By Silvi Pirn
The last two weeks of June, two teams from Kenilworth Union Church took part in this year’s IMPACT mission trips to Cuba. As it is with IMPACT, each of us learned truths about ourselves and others and made deep and lasting connections. But the complexity of everyday life in Cuba was a backdrop for a simple and powerful reminder of our faith.
You see, for Cubans, life is very complicated. Nothing comes easily. There are lots of rules to follow and regulations to pay attention to. I got a taste of this while planning for the trips.
Documentation and procedure for travel to Cuba is far more complex than anyplace else I have led a mission team. There are extra steps to booking airline tickets. There are visas to procure—yes, paper visas—that required I make no less than nine visits to the local FedEx pick-up at the Jewel in Plaza del Lago—yes, nine! There are US restrictions and prohibitions to know about and plan around. There are verification documents to prepare for each traveler. On top of everything, I had to consider how to pay for things in Cuba as US credit cards are generally not accepted there. I also received a last-minute notification from our mission partner that toilet paper was hard to come by—could I ask that everyone pack a few rolls in their carry on? Okay….
These issues were but a dim shadow of what Cubans face every day. Even Cubans will say that life in Cuba is complicated. Cubans simply do not have access to so many things we take for granted. Need to replace your broken plastic yard chair? Just run down to Millen or Bess—even Jewel sometimes has them for cheap. In Cuba, you would have to travel three hours to Havana to see if they have any there and spend more money than you make in a month to get a new one. That is if you could even get to Havana. You might have to ask a neighbor or relative to get you one next time he or she goes to Havana—which might not be for a while—or ever.
Transportation—something most of us have 24/7 access to—is an everyday hardship for Cubans. What about the cool cars? Classic 1950’s cars are neat, but they are a luxury most Cubans cannot afford. Regular Cubans are stuck with far more primitive modes of transportation. Have you heard of the saying “gone are the days of horse and buggy?” Well, those days are alive and well in Cuba. City streets and rural roads are lined with horse and buggy—the old-timey kind with wooden wheels—gears and springs. They are called “coches” and are used to transport people and goods around Cuba. Some Cubans have bicycles or ride in bici-taxis, which, are beyond what most can afford. Many simply walk or hitchhike (waiting hours and hours for a ride). If you are disabled, you mostly stay home.
If I had to be on the other side of the world tomorrow (a feasible scenario with family in Australia), I could easily get there within 36 hours. Most likely so could you. For Cubans, getting across town is tricky and not always a sure thing. Getting to a town 50 miles away might not happen in a lifetime. Only a very few Cubans will ever have the documentation and money needed to travel outside of Cuba. This truth was illustrated very powerfully when one wheelchair-bound woman shared her dream of visiting New York City with one of our college leaders who also had never been to New York. She drew him a picture and gave it to him and told him something like this: “keep this picture and take it with when you visit New York. I will never get there myself, but if you take this with you, at least part of me will get to New York.”
Cubans live a life that would drive most of us mad or break our hearts. Everything about life there is as complex and difficult as replacing a broken chair or getting around. We can get angry and blame their government and try to bring attention to how restricted life there can be, but that misses the point here and now. The point is that our brothers and sisters in Cuba face these hardships throughout their lives there. And while most of the people I know can be impatient, frustrated, demanding and even indignant when faced with the smallest inconvenience, the Cubans we met and worked with are confident in their faith and are able to face their days with patience, perseverance, kindness, hospitality, sacrifice, service, community, cooperation, and compassion.
And this spirit dwelled in our mission teams while we were in Cuba, too. The IMPACT leaders remained flexible, patient, and kind throughout the hardships and delays and frustrations they faced. Our IMPACT youth met each day and each challenge with courage and poise—determined to do God’s work and love their neighbor, whatever the cost. They all approached this holy and difficult time in Cuba with gratitude and wonder, perseverance and joy. Our teens, college leaders, and adults too lived by the powerful fruits of the spirit that bind us together in Christ. And it was awesome!
We all—Cubans and Americans alike—took to heart what we sometimes have a hard time understanding or remembering in “normal” life—that we are truly free in Christ and called to serve one another—or as Paul wrote to the Galatians:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love…. For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. —Galatians 5:13, 22–23
Pretty simple, even though Cuba is anything but. Our mission trip experience reminds us, once again, that God’s hand is powerful in the face of powerlessness and God’s call to us is simple and straightforward even in the most complicated circumstances.