I will readily admit Cuba was never a place I wanted to go. I LOVE to travel, and I keep a mental bucket list of locales that I desperately want to see. Cuba was never on it, not remotely. In March, when President Obama threw the door open wide for Americans to travel to Cuba, I actually declared on my radio show that I wasn’t interested–that I would wait until the masses had been going for years before I’d think about it. That was partly because I knew there would be a huge influx of people making the trek and partly because Cuba still operates under a Communist government. I can’t help but recall those words and my confident stance as I make my final preparations to land in Havana this week. Ha! God definitely has a sense of humor.
When I first heard that my church was sending a group to Cuba, I knew instantly it was something I needed to consider. I had no doubt God was trying to get my attention, but was He calling me to GO? As the various personal and professional obstacles systematically fell by the wayside, the choice became crystal clear. A few months after I denied any interest, I committed to a 10-day journey to Havana. It’s amazing how my heart and attitude have changed since then. At the beginning, I was apprehensive and uneasy over leaving the US for the first time in five years; joining a group of people I didn’t know; asking my family and friends to invest financially; and entering a country where the government is still oppressive and the people are not free to live, work, shop or worship the way they desire. I was nervous about leaving my dog and house for 11 days and being disconnected from work right before the NFL season kicks off. While I can’t say those notions have completely disappeared, the anxiety is replaced by great expectation! I’m positive the trip will be a blessing.
Even as the atheist Cuban government warms up to the idea of its citizens attending church and practicing their faith, visitors are not generally allowed to enter the country for any type of religious venture. Our group has secured tourist visas, and we won’t be using the word “church” (or “iglesia”) while we’re in Havana. Each day, we’ll take a van to a poor suburb across the bay and work with an “illegal” church and its pastor. We want to protect his identity and make sure we don’t draw any undue attention to his church. He already runs the risk of the government shutting it down. So we’ll bunk in the tourist district of Havana but spend our mornings on construction and repairs at the church. In the afternoons and evenings, we’ll work with kids and teens. In fact, the pastor has designated our visit for Youth Week. Awesome!
The reality of the trip hit me recently when a large box arrived with two soccer balls and a kickball. I ordered them to take to the kiddos. Since then, my excitement level has been off the charts. My suitcase is more than half full of school supplies and materials for sports and games to leave at the church. That’s always my favorite part–taking gifts with me to share with families that can’t purchase them at a local store. This will be my fourth missions trip outside the US, and it’s always the chance to interact with kids that gets me on board. I don’t possess the ability to teach as well as my amazing Mom who can corral a room full of teenagers like nobody’s business. What I DO know is that working with kids–spending time with them, talking with them, making them feel important, sharing Jesus with them–is my other calling. After surviving a tumultuous childhood, I am compelled to offer the peace, joy, and compassion in my heart. I look forward to being a mom someday soon, but for now, this is one major way I can impact the world around me.
My previous trips revolved around soccer. High up in the Andes mountains of Ecuador and deep in the African bush of Mozambique, we took soccer balls, invited the local kids to play, and listened to their screams of delight as they got involved. Such amazing experiences! As I head to Cuba, I’m praying for more of the same. In addition to the soccer balls and kickball, I’m carrying air pumps, a bag of bouncy balls, Frisbees, and street chalk. Our team may also take them to the beach and a popular ice cream store. The goal is to connect with them, give them a chance to have FUN, and let them know they’re special. It’s pretty simple and always worth it. I just never anticipated Cuba.
On the phone with my 94-year-old Grammy Helen recently, I was recounting the various places I’ve visited so far in 2016. My first trip to San Francisco for Super Bowl Week and then Houston for my first ever Final Four (with a Villanova buzzer-beater to win the championship)! I completed my first real half-marathon in Oklahoma City and then took a short vacation in Albuquerque and the New Mexico mountains. There was a quick jaunt to Los Angeles to receive my first Gracie Award and a weekend in Atlanta to see my best friend. This spring, I also drove to DC twice and made a handful of forays to Connecticut. And then my annual trek to see HER in Wisconsin. Her response as I ticked off all those trips? “You sure have been a lot of places this year.” Understated but accurate as always, Grammy! However, I got quite a reaction out of her when I told her I was adding Havana, Cuba, to the list. She was surprised. Me too, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.