Sunday morning early, at the Eastern Baptist Convention Senior Center in the village of La Caoba, near Santiago, Cuba. I’m sitting in one of nine aluminum rocking chairs that line a courtyard featuring a small pond fed by a rocky waterfall, lush with tropical plants and fish.
It’s May 27, and I’m traveling with a 12-member mission team composed largely of members from Woodhaven Baptist Church, here in conjunction with North Carolina Baptist Men’s partnership with the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba. The Eastern Baptist Convention partners mainly with groups affiliated in some way with the American Baptist Churches, USA, though Southern Baptist affiliates also work here.
Years ago, Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists agreed to focus their missionary efforts in different regions, with Southern Baptists in the western part and Northern Baptists – now the American Baptist Churches, USA – going eastward.
This resulted in Cuba developing two Baptist conventions, Eastern and Western. The conventions work cooperatively on a variety of projects, however, and each has extended mission work into the other’s region. The Eastern Baptist Convention, for example, has established a number of churches in and around Havana, in the western part of the country.
The Senior Center is located across a creek from a small complex of buildings that house the Eastern Convention’s seminary. A team of men from Mississippi arrived with us on the same plane, they in blue T-shirts and we in yellow. They are lodging at the seminary, hoping to start construction on a church building, and doing evangelism.
It’s not easy getting into Cuba. The U.S. has imposed an economic and travel embargo on Cuba for 50 years or so, though it’s loosening slightly. Family members can visit once per year now. Church groups can enter the country with a special religious visa. Upon arrival, though, immigration officials stamp the visa only, not the passport, and keep it upon departure. You’d never know from our passports that we’ve been here.
Teams affiliated with North Carolina Baptist Men have been working since 2004 to assist the Eastern Convention in completing a rest home for retired Cuban pastors. The project began in 2000, but ran out of gas in 2002. Richard Brunson, executive director of N.C. Baptist Men, visited Cuba in 2004 and started the partnership wheels turning, reviving the project.
The center has turned into quite a complex: the chapel is surrounded by a columned promenade on one side, a plaza with flowers and a fountain out front, and a series of stone-lined pools on the other side. Two of the pools are stocked with small tilapia; the other is used for baptism services.
Service rooms and residential quarters begin on the other side of the pools. Built on the side of a steep hill, the complex contains four levels now, and is complete enough to have been dedicated earlier this spring, but no seniors have arrived. Nice quarters have been built for lodging, medical services, dentistry, laundry, and so forth, but project leaders have been unable to obtain the equipment needed to furnish them. They need basic things like hand-cranked hospital beds, lab equipment, examination tables, a commercial washer and dryer. Such things are simple enough to obtain in the U.S., but unavailable in Cuba.
Donis Hernandez Abella, director of the “Proyecto Hogar de Ancianos,” said he hopes residents can be in place by September. He lives in an apartment on the top level. Volunteer workers stay in a 16-room dormitory on the main level, the same rooms intended for the retired pastors and wives.
Team members left our homes on Thursday morning for an afternoon flight to Miami, where we stayed overnight so we could return to the airport at 5:00 a.m. for a Friday morning charter flight to Santiago. The scheduled 8:00 a.m. departure turned into a seven-hour-plus delay, so it was 4:30 p.m. by the time our World Atlantic Airlines MD-80 (“The Pride of Miami Tech”) coasted over Cuba’s southeastern coast, made a lazy counterclockwise loop over the Caribbean Sea, and settled onto the airport’s long runway, built parallel to the shore.
The airport has only three or four gates – planes pull up in front of the small terminal and lower onboard steps while a dozen or more ground crew members direct us to the immigration hall, get the luggage, and service the plane. One charter plane comes in from Miami each week, along with a few other flights.
Most of the passengers are Cuban-Americans who have come to visit family members and deliver supplies that aren’t available in Cuba. Every family brings multiple boxes or huge duffel bags of goods: a wrapping service at the airport winds layers of wide, colorful plastic wrap around them (at the “promotional price” of only $15 each), apparently to decrease the chances of close inspection or theft.
There is confusion in the crowded luggage and customs room at the airport. We had been given careful instructions for filling out a required immigration document, but we weren’t given any forms. Apparently, local immigration officials have stopped bothering with customs forms for obvious foreigners. So, while other passengers weighed their excess baggage and paid customs fees, we were waved out the door and into the bright tropical afternoon.
Cuba is famous for the number of really old cars and trucks that remain on the road. American cars from the fifties, prior to the boycott, are common: Chevys and Fords, Buicks and DeSotos, Pontiacs and Chryslers, the occasional Willys Jeep. We are told that many of them have been retrofitted with diesel engines because diesel fuel is much cheaper on the black market. Old Russian Ladas are fairly common. A variety of other imported cars are available in slightly newer models, but even they are inclined to belch the black exhaust of burning oil. Our van has no functional air conditioning, so we ride with the windows open and endure the fumes. Locals breathe through handkerchiefs.
After two days of travel and anticipation, team members were ready to work, but our hosts took us sightseeing on Saturday (San Juan Hill – where there are several statues but none to Teddy Roosevelt – and Castle El Morro). On Saturday evening, we attended a church service celebrating a local girl’s fifteenth birthday, a major event in Hispanic culture.
A beautiful young girl, having been feted with parties all day long, followed a procession of younger girls into the church. Dressed much as a bride would be, she sat on a special seat at the front of the church while a variety of people sang for her or gave her advice. Afterward, the party paraded out for a reception with cake. We opted for bed.
Tomorrow, we go to church. Lots of church.
(Note: these blogs are being posted on a delayed basis because no Internet was available in our location.)
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.