Cuba – A Country of Contradictions
CCS Diaconal Ministry student Lisa Byer-de Wever recently returned from her Global Perspectives Experience trip to Cuba with Montreal Dio. These are her initial reflections.
GPE (Global Perspective Experience), Study Tour, or Mission? These simple worlds have different meanings and are impactful and potentially harmful if not engaged in a faithful and intentional way. When I returned home, the first questions were: “How was your vacation?”, “How was your experience?”, “How was your Mission?”. I was at a loss to respond, so I answered with “exhausting, exhilarating, heartbreaking and hopeful”. For these were the first words that my head and heart could use to start to process the deep and impactful experience of my time in Cuba.
One overwhelming truth was despite the struggle, the oppression, the need, everyone we met in Cuba was a deacon, each person was working for the common good. Interesting tie-in to the UCC (United Church of Canada’s) strategic plan. There was no “I” it was “we”. That collective, communal way of being in which as Jose Marti (famous theologian) said “every Cuban is my son” everyone has 8 grandmothers and 10 uncles and a multitude of cousins.
Cuba is a country of contradictions. A country which has its roots made up of 80% of African slaves and 20% European Missionaries. Cuba refers to itself as soup with many ingredients and flavors, but only one taste, there are no different races but one race, the Cuban race. Digging deeper however, colorism is as much a reality in Cuba as in other places in the world. This duality shows itself in the art, in the language, even in its spirituality.
When the African and other Indigenous Caribbean slaves were forced to the island, they were given Christian names but were not forced to give up their African religious traditions. Today we see the impact of people being comfortable in both the Afro-Cuban rituals and practices as well as the Christian churches and traditions. Even though Cuba has an extraordinary efficient, compassionate, and initiative-taking healthcare system, with limited access to medicines and medical supplies, doctors frequently refer their patients to herbalists in the African-Cuban traditions.
We stayed at the Evangelical Seminary of Matanzas and the Santa Brigida Covenant in Old Havannah. The seminary was not just a school, but an engagement outside the walls. They are supplying life-giving potable water and fresh produce to the school, children’s hospital and over 900 people in their neighborhood!
We visited the Museum of fine arts where the first visual is of the cucaracha. Why, you ask? Because the cockroach survived nuclear war and is a symbol to the people, “so can we survive – we all have to transform to adapt to survive”; it is a reminder of the present reality. The art resonates with the social reality and duality of the people’s existence. They have both private and public faces – official side and underground side – which coexist. Which face do I put on to please you, asks the artists?
We visited many historical places: St Francis of Assisi Square, the fountain of life, the National Hotel where Nat King Cole was banned from performing because he was Black.
We also sat in circle with the Luyano Greek orthodox church and witnessed an outdoor baptism. At the Presbyterian-Reformed Church we spoke with Daniel Izquierdo and learned about reconciliation in Cuba’s context. We were enthralled with wisdom and teachings from the Council of Churches’ Renario Arcé who shared with us the history of Cuba and the impact of Marti’s (who he describes as a revolutionary, poet, theologian, scribe, strategist, father of the nation) decolonized theology. Because of Marti and the revolution, the country learned what was working and some of the things needing fixing. In 1959, with a 30% literacy rate, all schools closed for one year to teach people to read and write. “You have to be educated to be free”.
We met with Patricia Arés to learn about the Cuban family within society. We spent time at the Martin Luther King Center which originally was created to address the needs of Black workers. Affected by Paulo Freire and others, this shaped their community engagement with popular education models and bringing liberation & contextual theology back into their communities.
Our time at the San Severino Castle/fortress and museum in Matanzas was personally particularly challenging. Erected by slaves and used from colonial times up until the revolution, it was built to prevent future attacks from pirates, and was part of a defensive network of fortresses of which all five are in the Caribbean. In this place where we stood, pirates were executed and slaves were beaten, tortured, and killed. As a woman of both Caribbean and Indigenous heritage, this experience reminded me of why I wear my head wrap, there are still truths to be told. It was like I was experiencing my family’s story, right in front of my eyes, reinforced by the faces of the people all around who looked like they could have been my cousins, aunties, and uncles. It also made me wonder about our complicity as church in the retelling of traumatic stories for the guide who walked us through the area. I trust in our hosts and tour coordinator that care was and is being offered.
I spent a long time reflecting on hope, abundance, and responsibility. The people of Cuba have taught me that hope is an act of courage both a choice and a difficulty. The people are waiting for us with hope to do something. Interestingly enough hope and waiting come from the same root word in Spanish – esperanza. Abundance is the tension between resilience, gratitude, and hope. In mutuality there is a responsibility to tell the stories and engage in advocacy.
A wise elder once told me, your story is now my story, and my story is now your story. How do we honor those stories? My prayer is that when I don’t know how to respond/what we can do, that God will transform my hearing and use me to impact the world.
I am deeply grateful to Montreal Dio, Montreal United Theological College, all our hosts and my staff support at CCS for this sacred time.
p.s. there is so much more to share but I will save it for my GPE assignment