Cuba is not at all the way I pictured it. My earliest impressions of this island are linked to memories of grade school air raid drills, crouching under our desks until the sirens stopped. Cuba was the ominous stronghold of communism, a threat to our way of life. I remember the fear that gripped our community during the missile crisis when our nation was pushed to the brink of nuclear war. Castro and his forces represented the sinister presence of the evil empire at our back door. In more recent times even as the awesome might of Cuba's Soviet partner crumbled away, Castro somehow maintained his fist-like dictator grip on this island nation. Recent tensions over six-year-old Elian Gonzalez have re-stoked a fiery animosity that persists as the last vestige of the cold war. It was with no little apprehension that I recently entered the country, a member of a small delegation on a site visit to a Christian seminary that has been tenaciously holding on since before the revolution. Though we carried State Department papers, we could not enter Cuba directly. We secured visas in Jamaica. "We are here for 'humanitarian purposes'", we were coached to say, should we be interrogated by Havana Airport security. But the preparation was unnecessary. There was no sign of machine-gun toting guards in fatigues - only two white-clad nurses at a desk assisting with health-related questions. Uniformed customs agents were courteous and even smiled on occasion. I was relieved but not reassured. The in-processing was entirely too smooth.
Our host from the seminary met us with an air-conditioned van and we headed off toward Havana. The late afternoon traffic moved slowly but steadily on wide paved roads that had been patched and re-patched by decades of hand-labor asphalt crews. There seemed to be as many trucks as cars on the road, most with the loose clattering sounds of diesel engines. I did not recognize most of the makes (probably Soviet made) but those I did brought back a rush of nostalgic memories - Chevys, Fords and Plymouths from the 1950's! Grills and bumpers were missing on some but others were intact originals. My pulse perked each time we passed a classic '57 Chevy and I even paused for a hasty picture beside a clean '59 Chevy just like the one I owned in college.
As our driver calmly weaved his way through stop and go city streets, my mind raced ahead to the questions I wanted to ask the president and faculty of the seminary and the house church pastors we would visit. Must the Christian faith be practiced in secrecy? Do agents of the communist party infiltrate religious activities? How serious is the persecution of Christians who will not join the party? From the van window I caught sight of uniformed police standing conspicuously on various street corners. Curiously, none were armed and most seemed engaged in easy conversations with community residents. To the Havana waterfront we journeyed, past a picturesque harbor lined with aging buildings, still proud and sturdy but unable to conceal signs of serious wear. Our road led through massive mid-rise concrete housing projects, drab from years of exposure to the elements, yet trash and graffiti free, home for hundreds of thousands of Cuban citizens from every walk of life. We wound our way out to hilly countryside dotted with palms and gardens and cottage-size homes. Oxen and horses pulled ancient wooden plows. The few belching tractors that still ran were half a century or more old.
The Seminario Evangelico de Teologia was high on a hilltop in the middle of the good-size city of Matanzas. Behind its walls was an oasis of lush foliage, neatly painted buildings and gracious hospitality. Sun-baked construction workers from surrounding villages were busily engaged laying tile, mixing concrete and wiring re-bar for a new dormitory they were building without the aid of power tools or machines. Neatly clad students, sent by their churches to be prepared as pastors, criss-crossed the campus on their way to classes. The library, one of the few buildings with glass-paned windows, contained a sparse treasure of well-used volumes. I was surprised to discover that most of the professors held doctorates, and the masters and doctoral level programs would rival most American seminaries. 250 serious-minded young ministers were being equipped to return to their communities and live sacrificially, many to work meager-paying day jobs and pastor house churches in their evenings and weekends. Thirteen other Cuban seminaries and Bible colleges, we learned, were also vigorously training a new generation of leaders for the most dramatic spiritual growth the country has known in 127 years when the first Protestant church was established.
No, there was very little government restriction placed on the indigenous church in Cuba these days, a group of faculty members informed us as we dialogued together in a breezy upper room that had the luxury of an oscillating fan - not compared to the early days of the revolution, at least. Castro, it seems, has been undergoing a spiritual softening of some sort, reflected in his decision to invite Pope John Paul for a visit. Yes, the government did control (or at least regulate) all social, economic and legislative structures and better positions were provided to members of the party, they said. All expressed a desire for more freedoms but no one seemed the least interested in parting with the free health care and education available to everyone. Recent experiments by Castro to allow some limited private entrepreneurship - small restaurants, craft markets, and farming cooperatives - were yielding promising results. It was inevitable that the U.S. embargo would eventually be lifted, on this our hosts had consensus. But a tidal wave of all that is Western breaking over their culture could spell serious trouble for them.
Communism would be coming to an end in Cuba sooner or later, they knew. But the disastrous social, economic and political upheaval that had befallen many of their Soviet block partners in recent years brought them grave concerns. Cuba, though poor, was at least stable. And there was adequate rice and beans to feed everyone. And everyone had a job and a place to live. And of course, free education and health care. What was their greatest concern, we inquired, as they anticipated the inevitable opening of their country to the U.S. and the rest of the free world?
"The Western church!" responded the seminary president, a response that shocked our delegation. Not the influx of drugs and criminal elements? Not the corruption and disparity powerful corporations might introduce? Not political destabilization and social unrest? These things could happen, yes. But to the Kingdom, she continued, great damage could be done if the aggressive, well-meaning, amply funded missions efforts of the Western church were to invade the island, rushing past the humble harvest workers and trampling over their tender grain. The land could fill with hoards of naïve short-term mission trippers with little understanding of local language or customs who expect to be honored as teachers and leaders. Local pastors, lured by the possibilities introduced by their new moneyed ministry partners, could be turned into tour guides and volunteer coordinators instead of tenders of their flocks. The indigenous church could be over-run by high powered evangelism machines rolling past those who have been toiling faithfully during the lean years and, with their awesome organizational and technological capabilities, re-colonize the island in the brand-names of their various versions of Christianity.
The candor was startling. This was not at all what I was expecting to hear from our gracious, soft-spoken hosts. Upon reflection, though, it made perfect sense. Helping is a very tricky business. A kindly "Here, let me do it for you" can easily come across as "I can do it better than you" which is just a short step from "I am better then you." At best, it is demeaning to be someone's mission project. And true partnerships are very difficult to forge. The vitality of an emerging Cuban church, born out of repression and personal sacrifice, could be dealt a serious (though altogether unintentional) blow by those innocently desiring to help.
How do you feel about the church youth group that will be coming here from the U.S. next week on a mission trip? I wondered how far the candor of our hosts would stretch before diplomacy would kick in. They smiled, offered a few affirming, non-committal comments, just enough to reveal to the careful listener that this "mission group" would be a mixed blessing. Yes, it would consume a lot of seminary staff time to arrange all the transportation, lodging, meals, work projects, materials and a long list of logistical details. And would the benefits outweigh the expenditure of time? Well... the financial support of the sending church was important, and some worthwhile work would be accomplished. But... honestly, this must be viewed as ministry to the Americans, rather than the other way around. It would be better, our hosts reluctantly admitted, if the money spent on airfare were used to hire local workers who would gain a sense of pride and accomplishment in the building project as well as the esteem of providing better food and clothing for their families.
Out-processing at the Havana Airport was as courteous as in-processing had been five days earlier. A brief immersion in this land of gentle yet spirited people had disarmed me of a four-decade build-up of fear and contempt. Even more surprising was the excitement I felt about the possibilities of new partnerships - partnerships based not on pity or patronage but on candor and mutual respect. Wouldn't it be ironic, I mused as our plane lifted off the runway, if God has chosen humble Cuba to teach the proud Western church some very basic Kingdom manners: to serve without controlling, to wait and listen rather than take charge, to be gracious guests rather than presumptuous intruders. For the first time in my life I considered taking Spanish lessons.