Justin and I recently returned from Cuba. It’s approximately 90 miles from Key West and took just a little over an hour to get there from Miami. It’s so close, yet so far away. Cuba is unlike any other place Justin and I have ever visited….and we travel a lot.
Our purpose in going to Cuba was to survey the country’s viability for future ministry. To aid in our assessment, we were asking 3 main questions: what’s the market and political climate like, what’s the church doing, and what needs do they have?
Our scope was limited to two major cities in the eastern part of the island: Santiago and Holguin. Both have roots as Spanish colonial cities. We didn’t visit any part of the western island, including Havana, but feel we got a good representation in the east.
From the airport, we were picked up in a two-toned turquoise/white, 1956 Ford, with lime green interior. It was fantastic. Essentially, this was our “taxi” for the week. Owned by a local pastor, he graciously allowed his son Ornello to drive us to and fro as needed. Other forms of transportation included motorcycle taxi (a little scary when my helmet wouldn’t clasp) and horse and buggy (yes this is even more popular in Holguin than in Amish country). Transportation alone made you feel as if you stepped back into time.
Our first destination, Santiago, was a hilly city, full of character. We wove in and out of small cobblestone streets on foot and were able to take in quite a bit of the city’s history, such as Revolution Square, numerous colonial era buildings, a beautiful blue cathedral, and lots of local shops, uniquely Cuban. In Santiago we stayed with a Cuban family in their small but quaint home. We had luxuries like running water, electricity, and our own room, rare considering many Cubans dwell in small spaces with multiple generations. We even had an electric water heater- which Justin refused to use (picture a coiled light bulb with a cord coming out one end, which you submerge under water for about 5 minutes until water boils) Perfectly safe!
Holguin, another colonial influenced city, was very flat. Hence the mode of transit here was the horse and buggy (which only cost a few cents to ride!). Of particular interest to me was the city’s cemetery. When I asked to see this, our friend Carlos just kept saying, “Really, the cemetery? You American is crazy.” The tombs were beautifully white-washed, ornate, and mostly Catholic iconic. Some of the tombs for Spanish settlers, dated back to the mid 1700s!
In Holguin we stayed with a local couple and their baby, but in a much smaller space. There are pros and cons to staying with locals when you travel. On the one hand, you generally get a much more authentic and hospitable experience, which we certainly did. On the other hand, you may not sleep for 4 nights because what you hear out your window at night are neighbors blasting music til 3 a.m., a cat in heat, dog fights, and roosters crowing in the wee hours of the morning. The bucket baths and flushes weren’t a ton of fun either.
While there was much beauty, and some of the stunning architecture tricks you into thinking you’re strolling somewhere through Europe, Cuba’s poverty is not hard to find. People live on an average of $20 per month. Foods such as rice and beans are subsidized, but many foods beyond that, are expensive. Speaking of food, I personally was not impressed. Rice and Beans are the staple, and while we had some variations with lentils and yuka, overall the food was a bit blah. One of my least favorite foods was the ham and cheese sandwich. This is found everywhere and often they’re left out for days until they sell. The ham is reminiscent of spam, and I have no idea what kind of cheese it is. One was enough for me. Thankfully, at different points we were able to introduce a little pork, and a little fruit into our diet. While it wasn’t great, I am grateful our meals were prepared for us, and they did certainly try to please our palates.
Back to my earlier thoughts. One Cuban said despairingly, “A man will work hard all his life, and have nothing to show for it.” In Cuba, working hard to work your way up simply doesn’t happen. Wealth is taken out of the country. Those who have money, leave, and they take their wealth with them. Too many shops are closed. One man told us Cubans are not good consumers. Either way, it’s a vicious cycle that affects sellers and customers, or rather the lack thereof. Not a great climate for small businesses or your average entrepreneur.
Religion in Cuba is a hodge-podge of Protestant (Baptists, Methodists, Assemblies of God, etc.), Catholic, Santeria, and like anywhere, a lot of nominal believers at that. However the Church we saw is a bright spot. The bulk of our time was spent listening to, talking with, and meeting pastors, youth leaders, seminary teachers, and church staff. We absorbed a lot of information and asked a lot of questions (with the help of translators- though our Spanish was getting good by the end of the week!). One of our main take aways was that the Church is actually thriving in Cuba. They have a strong presence, strong leadership and sound structures which put them in a good position to continue training leaders and planting churches. Many want to be pastors and missionaries, and the Church could always use more resources to support full-time Cuban missionaries or pay pastors full-time salaries, but it is evident God is very much alive and moving in this nation.
Cuba is a beautiful country. Gorgeous terrain, green mountains, lush valleys, sculpted farmland, pristine beaches, interesting cities, and beautiful people. Most of all, beautiful people. I wasn’t sure what to expect visiting my first communist country, but I suppose I assumed that all people would be staunch-faced, and on the lookout for anyone who behaved outside their conformity. What I found was the opposite. People were warm, friendly, and excited to share their country with us. We got our fair share of “stares” in large crowds, but I imagine what they were really thinking was nothing like what I thought they were thinking. Cuba is a difficult place to live, even for Cubans. It’s unpretentious in that what you see is what you get. Tourism doesn’t seem to have robbed this country of its soul. Yet.
Because in 5-10 years Cuba could look completely different, I’m so glad we went now. When this country gets its first Starbucks or McDonalds, it will forever be changed.
Thanks Cuba, for allowing us to experience all of your raw, undefined, and complicated beauty.