beef. I learned that when a headlight in our van broke or we needed more tools or gasoline, it required a multi-day search around the island only to learn that these items simply did not exist in this country.
Resources are scant in Cuba, yet everywhere we went, the people greeted us with open arms, extravagant hospitality and a generosity I have never experienced or seen anywhere else. How could they possibly afford to give me this gift? I felt burdened with the thought of the sacrifices they had made, yet they seemed sohappy.
Once I returned home, I placed my new souvenir on display and began thinking about generosity differently. Often we get it in our head that we'll be more generous when we have more money. However, statistics show that the opposite is true. In 2011, those in the lower 20% give 3.2% of their income; yet people in the top 20% gave an average of 1.3%. If we wait to be generous with our money, we will simply accumulate more "stuff" which would require more money to maintain. Our Cuban friends had so little, yet they gave without hesitation. This inspired me to also give generously.
I thought about happiness differently. Happiness poured out of the Methodist Cubans that we encountered. Each and every person I met spoke of terrible hardships, yet maintained a spirit of joy that is often lacking amongst my American peers whose problems cannot compare. Once again, this goes against our culture, which teaches us that we just need to buy the right "thing" in order to be happy. However, I think the key to happiness is, in fact, living a generous lifestyle like our Cuban friends.
Many studies suggest that generosity has benefits to both physical and emotional health. An article in the Chicago Tribune says, "The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk ofdementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness." (Chicago Tribune, 2017) In The Paradox of Generosity, researchers found that those who described themselves as "very happy" donated 5.8 hours of time a month, yet those who were "unhappy" only donated 0.8 hours. There was also a lower rate of depression reported in the group that donated 10% of their income.
While reading this statistic, the number 10% stood out to me, as this is the biblical rule of tithing. I get the impression that some view tithing as a way religion can suck the joy and money out of us, but perhaps God's intent was to give us true joy. Once again, God has outsmarted us and is trying to show us a roadmap to a healthier and happier life.
Honestly, I don't know why the Cubans' gifts surprised me, as this was our experience in every village. Generosity simply flowed from these beautiful people, and I felt incredibly honored and humbled by the purity of their souls. However, their gift had a significant influence on me. My hope for each of us is that as we enter into this season of gratitude, we can also look at ways to be generous with what we've been given. Yes, we have worked for some of our money and possessions, but truthfully it was pure luck that allowed us to be born into a system in which we can prosper. Perhaps if we give often and intentionally, we might actually have the happy life we all yearn for.
There were six rows of benches on either side of the aisle. Each bench sat four people, which meant our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team took up 25 percent of the space. It was Wednesday evening, and we were at a United Methodist church in Manajanabo in the center of Cuba. It was their midweek service, and it was packed.
There was music, drama, reading from the Bible and songs sung by so many different people. Five small children came up, one playing a ukulele, and sang a song with such joy. A young girl sang and though I didn't understand many of the words, I knew in my heart that she was praising and worshiping God. Even one of our mission team members sang a song. It was a wonderful, joy-filled praise and worship experience. The pastor talked about serving and the importance of serving. She talked about the sacrifice we made to come to Cuba, "leaving their homes and their families to come here."
At the end of the service the pastor invited a family up to the front of the church. It was a mother and her eight children. Apparently their dad had left them. Our UMVIM team leader, Aldo, was invited to pray over them. He did and then he sang too.
I was so struck by the love and nurture I saw in this church. They had such deep love of God and an equally deep love for one another. This small band of Christians was committed to taking care of this family, and in that "one anothering," the love of Christ was palpable.
I saw this deep love of God and of others over and over again all over Cuba. Love for one another. Christian community. The joy of fellowship. Genuine love of God. What I saw in Cuba reminded me of what I read about in Acts 2:42-47. The early church was a close-knit community that took care of one another. The Bible tells us they were "devoted to teaching and to fellowship…They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had needThey broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God."
The church in Cuba is growing, just like the church in the first century grew. Acts tells us that "The Lord added to their number daily." Something is happening in Cuba. Something that the early church knew and something we could learn from. There is power when people come together to love God and love others.
Hola From Cuba,
We are here. Finally.Not that it takes so much time to get here like Africa or other remote locations.Just finally as in the moment we have all been waiting for has arrived.Months of preparation, anticipation, apprehension, all come together.As has been my experience, mission trips produce instant familial familiarity. That is, close quarters, a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, some sarcastic humor, some ribbing and teasing as we reveal our individual idiosyncrasies, and before you know it strangers are family. We have spent quite some time on the bus traveling to the eastern end of the island to visit our friends in Cabezo, where Floris has helped build the new church. What a joy to worship Cuban style. We met as old friends, picking up where we left off last. It is always such a joy to see first time travelers experience Cuban worship. A bit loud, exuberant, joy filled, uninhibited the spirit moves and takes over. We have several young adults on our trip and to see the wonder and engagement makes us all feel so full. The service was on a Saturday night and we are in the country yet the church was packed.Young and old. We are blessed.
The very next day we drove back westward to our final destination of Ciego de Avila. This is the first Methodist church in the city that will be built here. The pastor and his congregation meet in an old barn like structure. What a blessing this place will be to the community. I am reminded of some of our Imagine initiatives the young adults, programs for children, and of course a new campus in a new place that is lacking a Methodist presence. Monday afternoon a special kids program was held. 40+ children of all ages came. The excitement the team members had for sharing ourselves with the kids and the bonding that took place was so moving. The positive effects of people to people, culture to culture, dignity, respect and just plain old interaction but with Christ at the center effects everybody and everything. It isn't what we do, it isn't who we are, it isn't what we brought, it isn't what they get but who and what we are through Christ together.
This week we will work to pour concrete forms and lay the second story concrete roof. We can always be tied physically to this spot through that work. But this afternoon we get the honor of giving a sewing machine to the ladies of the church to start a sewing ministry and this evening with the young folks we are going to celebrate Christ in the park with music and fellowship between us all. We will by the end of the week have new friends and all our lives will have come together for this week in Cuba. Changed? Absolutely. Life altering change? Perhaps. The mission teams here have produced over 5 new pastors and more lay ministry than ever thought possible. Cuba, like home, is fertile ground with abundant fruit. How transformative it can be to be harvesters along-side our brothers and sisters.
Dios Se Bendigan,
I'm frequently asked about my trips to Cuba. What we do there is the most popular, followed by a curiosity of the island, and finally the mystique of a communist country. The politics are just that and change in that country is inevitable. But why I go there isn't an easy answer because there is something intangible and mysterious about the experience.
The Cuban Methodist Church is like many outside the US or Western culture, LIVELY. Yes, the worship experience is unlike ours, maybe closely resembling gospel here in the states. They focus on the Holy Spirit much more than we do. The power, existence and palpable feel of the Spirit are real there. I do not expect us to be able to worship like the Cuban's do. That is their style and culture. We have our own. Yes, I wish we would have more action from the congregation. It is hard to clap and be engaged when the "frozen chosen" is all around you but I'm over that.
What I wish and hope for and why I go is the authenticity a much over used word these days, but dead-on descriptive of Cuba. People there believe in miracles. They actually and really do believe in miracles. There is testimony after testimony of healings, of first hand personal encounters with Christ. Worshipers are actually "seized" with the Holy Spirit. Now my first response to this is scientific, western and filled with cynicism. It's simply foreign and that feeling is bolstered by actually being in a foreign land. But if I just get past that, the noise if you will, there is something there.
What is there is faith. Deep belief and trust. These people worship and believe "like a child". They have no western logic and ego to hold them back. They FEEL their faith. They FEEL the Holy Spirit and their response is to rejoice and be glad in it. Don't get me wrong they are educated. That is one thing about their system, right or wrong. My tendency to equate their existence to some Appalachian back woods community and therefore easily dismiss their testimony and actions as "ignorant" or "under-developed" can't be used here. The conflict that is before me is real. How do I reconcile all this? How can I process my experience here in the manner in which I've been cultured? I can't.
Paul says that transformation can happen through the renewing of the mind. Scripture tells me over and over that great things have happened and somehow somewhere I've allowed my innocence of faith to be tainted and pulled until the point that if I can't justify it or explain it, it isn't real. What I realize is that if I let go of that feeling, the need to be right, the need for everything to be explained, in essence control, my mind IS renewed. I can't explain, nor do I understand, quantum physics, the beginning of the universe, etc., but that doesn't make them untrue, fake or false. They remain for me unexplainable. I have to surrender my dismissiveness and when I do I can internalize and feel that all things are possible through God. I can and do connect with Cuban believers in a celebration of life. Yes, celebration of life. Here where things don't exist and people from our standards have nothing, people give freely even though they will have nothing after they give. It is routine here not just a random act. It's unexplainable.
I don't pray for, or want to bring to, our church a different worship style. I don't wish for a more charismatic approach. I'm not unhappy with, nor do I believe we need to change, our own traditions. What I pray for, what I wish for is that we could experience that renewal and rebirth of the spirit that is so present in Cuba. That naivety. That coming as children, that laying down of arms, that surrender of ALL to Jesus that frees us from bondage. See we are the ones in chains even though we live in a free society and they are the free-living in "chains".
Well I'm back. That experience of Cuba, the freedom, the "mountain top" as it were begins to fade. How quickly life here took me in as if I didn't miss a beat. My living in the moment in a semi-surreal Eden like community is now an experience to remember. I'm different though. I recognize the amount of incredulity I really have and frankly allow in myself and can quickly justify in a number of ways. But I'm not alone in this. Far from it. So before I pray for all of us to experience that Cuban worship I begin my prayers with the spirit of Mark 9:24: "God I believe, but help me with my unbelief."
On May 24, a team of 11 missioners left for Cuba for 12 days to build new and paint existing dormitories at Camp Canaan, a Methodist training and meeting center near Santa Clara, Cuba. While there, they did not have internet access. Now that they are home, here are some reflections from their trip.
While I waited in Santa Clara for Aldo to update his Cuban passport (and thus able to leave the country), I waited outside on the busy sidewalk, which was very narrow. I stepped into an apt./house doorway to be out-of-the-way. Soon, a man about 35 or 40-years-old walked up to me and asked where I was from. I was startled, as not many Cubans I meet speak any English. I replied "Virginia" and started to explain its location. He assured me he knew where it was. He then asked, "How did you get here? As few Americans can travel to Cuba due to the strained relationships"I replied that I was with a church group that renovates churches across Cuba.He remarked that I had special "permission from Barack Obama". I agreed but the answer is really more complicated than that. He knew our US president though. I found this interesting because of the lack of news from outside Cuba. He then asked, "Do you believe in God?" I said, "Yes." "Why?" he replied. I then said that I believed God created the universe and is a force in our lives. He explained that he too believed in God and attends church each week but that his faith was shaken about 10 years ago when his infant daughter suddenly died. He asked why would God allow such an event. I replied that we couldn't always understand why things happen the way they do, we just have to keep our faith. He agreed but said it was difficult at the time, but he stayed with the church, prayed, and is now strong in his faith. I think this is a lesson for all of us that adversity is a part of life. It is hard not to blame God, but we must remain faithful, he is always present in the good and bad times.-Gene
Today we visited a nursing home run and funded by the Methodist church. Everywhere we go, including here, sweet people greet us and everyone loves Aldo and Susan. On this visit, Aldo and the man who runs the home spoke about a woman who had been influentialin Aldo's formation as a Christian: his High School Principal in Cuba. I spoke with two of the residents there. One named Bimbino who had lived there for 16 years and had to have his toes amputated due to Diabetes. Nevertheless, he held his faith, was warm and accepting. As I left one of the residents asked to take a picture and was delighted to see her picture. This was the brightest and happiest nursing home I've ever been in. This home is one of the only nursing homes on the island. Praise God that the Church is able to offer such a gift. -Carrie
As this is my 5th mission to Cuba, I've seen and know many of the places we have been and will be. Arriving at the center in Havana, it was a blessing to see the staff there who knew my name. There is a continuous connection that creates a family here. The church is alive as ever. Worship is spirited to say the least. As the days pass I'm increasingly aware of the amount of newer cars, construction that is occurring. Old Havana has expanded quite a bit. In Santa Clarawe walk the town square and the streets. I am alarmed at the number of beggars and offers for black market goods – cigars, Cuban dollars with pictures of Ch, etc. The money that has begun to flow into Cuba from its tourist industry has unfortunately brought other consequences with it. The outside world is changing but the church here remains steadfast. Their belief in the guiding Holy Spirit is so strong. I've never experienced the Beloved Community as I have here on this island. What an experience, what a church, praise God. -Bill