Sunset over Havana

The eye-opening truth about what I didn’t see in Cuba

By Brooke

Full disclosure: this was the hardest magazine article I have written to date.  Usually we arrive in a host country, show everyone World Next Door Magazine—which gives concreteness to our exact purpose in a place—and we all participate in a mutual sharing of information and relationship building over the next six weeks. Then we come home, write all the stories, and (of course) everyone in the world starts fighting injustice through our host organization!

Usually.

Also, we usually have phones and names and addresses of the places we’re going; we usually have access to Internet for communication; we’re usually allowed in and out of our own country and the host countries without threat of exile or jail or acquiring special permissions, and our host organization isn’t working through an alias.

An alias? Oh yeah. Our host organization isn’t usually blacklisted by the country it’s working in.

The host country usually isn’t communist, and we’re usually allowed to use the names and faces of the staff we meet without risk to their safety or ministry. We’re also usually able to use our own names without risk to future travel, and we’re always able to name the injustice we’re writing about—that’s sort of the point.

But part of the story here is that we can’t actually tell the story.

We went to Cuba. Cuba is communist. To showcase an injustice like poverty, or to outline the limits of religious “freedoms” and discover the shape of oppression instead, is the ultimate insult to a government that boasts adequate and equal care of its citizens. Nobody in Cuba would name the injustice for me. It would cost them their lives, incomes, families, and physical freedom.

So the best, most honest thing I can do is name the injustice myself. I can tell the story of my own experience and what it was like to live and worship there without identifying any specific churches, people, or ministries. In doing so, I absorb the risk myself.

I can describe my own confusion and fog. I can tell you how a place so controlled grew a seed of paranoia in me so real I thought for sure we would be arrested on our exit, and how I neurotically uploaded every possible note and draft to Dropbox so if my computer got confiscated or if we spent the next seven years in jail, at least World Next Door would have my notes. That’s real.

I can tell you about how we sought to find an underground movement and walked away empty handed—not because it doesn’t exist, but because nobody would show it to us out of threat of exposure.

And, completely opposite, in the next article I can introduce specific churches and people we encountered who are working in partnership with the system instead of against it—and how their ministries are blessed by that approach. I can name them. They reject discontent, and they cooperate with the system they’re born into, which happens to be communist Cuba. This perspective blew our minds and expanded our capacity to endure. They are accepting, complying, and thriving.

So. Let’s go to Cuba together.  I’ll lay it all out, and we’ll walk through the month together.

The Cuban flag

The Cuban flag

Claim Me!

My husband Jeff and I stood at the hot and crowded airport in Havana, Cuba with our luggage in hand and the quickly fading mental image of a guy we’d seen on Facebook a couple days earlier who was supposed to pick us up. We were among thousands as we scanned the crowd. We had no working phone, which was no big deal because we had not been given any phone numbers.

(Why hadn’t we asked for any phone numbers?!)

We had a wad of American cash—useless until we found a way to change it—and a sheet of paper with a couple of names, a few addresses, and our itinerary for the month. The itinerary said disconcerting things like To Be Determined.

We’d been asked by our host organization EchoCuba, which stands for Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba, to leave identifying information about them at home. They’d been blacklisted in Cuba for their work toward religious freedoms.

We were also advised to leave our own World Next Door identifying information at home because we’d received tourist visas, not religious or journalism visas. “Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing,” the host ministry had said. “You’re just tourists—so make sure you do lots of tourist activities, and make sure your camera has lots of tourist pictures on it.”

It’s a good thing we’re part travel magazine. Our plan would be to use tourism to locate injustice. And if we had to fight injustice on a Caribbean beach with piña coladas? So be it.

The Cuban mojito

A tasty mojito is often the drink of choice by locals and tourists in Cuba.

Just kidding. We prefer mojitos.

(Just kidding again.)

How?

Since everyone asks, these were the logistics. We (Americans) are welcome in Cuba. It’s the US government that restricts our travel to Cuba, not Cuba. That said, legal travel from the US can be arranged through a handful of organizations, and EchoCuba is one of them. They also arrange the Cuban visas and put us in touch with local churches on the ground (Note: None of these churches will be named in the magazine. The churches named in the next article were introduced to us through a mutual friend).

So. We’d traveled legally from the United States on a chartered flight with a religious license from the US – which we would need to conceal until our return home for presentation to US immigration – and a tourist visa for Cuba. At all times while in Cuba, everyone had explained, give as little information as possible.

(It dawns on me now as I write this why we, at all times, received as little information as possible. This is the way Cuba functions. The less knowledge everyone has about anyone else’s doings, the safer everyone is.)

Having made it through Cuban customs and immigration without incident, I sat down on my yellow duffel in the brightest pink skirt I owned, my tourist visa in hand, and waited to be claimed by the local pastor friend. It had already been an hour, and the multitude was thinning. I looked at non-panicked Jeff and told myself that I am an adventurer and that these are the types of things adventurers do.

I’ll do anything for a good story, and also there was no other option, so I continued to sit patiently on my bag and acted like I’m always waiting to be claimed at crowded airports in communist countries pretending to be a tourist while checking out the subversive work of my host organization, which had been kicked out of the country. #totallynormal

Antique cars are the norm in Cuba and are a symbol of the persistence and ingenuity of most Cubans.

Antique cars are the norm in Cuba and are a symbol of the persistence and ingenuity of most Cubans.

Two hours later, we were in the back seat of a bright yellow 1950s Russian Lada, windows down, with a local pastor and his taxi-driving friend, cruising out of Havana toward a southern suburb.

Confusion

Our first moments in-country could have set the pattern for how most of our time in Cuba would be. We never had more information than we needed at that exact moment, and it was never enough to put me completely at ease. Neither did our hosts in Cuba have any idea why we were visiting, for their own protection. We had to find creative, safe and protective ways of explaining our work with World Next Door, and we had to do it while pushing through about five other barriers—like mysterious Cuban Spanish with no R’s or S’s, and Visa limits on how I can or can’t legally interact with someone, and how someone can or can’t legally interact with me.

Our Cuban friends could be fined, interrogated, or even arrested just for appearing to be our tour guides or taxi drivers without the proper licenses. Each interaction brought new pieces to a puzzle we had no idea existed until we held it in our hands, sighing.

And each conversation inevitably reached a depth at which all answers became “it’s complicated.” We were warned by well-meaning decade-long foreigners working within the Cuban church not to mistake hospitality for friendship.

Ouch.

Even now as I write this, I want to say my experience defies this—such fun and meaningful sharing of stories and experiences with several couples—but how would I know?

One church sat us down on our arrival and said, “You are welcome here, but these are the rules: You can do anything you want inside the walls of the church, but once you step outside, we are no longer connected. If someone asks what you are doing in this neighborhood or why you are here, just explain that you are tourists. You may not tell anyone you are sleeping here or eating here, and you may not speak in front of the congregation. We take no political stance and are not involved in politics in any way.”

Noted. I felt like I was facilitating a deposition.

Policemen posted around town are a common site in Cuba.

Policemen posted around town are a common site in Cuba.

Another church in a different area was very cautious about letting us walk around outside at all, as the neighborhood was in a non-tourist area and we would likely draw attention to ourselves and to the church hosting us.

One evening at dusk, after we’d attended several church services throughout the week and had been welcomed by the church community multiple times, the pastor took us on a walk around the neighborhood. By the end of the week, we were able to accept invitations to other nearby houses of congregant friends—the friends were our own ages, though, which seemed to be the dividing line of trust.

Generally we found the under-30s to be friendly, open and informative; the 40s more hesitant, the 50s skeptical, and the over-60s dead-bolted and chain-locked. Many didn’t want their pictures taken, and no one wanted to sign our receipt book. By the second week we learned that if we wanted trust, we had stop asking for signatures.

A grocery store clerk writes down passport information for a routine purchase at his store.

A grocery store clerk writes down passport information for a routine purchase at his store.

To reduce the risk of compromising these churches by unintentionally drawing attention to their hospitality, and to respect the limits of our tourist visas, we stayed at nine different places in four weeks: homes, hostels, hotels, retreat centers and seminaries. In each place, we had to present our passports and visas. Our visas were sent to immigration and returned to us 12-48 hours later. For any bill we used that was $50 or higher, the bill number was recorded along with our passport numbers and signatures. The government potentially knew where we were and how much we were spending for almost our entire trip—except the times we stayed at a church; these weren’t recorded. For two of the four weeks, we were off the radar.

Misguided Preconceptions

Of course I was oblivious to these happenings before we came. Having been entirely charmed by Tourist Cuba on a five-day birthday celebration three years earlier, I thought everyone Stateside who warned us about communism was being just a little bit dramatic. This was Caribbean communism. But I could not have imagined the degree to which not only the Cubans were controlled, but also how much control was being exercised over me while I was there. I could not have imagined Actual Cuba.

Before we left Miami, I had written a blog about the work we’d be doing thinking, Hey, they can’t even access the Internet in Cuba so I can say whatever I want. But in reality, we learned, there are informants Googling 24 hours per day, and when short-term teams go home thinking they are safe to share whatever they want on the internet, it’s the churches left in the country that suffer.

In addition, many people—including those who have worked with even the most reputable rule-following churches—find that when they arrive in Cuba for their next mission, their visa is denied based on things they’ve posted online after returning home. The kicker? Cuba doesn’t tell you your visa has been denied. You show up at the Cuban airport and find out on arrival you’re not allowed in. As mentioned in the historical articles in Ignite, this happened to the founder of ECHO.

For all these reasons, after we spent time in country, our purpose shifted dramatically: we would no longer be looking for the secret stuff. In part out of necessity to protect our host organization and the ministries, but also because, try as we might, we never saw any type of underground subversive work. We only saw people following rules. This is evidently the way secret stuff is designed.

Repurposed

So we couldn’t see the secret stuff.  We accepted that, but we couldn’t ignore the knowledge of injustice around us. On the surface and in the tourist areas, you don’t necessarily see the everyday injustices that occur to the average Cuban citizen, because the average citizen is following all the rules—but dig a little deeper, and you start to get an idea.

Here is a Cuban’s starting point: random arrests and imprisonments for disagreeing with the political regime; physical violence, travel restrictions, and forced exile for any behavior deemed as a threat to the regime; imprisonment without due process or fair trials; mandatory re-education classes for ideas that differ from that of the current regime (at one time Christians and homosexuals were targets for mandatory re-education camps); restricted access to news and media outlets; outright denial of the rights to express and assemble; and the most visible of all—poverty.

The average Cuban lives on $20 per month, with government subsidization of housing, utilities, food and bus travel. The average Cuban is highly educated, so this is a poverty experienced by what the American culture would consider elite: the doctors, dentists, engineers, pharmacists, linguists, professors, etc. With a literacy rate of 99%, Cuba produces some of the most skilled and educated asylum seekers in the world.

A line of people standing outside a bakery for their daily ration of bread

A line of people standing outside a bakery for their daily ration of bread

Never having seen a ration system, I was fascinated by the list of items and services each citizen had access to, subsidized by the government, but only available to collect at his own neighborhood-based corner shop. We saw these lines every morning. This also served as an additional assurance to restrict travel between districts. If you want your bread and eggs and sugar this week, you’re staying in your own neighborhood!

Monthly allowances per person:

7 kilos rice
3 kilos sugar
2 kilos salt
10 lbs potatoes (but not every month)
10 Eggs
5 kilowatts of electricity for the residence

We had no access to Internet, independent newspapers, or reading material, as there are no printing presses outside those owned by the government. Though it wasn’t the norm, I am not exaggerating when I tell you a Cuban asked our German friends which Germany they lived in—East or West.

Same answer, different questions

Most things, we realized, had the appearance of freedom, but actual choices are limited. Yeah, you are free to buy a car, but it will cost $95 grand. We’ll provide all your food and utility needs, but we’ll determine what your needs are, and, oh, you can only get it here at this one place, so don’t travel anywhere.

Not surprisingly, worship freedoms follow the same pattern.

Cubans enjoy the freedom to gather, pray, worship, even host street ministries and outreach. Rules and permissions exist, but as long as a church follows these rules and obtains the right permissions through appropriate channels, they are relatively free to practice within certain boundaries.

Those boundaries, though.

Churches can exist legally, but no one is allowed to build any. A church in Cuba has two options—use the building of a church that had been built before the revolution, or exist independently in a house.

A line of people standing outside a bakery for their daily ration of bread

A line of people standing outside a bakery for their daily ration of bread

Inside the Iglesia de la Merced in Havana, Cuba. Construction began in 1755 and the church is still in use today.

Inside the Iglesia de la Merced in Havana, Cuba. Construction began in 1755 and the church is still in use today.

There are only a handful of pre-revolutionary churches, and they are largely puppet churches to show the rest of the world, Hey, look! See? We totally have churches! But they’re subsidized by the government, are required to preach Marxist theology, and comprise the official Council of Cuban Churches, which, as described in the Ignite article about ECHO, does things like confiscate freely donated Bibles and sell them.

A person is allowed to own a Bible, by the way, but the government won’t import them. An individual from the outside can enter Cuba with up to seven Bibles. The same is true with Christmas symbols, like nativity sets—allowed, but not available (ECHO is all over the nativity set accessibility).

Christmas Mission

After 30 years, the Cuban government granted permission to the population to celebrate Christmas by exhibiting decorations outside their homes and churches.

Most children in Cuba have never seen a nativity scene. Help EchoCuba send 10,000 mini nativity sets crafted of local olive tree wood by Christians in Bethlehem to Cuban children at $5 each plus shipping.

Most churches exist independently, and they’re called house churches— unofficially limited to about 9-15 people per house, though we’ve seen people squeeze in up to 30. This explains the desperate need for leadership training, which ECHO funds. If a neighborhood has 200 congregants meeting 15-20 per house—kids in these two houses, youth in that house, Sunday School in this house, women in that house, couples in this house—they’d need 10-15 pastoral leaders trained and ready to lead per congregation.

I thought about how this would play out at my home church of about 6,000 active members. If we had to disperse into home churches of 20 members each to maintain our existence legally, we would need THREE HUNDRED instant leaders available and trained.

This type of situation exemplifies, too, why the Cuban church is so desperate for theological resources. They must constantly equip hundreds of thousands of leaders all over the country—and they have to do it without printing presses or Internet.

These tablets are an answer to prayer for many pastors in Cuba. Up to 4000 books and other learning materials can be stored on each device.

These tablets are an answer to prayer for many pastors in Cuba. Up to 4000 books and other learning materials can be stored on each device.

Enter tablets. Digital tablets loaded with theological resources allow for the acquisition and distribution of hundreds of books all over the country. ECHO sends tablets like these with groups who enter the country, several per person. Don’t miss that. The tablets and Bibles are brought one-by-one, for the entire country.

Such a slow and patient process, equipping the Cuban church.

To accommodate the growing church in a place that doesn’t allow for new church construction, most pastors apply to construct a “house” on land donated or purchased from a congregant, build a three-story house, live on the top floor and create a sanctuary and classrooms into the bottom two floors.

Cubans are inventive, you know. The church then becomes the pastor’s home, which is legal. But to build the home, they need money, and both money and construction supplies are hard to find inside Cuba on a $20-per-month salary. No part of building or growing a church is subsidized.

The Nations

We immediately understood the dozens of flags strung up over the sanctuary in the first church we visited. Materially, the Cuban church is almost 100% reliant on the body of Christ outside of Cuba to meet its needs, and God had provided for the needs of that church through the Nations. The pastor could point to a bench, a Bible, a projector, a computer, a study tool, a painted wall and tell you which church from which country had contributed to their patchwork existence. The two measly Bibles we brought suddenly seemed embarrassing.

We toured the church’s facilities as the pastor showed us several initiatives that churches in North America have funded or physically contributed to in person, many through partnerships forged and monies managed by EchoCuba.

This is not a dependency the outside church has created. This is a dependency the Cuban government has created, the Cuban church has identified, and the larger church body is providing for. It’s the inverse of the When Helping Hurts philosophy. This is a case for when helping actually helps.

I had been totally unaware of one entire limb of the body of Christ. I could have gone my whole life and not thought twice about my brothers and sisters in Cuba who are working so hard to simply exist on the goodwill of their global family. I was now inextricably connected to my Cuban church family, and I couldn’t un-know their situations. My 15 Bibles at home and the size of my church would hold new meaning.

Free but not free

Throughout the month, we learned that establishing a church and finding a meeting space is only the first hurdle.

Community watchmen in the congregation keep a constant eye on what the preacher is preaching, how the congregation is stirred, and at what intensity. While the act of social programming—caring for your community—is encouraged, discussion of discontent is not. Talking about injustice is not.

A church can be disbanded at any time for any reason and/or closed completely.

Isolation

Though all the things listed above pieced together a picture of how limited the religious freedoms really are, the most impacting and heart-breaking discovery was the isolation.

Because there is no access to Internet or news, nobody has any information about the body of Christ anywhere else in the world. Even if they had the news from other bodies and nations, there’s no way to connect or reach back out. No email, Facebook, Skype, or twitter for the average Cuban—not even forwards of kittens dressed as humans or quintuplets laughing in unison, if you can imagine.

Adding to the seclusion, Cuba has not been a short-term mission destination for most North American churches in the last 55 years due to the embargo. So as ill-informed as we are about the Cuban church, and as isolated as we feel from Cuba because of the embargo, imagine how isolated the Cubans feel from the rest of the entire world. We know almost nothing about them—their struggles, challenges, hopes and testimonies—and they’re only 90 miles away from us!

When we sat down with a church leader our age to show him World Next Door Magazine, his jaw dropped as I described the challenges and growth of the local church in Nepal, a country where Christianity is growing fast despite minority status and masked discrimination.

My friend said, “I thought we were the only ones!”

Can you imagine? I had no idea.

He described how valuable it would be for his congregation if I would go back through each country we’d visited and write up a little summary of what it’s like to be a Christian there, to share the struggles and encouragements from each country with his church. The connection to the larger body is essential for fellowship and prayer and encouragement.

Here’s the punch line: The only way to overcome the isolation barrier is to go there.

When a person from the outside comes in and spends time with the church, sharing and fellowshipping, the pastor told us, the church is forever changed. The congregation never gets to hear testimonies that other Christians in free places have struggles and challenges too, and how God works in their lives to teach them things.

Even my own truth-telling about our struggle with infertility brought another four women out of the congregation in tears, surprised we shared such common ground and faith struggles. Hugs and gifts and prayers were shared between us, and our joint experiences in different worlds somehow surpassed the expanse of the Florida straits and 55 years of separation.

So, yeah, EchoCuba does really exciting stuff like fund edgy bloggers and religious freedom programmers and respond to disasters and bring Bibles and Nativity sets in and load tablets with theological resources and capacity building materials—all things we can be part of.

But they also connect North American Christians with Cuban Christians. They arrange the lifeline of community between us, and they pave an easy path.

You can go there!

You, an individual.

You, a family.

You, a small group.

You, a short-term team.

You, a teacher or painter or drummer or counselor or sit-and-visit-er.

You, a Christ-follower able to travel.

You, a Christ-follower willing to sponsor another to travel.

We not only can go there, we have to.

They’re part of us, and we need to take care of each other.

ROMANS 12:5 In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

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