Last week I had one of those thought-provoking times. March 24-28, my brother Mel and I traveled to Cuba. We led spiritual leadership conferences in Manzanillo, Santiago, and Guantanamo. In the evenings, we held meetings open to the public. It was a profound experience.
Americans have a fascination with Cuba. In large part it is because since 1959 it has been its nearest communist neighbor. While the Soviet Union engaged in a Cold War against its arch-rival the USA from the other side of the globe, Cuba thumbed its nose at the Capitalist superpower only 90 miles away. And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It seemed incredible that an impoverished island in the Caribbean could be responsible for a nuclear holocaust, but it almost happened.
In response to the insult of a communist outpost at its elbow, the United States slapped a devastating embargo upon Cuba. I was warned last week that if I was inclined to buy a Cuban cigar, I would not be allowed to bring it back into the USA (So I didn’t buy one). To this day, the US deals harshly with the nation of Cuba.
Of course, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the little communist outpost in Cuba seems an anachronism. How can an impoverished communist nation survive in the Caribbean when it no longer receives major subsidies from its big brother, the Soviet Union?
So it was with great curiosity that I set out with my brother last week for Manzanillo. Of course, when you are at war with someone, even if it is a cold war, you tend to stereotype your foes. You picture them as bloodthirsty warmongers, eager to kill babies and mercilessly torture their captives. You picture their entire race as somehow deformed into a cold-hearted, evil people who eagerly embrace their corrupt political system and idolize their dictator.
Of course, that’s never how it really is. Standing at the airport gate in Miami, preparing to board our plane to Manzanillo, I could already tell that we were not exactly headed to the Gulag. People cheerily boarded the plane. Men were wearing three and four hats (I was told that in the past, you did not pay customs for clothes you were wearing when you re-entered Cuba, so people would layer as many clothes and hats on their body as they could). Cuba is so close to the USA that you barely have time to gain your cruising altitude before you begin your descent. When we landed, Cuban passengers burst into boisterous applause and cheering. I made a mental note to see if the cheering was as animated when we returned to Miami (it wasn’t).
Driving in Cuba makes you aware of numerous realities. First, everywhere you go you see 57 Chevys and other cars of that vintage. At first you assume you have stumbled on to an antique car convention. But then you realize that after 1959, Cuba was no longer able to import American cars. So, they nurse the 50’s classic cars and fill and refill rust spots with more and more putty and paint. Apparently there is a severe shortage of transportation in Cuba. There are horse-drawn carts everywhere. Because there are not enough buses for public transportation, they convert dump trucks and other large vehicles into people-movers. In fact, there are traffic police along checkpoints on the highway. If they spy an empty seat in your vehicle, they can order you to stop and take on a passenger or two who wait by the roadsides, hoping to catch a lift. Visitors from America are also struck by the dilapidation of many of the buildings and houses. While driving down streets, I assumed we were passing by tiny storefronts. But then it became apparent that they were homes. The streets are in terrible condition as well. You have to weave back and forth to try and avoid the largest potholes as you traverse the highways.
We were taken to a Soviet styled hotel in Manzanillo. Apparently when the Soviet Union was dominant in Cuba, it assisted in helping their comrades build buildings. There is a particular “Soviet-style” architectural design which is basically extremely plain, block-like, and rudimentary. Let’s just say that AAA would not have recommended the hotel where we stayed. Our problem was that it was the only hotel in a town of over 120,000 people.
Everywhere you go you see disrepair. It becomes clear that there is no money available to do such things as to replace burned out light bulbs or to fill pot holes or to repair decaying buildings. Apparently the average wage of white collar workers such as doctors and lawyers is $25/month. Of course, this is supplemented with housing and food stamps. We visited a government store where stamps could be exchanged for food and commodities. Interestingly, our host excitedly found napkins and snatched a package. He explained that they did not have napkins in his city.
It is sad to watch people living in poverty with little hope of bettering themselves. Yet in every major city or town, there is a large “Revolution Square.” It is there that citizens are expected to turn up at major holidays and exuberantly cheer, “Long live the revolution!” before returning to their hovels and continuing to eke out a living. Such is Caribbean Communism.
I suspect that when Fidel Castro was fighting the revolution, his intent was not to subjugate his people to live in poverty. But that was the result. Communism is designed to keep people suppressed and the elite in control. It enables party officials to drive brand new cars made in China while its citizens ride horses, walk, or patch together American cars built in the 1950s.
Of course, the official explanation is that it is not Communism’s fault that its people are impoverished: it is the American’s fault, for imposing its harsh embargo. For decades Castro has castigated Americans for his peoples’ deprivation.
So I was curious to see how ordinary Cubans would react to two preachers descending upon them from America. By the way, it is now possible to obtain visas to visit Cuba for religious purposes. Mel and I were astounded by what we experienced.
The buildings were jam packed with people attending the meetings. People approached us and asked us to sign their copies of Experiencing God which they informed us had changed their lives and their churches. We later learned that because they could not simply order copies of Experiencing God directly from Lifeway, they had surreptitiously printed their own copies. They sheepishly apologized to us as they confessed their transgression, and we quickly absolved them of any guilt.
On Wednesday evening, we were astounded when over 500 young people attended the evening service. Some college students walked four kilometers each way to attend the meeting. I was told I would have 45 minutes to speak. Previously, the music had lasted 30 minutes and the sermon and altar call 45. But thirty minutes passed and it seemed like the extremely talented worship band was just warming up. The band consisted of teenagers and could easily have played in any church (or late night TV show) in America. An hour passed and I began deleting sections from my sermon. Finally, after an hour and a half, the pulpit was turned over to me. I was exhausted! But the room, designed to hold 250 people, and overflowing with 500, was entirely attentive. I challenged the young people to live a life that made a difference and that provided a light for their nation. Then I extended an altar call. Though the room was totally full, people streamed to the altar. Many others knelt and prayed at their seat. When it was done, I turned the service back over the youth pastor. Instead of closing the service, he called his youth workers to join him at the front and then they all knelt at the front and asked the senior pastor and me to pray over them that they would be worthy of God’s call to minister to those young people. When the service ended, the young people streamed out of the building and flooded the streets. Everywhere you looked, there were wholesome young adults singing and praising God through the streets. And, sitting in front of their houses, lining the streets, were people wondering what had been going on at the church that night. Most of the buildings I saw do not have glass panes in the windows. So the sounds of the singing and preaching projects out into the streets. We often noticed passersby peering into the windows, fascinated by what they were witnessing.
It was a humbling experience to walk among the Christians of Cuba. When Communism first captivated the country, pastors were rounded up and put into concentration cams to be “re-educated.” Today, the persecution is less severe. It is legal to go to church and to be a pastor. Though, pastors receive no government income or retirement, like “normal” citizens. Yet the joy and hope among Cuban Christians is palpable. It provides a stark contrast to the non Christians.
One concern the Christians expressed to us was that their country might be opening up to the world in the coming days. While this seemed to us, on first thought, as a good thing, they pointed out that then, every cult and false religion in the world would come pouring in to captivate the souls of Cubans. There was a sense of urgency among Cuban Christians to share the truth, before more falsehood invaded their land.
One afternoon we took some time to do some touring. I was curious to see San Juan Hill where Theodore Roosevelt and his merry band of rough-riders charged against the Spanish army in their effort to liberate Cuba. Quite honestly, I suspected that the government would have erased all vestiges of the American victory from that battleground. To my surprise, there were all manner of plaques and statues commemorating the American sacrifice on behalf of the Cuban people. I wonder if perhaps it is a tacit acknowledgment that the Cuban people need Americans to liberate them once again. Only, this time it may be that American Christians sacrificially invest themselves in seeing Cubans delivered from spiritual bondage. I was reminded once again that the greatest need people have is not political, or economic, or racial, but spiritual.
The next time you think of Cuba, or any country where there is limited freedom, especially to worship, take time to pray. And, while you pray, ask if there is not something specific God would have you do.