Mission to Cuba
By George Palmer 11/28/18
Recently, I returned from my 12th short-term mission trip to Cuba. Groups from my church ranging from 10 to 15 people have been making this trip for about 16 years, each time leaving on a Friday and returning on the following Friday.
The primary purpose of each trip is to work on the building of a church. We are allowed to travel to Cuba on religious visas and, in the last few years, on tourist visas as well. Rules governing travel between the U.S. and Cuba also allow us to bring in a few thousand dollars to purchase building materials. On top of that, we bring in some tools, paint brushes, work gloves and assorted work items. Much to the Cuban’s delight, we do not bring them back.
I don’t know exactly when Cuba started letting teams enter for this purpose, but I do know basically what brought it about. Shortly after Russia greatly reduced aid to Cuban around 1990, the Cubans experienced lean times and many shortages. Among the critical shortages were medical supplies. This caused a lot of normally manageable illnesses to go untreated.
Then, at some point, people began receiving healings in some of the churches. This caused an upsurge in attendance that caused overflow problems in many churches throughout Cuba.
Agreements between the church and government led to the establishment of small home churches and, eventually, to the opening of relations that established a steady flow into Cuba of short-term mission teams from different countries. These teams have been key to the development of capacity for Cuba’s burgeoning Christian population.
Within the infrastructure of Cuba, you see tremendous differences versus that in the U. S. In the big cities, you still see a lot of U.S. cars manufactured in the 1940’s and 50’s, although they are dying out in the last few years. You also see a lot of donkey-carts and bicycle-rickshaws in the streets.
In most large-cities centers, there are sewage systems, but, due to their feeble capacity, every toilet has a paper disposal bin next to it. In most of the nicer motels (where mainly tourists go) you find toilet seats, but they are rare in the homes.
The suburbs and city outskirts are basically 3rd world slums. Open sewers line the streets, and their aroma in the tropical sun has an ambiance all its own. Almost none of the suburban population have toilet seats or even toilet paper. All of the residents who have jobs work for the Government, and they receive the equivalent of twelve to thirty U.S. dollars per month. They also receive a few pounds of rice and beans plus free healthcare. However, they do not have enough to afford luxuries like toilet paper. This make newspapers and other paper products especially prized.
Despite the obvious differences, if you compare the people of the Cuban cities to those of the U.S., you see a lot of similarities. During most of the day, city people are absorbed in the hustle and bustle of life, making their way off to jobs in business-like demeanor. But, if you look on the street benches, you see people who look as they have dropped out of life. They may stare at life passing them by as if they could not even see it or they may beg for money. In all of this, Cuban cities eerily resemble those in the U.S.
In the churches, however, the people are much different. They look alive and seem to enjoy worship, singing and preaching with great gusto. They also display excellent musical abilities. The Cubans surely do justice to rhythm and music.
The people are also very friendly and fun to work with. Their hospitality is stellar as well. Nearly every night our team had dinner in the Pastor’s house. The meal was prepared and served by his family and church members.
In short, these mission trips are a wonderful experience. We join hearts and minds with people of another culture and make lasting friends that are now becoming savvy with Facebook and other social media. All of the men I have gone with readily agree that both the teams and the people they touch are blessed and rewarded by our interactions.
I’ll say nothing about the disagreements between our respective governments, except that I hope they become resolved someday. The people of our two countries, the ones who get up every morning try to make a living and be happy are very much alike. Normalization of our relations, I know, is a dream that has many obstacles in its path. But if it ever happens, there is much to be gained for both sides.