Last Week I Went To Cuba

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Have you ever traveled somewhere and felt like you were not ready to leave? Have you ever been certain that you would return to a place far away that managed to–even in just a few days–leave a mark on your heart?

I love to travel. When I was younger, my family and I went on many road trips, and I was able to see a lot of the US. As an adult, I’ve had opportunities to see more of the world–I’ve now been to 10 countries–but there is still so much I want to see and experience.

Cuba climbed to the top of my list after I moved to Miami, FL in August 2015. Miami-Dade County is home to many immigrants from Latin America, and the bulk of those immigrants are Cuban. Cubans make up 34.3% of the total population in Miami-Dade County. Because I always want to strive to understand my community better, I decided to find out how I could visit Cuba.

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Traveling to Cuba is expensive. When I first started looking into it, only charter flights from two airports (Ft. Lauderdale and Miami) were approved for travel directly to Cuba from the US. Ferry travel had been approved but it did (does) not yet exist. Commercial flights were not yet approved (though they have been now and will supposedly begin flying in the fall of this year). The Obamas had not yet made their historic visit to Cuba. The Four Points by Sheraton had not been built in la Habana (Havana).

A lot has changed in a few months.

Beyond that, my research indicated that Americans needed a legitimate reason for traveling to Cuba in order to get a tourist visa–tourism in itself was not enough, though a cultural excursion was acceptable. However, cultural trips to Cuba all seemed to cost at least $2,000-$6,000.

I then found out that Americans could travel to Cuba to visit churches/organizations on a tourist visa if the partnering churches/organizations vouched for them.  A religious visa was also an option, but I was told that would be much more complicated, more expensive, I would have to apply for it, and I wouldn’t know if I would receive the visa or not until a week before the trip. Unlike most countries that I’ve visited, where I could wander freely, spontaneously take public transit or a taxi to a tourist destination or a beach or a random park or café that looked neat, travel to Cuba would require much more preparation, approval, and rule-following.

I prayed.

I did more research. (I later learned that a lot of the information I found online or was told by Americans who had previously traveled to Cuba was no longer accurate, since things are changing so rapidly and communication from Cuba is limited.)

Considering the history and relationship between the Florida Conference and the Cuban Conference of the UMC, I thought I might be able to visit Cuba and itinerate at churches, inviting young adults to apply for the Global Mission Fellows program, but I was denied by Global Ministries of the UMC; there are not enough English-speakers in Cuba, so apparently our “from everywhere to everywhere” Missionary model did not quite apply.

A couple of months later I heard about Experience Mission and saw online that they had mission trips to Cuba. I liked Experience Mission because they emphasize relationships and mutual learning, while many other short-term missions programs focus on saving poor people or bringing Jesus to them, as if we have everything and all of the answers and they have nothing to offer, and as if God is not already alive and at work in their communities.

I had already been on 9 mission trips with Church of the Messiah, United Methodist, so in November 2015 I decided to shoot an e-mail to Pastor Jim with the (crazy) thought that we should plan a mission trip to Cuba.

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We looked into it more, and he decided it was possible.

Months of figuring out logistics followed. We had to coordinate our trip with the Cienfuegos travel agency, Experience Mission, community partners on the ground, the Church, South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), etc.

We hoped to have 10 people attend the trip. 17 signed up. (16 attended.)

We prayed.

I sent e-mails. I answered e-mails.

I am an affiliate member of Redland Community UMC in Homestead, FL, and I am involved with several church committees and groups. I was at a UMW meeting, and someone asked for service project ideas. No one spoke up, so I suggested that we collect arts and craft supplies for Kids Club, a ministry for differently-abled people in Cuba that the mission team from Church of the Messiah UMC and I would be leading.  (Over the next several months, donations were collected, and we ended up with everything we needed to run Kids Club.)

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My mom agreed to organize the games, crafts, Bible lessons, and songs, and we finalized everything while I was home on personal leave in June. Every member of our group had some role to play during Kids Club, from leading the lesson or craft to handing out snacks and learning the songs in Spanish, etc. Team members also collected tennis balls, beach balls, beanie babies, drawstring bags, tooth paste, tooth brushes, etc.

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I planned some worship songs for our nightly reflection while I was home, as well. And I spent a lot of time reading about travel to Cuba. I also planned a presentation for the final day of our trip, which we would spend in Miami-Dade County. I wanted to connect the trip with immigration in the US and my work with South Florida JFON.

We had a final team meeting (I called in). Then came packing and more packing. And more e-mails.

Finally, I headed to the airport on July 22 to meet the mission team from Church of the Messiah UMC, which also included the Capitol Area North District Superintendent, Linda.

On July 23, we headed back to the airport at 5:20 AM in order to check-in for our American Airlines charter flight to Havana, Cuba. 12 hours of traveling later, and we were finally at the guesthouse where we would be staying all week. We had a brief orientation after dinner, and then we went to sleep, exhausted.

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On Sunday, we worshiped in the morning and then spent the afternoon on one of Veradero’s famous beaches. The faith in church that morning was almost tangible; from the way people worshiped with abandon it was clear how much they were in love with God. We were in a building with no door or bathroom and a tin roof, yet we were really worshiping. The morning was in stark contrast to my experience with many Anglo churches in the US, where we argue about carpeting and screens and hymns, where we are self-conscious of our singing voices and clothes, where our minds may wander and we can easily lose sight of God in the midst of our lives and even during a worship service.

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On Monday, we visited several churches, a farm where we ate lunch, and the house of one of the children who is bedridden and cannot make it to Kids Club.

Many of the “churches” we visited were missions in people’s homes. It is still illegal to build new churches in Cuba, so the only recognized and legal churches there are the ones that were built before the Revolution. (We later met a man who was arrested twice for trying to build new churches.)

On Tuesday, we worked on a pineapple farm. The pineapples we harvested will be given to people who are hungry or will be sold in order to raise money for the church and other ministries in the community. In the afternoon, we were once again able to spend time sight-seeing and at the beach.

On Wednesday, we led Kids Club. We were able to play a few games (everyone closed their eyes and drew a pig; someone named animals, and we flapped our arms–wings–whenever they could fly), hear a Bible lesson about when God created the world, make paper plate snakes, and sing some songs (in Spanish). After we sang, many of the students sang songs or lifted up things they are thankful for. We also helped to move some donated furniture and other items into the ministry building.

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That afternoon, we invited a pastor and his wife to eat lunch with us at the farm. Their church consisted of one small concrete room with benches and a tin roof that had holes in it. We wanted to surprise them: Church of the Messiah will raise $5,000 for them to finish construction on the roof and a new building, so that they can grow their church (and also provide emergency shelter during Hurricane Season).

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We spent Thursday sight-seeing in La Habana. We were able to see a lot of touristy things, such as a military fort, the World’s Largest Cigar, the White Christ statue, a park, a market, and Old Havana. Someone had already exchanged our US dollars into Convertible Pesos (CUCs), so we were able to buy more souvenirs (and dulce de leche ice cream!).

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We woke up at 2:30/3:00 AM on Friday to fly back to Miami. It was nice to be unplugged for the week (we had no phone service or internet access in Cuba), but it was also nice to be back in the land of toilet seats and toilet paper and text messages.

On Friday, I spent the day showing the mission team around Miami-Dade County and connecting our trip with the work I do with immigrants at South Florida JFON. We visited Pollo Tropical, Freedom Tower, Robert is Here, Redland Community UMC (where I gave a presentation about JFON and we did an immigration simulation), and a Peruvian restaurant where the waiter was Cuban and nobody spoke English.

It was really great to visit Freedom Tower, where Cuban refugees were once processed and welcomed into the US.

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My two favorite parts of the trip:

1. Hanging out with some awesome Cubans. Everyone was so kind and gracious toward us. It was such a blessing. I really hope to return, so that this initial meeting can lead to real friendships over time.

One of my favorite people was the night guy, Carlos, who I only understood a third of the time. (It was me, not him.) A smile goes a long way.

I also met one young man at the beach who told me he had never spoken to an American before; I don’t think that has ever happened to me. We both listen to 98.3 “The Enrique Santos Show” in the morning. You can build some serious bridges by being present and kind in a new community. It was a reminder that while traveling abroad, we are all representatives of our country.

2. Really feeling like most people understood the push and pull factors that bring immigrants to the US, as well as the brokenness of an immigration system that forces people to come without documents. It’s too bad we can’t make every politician visit a third world country before voting on immigration reform.

Whenever I travel, it’s impossible to include every detail of what happened. How can I explain how it smelled or what each piece of food tasted like or how loud the thunder was or how bad the driving was or how to stop yourself from flying forward with no seat belt on when you pass a horse and buggy and then have to swerve right to avoid a car coming in the opposite direction or how green the trees were? How can I tell you how the ocean felt or how clear the water was or what the water tasted like or what my legs felt like after squatting over public toilets (only a few had seats) or how it felt when the pineapple plants cut my arms and legs or how adorable it is when you have to bend over so a three-year-old can greet you the Cuban way, with a kiss on the cheek? How can I explain a smile that radiates pure joy, a joy that only comes from the Lord? There are too many details, too many things to remember, so I have to compress them into a few words and photographs.

What I can tell you is that Cuba is now one of my greatest adventures (and I once kissed a grown male lion on the nose in Argentina), and if you can, I would encourage you to go and see it for yourself! It is beautiful, the people are incredible, and apparently the government has fumigated every building, so you don’t even have to worry about catching the Zika. Vale la pena.

Special thanks to Experience Mission, our community partners, Church of the Messiah, Redland Community UMC, and to everyone else who made this trip possible for me and for all of us.

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