HEY! We are at the airport in Miami, and after fielding phone calls from worried family members, I thought I’d share a little about what we learned this week, what we’ll be doing, and how it’s all going to work.
To travel to Cuba, we needed two permissions—one from the US government, and one from the Cuban government. Through our host ministry (the org we are writing about for World Next Door), we got a religious license from the US government to travel to Cuba, and this involved one of our Cuban host pastors writing a letter of sponsorship.
Entering Cuba has nothing to do with the religious license from the US, and in fact we have to just sort of conceal the religious license and enter Cuba through the tourist visa we applied for and received from the Cuban government. The Cuban government is not so into our host ministry due to their work toward religious freedoms and bypassing the Council of Churches which confiscated 8 of 10 containers of Bibles the last time they came through, so if we entered Cuba on a religious visa as other sometimes do, we’d likely be watched or followed, potentially putting the ministry at risk on the ground in Cuba.
To this end, we had to leave all written documents linking us to or identifying with our host org in Miami, and the scope of the underground programs (film showings, discussion groups and anonymous bloggers—all funded by our host org to advocate and teach others about religious freedom) will be hard to grasp or see first hand. Anything that draws attention to us or to the ministry makes things more difficult for our hosts on the ground after we leave, also potentially limiting the impact of the programs. Two American tourists in remote villages considered marginal even by Cubans watching “controversial” films that promote discussions about topics like religious freedom, abortion, poverty, social injustice would probably draw some attention. We may be able to drive by one of these gatherings, though, and snap a quick pic.
We met a couple yesterday in their 20s who have been in Miami for three months after being forced to leave Cuba for facilitating these film showings and discussion groups. They’ve been married for three years and had to leave their whole lives behind after they were identified as dissidents by the Cuban government. It was fascinating to hear their stories, frustrations, and passions for a people and country most in their generation want to abandon. When we asked if they’d do it again knowing the consequences in advance, they said, “Without thinking, yes.”
You can’t imagine the irony of Jeff and I, stressing out about which job we should take in March because we don’t know which would most glorify God and meet our family goals, sitting across from these two—our Cuban life parallels—unemployed and exiled because their jobs glorified God at the cost of all their family goals.
You also can’t imagine how I wanted to jump across the table and hug them after they described how indebted they feel to us, the US, for continually “opening your doors and hearts”, as he put it, consistently for 50 years to the people of Cuba who can’t go home. If the US had a war and needed soldiers, he said, he would sign up to fight and die for a country that allows him such safety and freedom.
I did a mental scan of all the Facebook rants I’d read this week or last from angry born-and-raised US citizens who have absolutely no idea what a mess they’ve avoided in many other parts of the world simply by being born here, but who feel entitled to complain about healthcare and borders and the fact that we now have to pay tax on Amazon and any number of things politically. (Not you, of course, but other people.) I would like to sit them across the table from my new friends and listen to the conversation. A guy from Cuba would die for us, he’s so thankful for our hospitality.
We’ve learned more from 6 days in Miami from Cuban Americans—I didn’t even go into the org’s founder, google him—that it feels like we could write forever just from Miami. I haven’t told you about the past and present shape of the Christian church in Cuba, the ministry’s disaster response or humanitarian work, or how 11 days ago the Cuban government lifted the ban on the sale of cars after 50 years.
Here are the punch lines: the government works in tricky ways. For example, the celebration of Christmas had previously been banned, but in the last few years they said, Oh yeah. Ok. You can celebrate Christmas. But they won’t import any Christmas symbols like nativity sets, which our host org is now working on funding for. The government said, Oh yeah. Ok. You can buy cars now. But a used Toyota corolla is $95k. The average Cuban makes $20 per month, and it would take him 150 years to save up enough to buy a car. The church is allowed to exist behind a smokescreen of a few apparent religious liberties, but in reality is stuck.
Deeper and more detailed explanations for another time, I guess.
Here we are at gate F12 waiting to board to Havana, just 90 miles south. Things we are allowed to participate in are some of the leadership trainings and seminary classes sponsored by our host ministry, a library project that produces a magazine pushing the controlled edge on justice conversations within the church, a technology project, and some other things here and there. We’ll see what comes of it.
We’ll be in and out of Havana, not probably all the way to Santiago, but to a couple of other cities in Western and Central Cuba. We will get sick. We got sick last time. Cuban Americans warned us. The org warned us. It’s gonna happen. We also won’t have internet for a month because it’s $5 per minute and dial-up.
But I think we’re up for it all. We went to Cuba 3 years ago for a week and we saw the amazing tourist side of Cuba. We’re hoping to get a deeper glimpse this time, and it can only happen one-one-one, inside homes and over meals, and only after we prove to be a little bit trustworthy.
This is our thing though, relationships. Also, meals.
Xo, pals. Here goes something!