Archive for June, 2017

Regresar a Cuba

Posted in Uncategorized on June 4, 2017 by amylawrencepxp

I’ll be honest–while I was in Havana for 10 days last August, I was pretty sure it would be my one and ONLY trip to Cuba. At least once a day, I told myself I just had to survive the rest of the way and then I’d never go back. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. It was a difficult trip for several reasons, including the brutal heat and humidity. My church team was outside the majority of each day–shoveling and hauling dirt, playing games with kids, standing in line for meals, preparing for and attending a wedding. The thick humidity sapped my strength and left me exhausted. Even my summer treks to Ecuador weren’t as tough. Of course, I was two miles above sea level in the Andes Mountains most of the time!

The heat was only part of my struggle in Cuba. Spending time with the members of a poor village church, hearing their stories and witnessing their oppression at the hands of a Communist government–it broke my heart. The Cubans are essentially prisoners in their own country. The majority of applications for travel visas are denied. Not just once, but over and over. Government officials are petrified the people will get outside the Cuban borders to freedom and never return. For good reason, too, since people risk their lives and families every year to try to escape and defect. The pastor we worked with in Havana told us it’s a huge problem among fellow pastors and priests. They obtain visas under the guise of education (the Cuban government values education); when they get to the US and other countries, they never go back, even if it means leaving their loved ones behind.

With the American travel restrictions lifted, all the extra tourism revenue goes straight to the government. The majority of Cuban locals live in poverty with rations to buy food and old cars that frequently break down. They can’t receive mail or packages from the rest of the world; in fact, most of the homes outside the city don’t even have mailing addresses. The internet connection is spotty at best unless they can find a wifi hotspot in the city streets.

How did 10 days make any difference whatsoever?? Sure, I took school supplies, soccer balls, frisbees, and other sporting goods with me last summer. And we left piles of clothes and shoes behind. We gave the Cuban church the extra money we had. We helped to build a pool they also use as a baptismal. We danced and sang and ate with them. But really–what difference did it make? I wrestled with this question many times in the months after my trip. And when a new team formed this spring, I wrestled with it again.

No, I wasn’t sure I wanted to return to Havana. I waffled back and forth. I talked to my family. I prayed about it a ton! As it turns out, the 2017 mission will be extremely different from a year ago, though many of the faces will be the same. Ultimately, those are the two reasons I committed to GO again this July.

What’s changing?? For starters, we won’t be spending any money to stay in hotels this year. Cuban leaders are closing many of their hotels to Americans. Apparently, they’re worried about the US influence on locals. I’m thrilled we won’t be putting that money in the government’s pocket. Instead, we’ll stay on the church property all week. Five of us women will share a room with bunk beds in a concrete building adjacent to the pastor’s home. The room is often used to house families of villagers who visit from other parts of the island or to assist people in need. We *believe* we’ll have A/C to sleep, but there won’t be any hot water for showers, ha. We’ll be using an outdoor bath house on the property. This year’s trip will resemble my journey to Africa when I was camping in the bush!

The ability to bring school supplies, medical necessities, and clothing to the church in rural Havana is another major reason I decided to go back. Since the mail system can’t be trusted, showing up in person is the most reliable way to give them what they desperately need but can’t obtain. Right now, the Cubans have very little access to basic over-the-counter medicines and first aid supplies. According to news reports, even the hospitals don’t have adequate provisions. I’m planning to stuff my suitcase with aspirin, stomach meds, band-aids, gauze, balms, creams, vitamins, and anything else I can think of. I’m thankful to family and friends who are donating money to buy them. I also heard from a listener in Atlanta who’s shipping dozens of first aid kits to me so I can take those, too.

It’s the PEOPLE drawing me back to Cuba. After meeting them and hearing their stories, after communicating with some of them via Facebook or email over the last year, I want to see them again. The pastor and his extended family, the dozens of young people who hang out daily at the church (a room off the pastor’s kitchen), some women that I now call friends–they are the most important part of the trip. They are so encouraged by our visits, by knowing that we traveled from our country to spend time with them. This summer, our team will partner with the church on a special week-long youth outreach which is really exciting for me. Teaching elementary school kids gathered on Sunday was a highlight of my 2016 adventure.

No doubt the heat and humidity will be excruciating again. No doubt I’ll struggle with sadness as I see and hear about the poverty and oppression in Cuba. No doubt I’ll feel helpless, like I can’t possibly do enough. But if our visit makes a difference to THEM–puts smiles on their faces, lets them know they’re loved, meets some of their practical needs–then it’s all worth it.