Fellowship with Isabel & Raul
Group at U.S. Special Interests Section
El Café (The Coffee)
Cuban coffee is sweet, strong, and—for me—came in a shot glass each morning! Used to a steaming mug of java, I have to admit that tiny little jolts of morning caffeine were a cross-cultural experience. However, experiencing something that is the same, but different, can create a space for new perspective.
One evening of our mission encounter saw our team divided into four separate groups to share the evening meal in different homes. David and I, joined by Beth and Melissa, were hosted by Raúl and Isabel. We drove in a van for about a half hour to a modest neighborhood with muddy streets. The homes were tiny and constructed from a variety of materials: cement block, corrugated steel, or thatched palm. Raúl greeted us at the door with a huge smile, and he and Isabel visited with us for at least a half hour before serving the meal. There is no dine and dash in Latin America. The conversation is savored as much as the food.
We sat on their back patio at a small table with four chairs—their only chairs. Isobel sat to the side on a rickety bench and Raúl perched on the steps. Our meal was rice, beans, chicken, with slices of mango and pineapple—the fruit picked off the trees in their yard. Dessert was a Cuban sweet called Mani which is ground peanuts and sugar pressed into a bar. And the meal always ends with coffee!
David asked Raúl if he would show him how to make Cuban coffee. They use tiny silver expresso makers that sit on the stove. When that is ready, they pour a tiny bit into a cup with sugar and whisk it into a froth. The rest of the coffee is added to the sugar concoction, and then poured into teeny, tiny cups to serve. When your coffee comes as a cafécito (little coffee) you learn not to gulp it. No, it’s sweet, slow, delicious sips. And as you linger, conversation continues to flow around you. Lilting Spanish hospitality that flavors life like coffee!
La Vida (Life)
A common expression in Cuba is “No es fácil.” (Nothing is easy) After only a week, I quickly grasped the truth of these words. Existing on $25 a month supplemented by a monthly government ration that usually lasts a week, the Cuban people rely on a barter and black market system that insures survival. Pastor Maykel told us, “You might be walking down the street and see a long line of people. You jump in the line to guarantee a place, and then you inquire what’s going on. Usually it means something is being sold. For example, bars of soap. Now, you might not need soap, but if you have the means, you purchase some anyway. Why? Because eventually, someone you know will need it, and you can trade your extra soap for something extra they have that you need, and life is in balance.”
As we underwent projects of painting, mixing cement, weeding, etc. we realized that only a few people in our group thought to bring work gloves. When I asked Pastor Mayra if there was a store where we could purchase some, she just shook her head no. Her eyes were even more expressive, and sad, that she couldn’t accommodate us. Everything is in limited supply on the island, and there is so much that is not available. Purchasing a basic 6 foot aluminum ladder took most of a day and cost nearly $200. Permits to build something can take years to obtain. And then finding the materials adds another layer of complication. But I heard no grumbling or complaining about this. Cubans just shrug a shoulder and continue on with life. This is their reality. It is only since 2013 that they have been allowed to have personal cell phones, or a personal computer in their home. In this 21st technological gizmo century, that boggles my mind!
The word that I found best describes my experience of the Cuban people is “resiliency.” They are creative and resourceful—just how they maintain vintage cars from the 50’s is a great example! But it is their spirits that captured my heart. They are vibrant, and colorful. They laugh a lot. They take care of each other. They truly know who their neighbors are and how to love them. They may be poor in material wealth, but they are not poor in spirit.
One afternoon we visited the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy (soon to be restored as the U.S. Embassy), and met with some of the government officials who serve there. One person asked, “What has been the greatest change experienced in Cuba since the historic talks between the United States and Cuba last December?” This was the answer: “The people have hope.”
Hope for what? Hope that travel between Cuba and the United States won’t prove to be so difficult. Hope that if Cuba becomes more modern then more opportunities in the areas of technology and communications will increase. Hope that foreign companies will invest in their infra-structure. Hope that products can once again be imported and exported between our two countries. Hope that tourism will rise and boost local economy.
Hope. Another four letter word. Only four letters, but it packs a punch. The Christians I met in Cuba were overflowing with hope. A hope not based on earthly treasures, but on the Kingdom of Heaven. A hope that is rooted in a joy that bubbles up from the wells of salvation. A hope that learns how to thrive no matter what the circumstances. Our Cuban brothers and sisters radiate hope. They are a beacon to the world.
I can’t help but wonder, “What four letter word defines my faith?”