Saturday, May 7, 2016

Returning to Cuba

A Return to Cuba in April, 2016
The People of St. Francis, Cardenas 
In early April 14 travelers from New Hampshire spent one week in Cuba. For some in the group, it was a second and even third visit in three years to the island nation. Christ Church in Exeter is a companion parish of St. Francis of Assisi church in Cardenas.  St. John’s in Portsmouth sent four of its parishioners on this latest trip and has been wonderful partners in this ministry. 

What draws us to Cuba and keeps us returning is the clear sense that we learn something new each time about the faith and resilience of the people we meet.  The worship experiences in Cardenas are uplifting and inspiring.  We have come to see one another as family.  The Episcopal Church in Cuba is currently working to find a canonical way to return to being a part of the Episcopal Church again (it was made autonomous, not of its choosing, in the mid-1960’s as the two nations grew further apart politically and economically).

Our trip came only days after President Obama made his historical visit to the island, signally an end the Cold War time warp that so characterized the last five decades.  By chance and good fortune our group ate at the same small restaurant in Old Havana as did the President with his family. The question on many Cubans’ minds was apparent: will life really change in any noticeable way from closer ties to the U.S.?  Will the sense of hope in the air be dashed yet again, as Cuba’s own leaders fail to respond to the new opening and make meaningful changes in the economy and human rights that improve peoples’ lives? 

We encountered many Americans trying to get to Cuba before the flood gates of tourists open up and spoil and change what so many have been captivated with but unable to see up close: the frozen in time look of today’s Cuba looking like the 1960’s with fleets of classic American filling the streets.  It is clear that Cuba is not capable of handling the quantity of tourists ready to come ashore. 

One change from our visit in 2015 was the sight of public Wi-Fi spaces springing up in the center of cities and towns. Smart phones, brought in by visiting relatives or purchased with hard-earned convertible Cuban pesos, lit up the evenings as adults, teens and even children chatted with friends and did what many seek to have the freedom and right to: waste their time and money online!  Cubans, like youthful populations around the world, are an aspirational people who want to be connected, to eat out in a restaurant, to listen to music and to be lifted out from even a few hours from their very mundane and ordinary lives. 

Our mission purpose was to continue our ongoing project of bringing and installing water purification systems. Clean drinking water is of key concern for many in Cuba as the infrastructure has been neglected and water-born illnesses continue to grow.  This year we worked collaboratively with Rotary International, especially the Exeter Rotary Club, to purchase and transport seven systems – a group of ten Rotarians arrived in Cuba as we departed.   Rotary raised over $9000 for the project. We successfully navigated the systems safely through customs and Rotary was able to install three systems and sent the others to the interior region of the country where few groups are able to visit.  It will be our responsibility to provide a supply of replacement parts and new filters to the systems until the time comes when trade and commerce open between the U.S. and Cuba. 

One breakthrough and highlight of the trip was the openness of a government-owned clinic in the small town on Limonar in Matanzas province to receive a water system and the large donation of medical supplies. The local Episcopal church worked with a representative of the Communist Party and clinic officials to make the project possible.  From my 30 years experience in Cuba, this kind of contact would not have been successful even a few years ago.

We pray and hope that our relationship with Cuba will grow and flourish for years to come.

Mark B. Pendleton
Meeting staff of Clinic in Limonar where system would be installed