Cuba: A Spiritual Geography: The Jesus of Havana

By: Pastor Christina

Then the Lord said, I have seen the misery of my people ...I have heard their cry... Indeed, I know their sufferings. Exodus 3:7


     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city. What does he see? What does he hear? In a meeting with theologian and past student of Jürgen Moltmann, Dr. Reinerio Arce, he offers our study tour group an image of a rapidly changing cultural landscape. The elderly eat breakfast every morning at the Presbytery church in Luyuno district which is, along with Tai chi, a social service of the church. Many are missing their families. Their sons and daughters have left for a “better” life to homes in Miami. A woman cries to him in distress, “I looked after my children and my parents, and now who’s going to look after me?” The traditional family dynamic is shifting, and the elderly are suffering. Has the Jesus of Havana heard their cries?

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city. The shifting tides of the ocean reflect the shifting of tides within the city. The young sit in internet parks where they connect with the rest of the world and see all that they do not have. In light of the recent Ontario government cuts to child care and higher education, I reflect on our translator Yosmel’s words: “They do not see their free health care, or their free higher education. They see what they do not have and they long for it.” Their homes pale in comparison to the homes in the neighbouring USA. Just as Canada is the mouse to the elephant, Cuba is the humming bird. As 16 of us saunter through the streets of Luyana the odd whiff of garbage causes me to choke just a little, and the children play in the park, while someone comments that they feel a little like they are at the zoo looking in at the animals. However, I’ve never seen the streets at the zoo so lined with garbage. 

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city. On the couch of Havana, the cement median which separates ocean and sidewalk, the people sit and visit. The relationships are as strong as the waves, and I am pulled into the flow. A walk through the streets of the city displays more open doors then closed ones. Opportunity to celebrate community with neighbors, friends, and strangers who often transform into friends at their door steps. Someone at the seminary greets me with a kiss and I am made to feel like part of the family as they hand me yet another plate of beans and rice to which I add a little dash of guilt for craving poutine and burgers. “We are worried about this coming year,” says Elizabeth Gonzalez, the secretary at the seminary in Matanzas. “It’s going to be a hard one for our people. The US embargo is in full force and we are running out of options …and food. Oil and bread will soon be scarce. Our garden was decimated by the hurricane Irma, but we are replanting, and I harvested some lettuce to share with you, our guests.” I am humbled by their generosity and hospitality. “Pass the oil please,” I say.

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city. An invitation to a mid-week house church deep in the city plants me among the locals, the lay leaders of the church. I am deeply moved as one of the participants reflects on their many years spent in Sunday worship with their congregation.  “In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s atheism was at its height, but when economic crisis hit the island in the 90’s the people started flooding to the churches in search of hope and meaning. The baptisms that first year were incredible. 25 new members joined our church that Easter, but we only had enough baptism gowns for 10. This challenge turned to opportunity when we raided the closets of the church for something, anything to clothes our new members in. That year, angels, shepherds, and wise ones were baptized, and a sense of spirit and unity prevailed.” Crisis is a segue to God. I reflect on my own need for God in times of crisis, but will I ever see that true unity means that their crisis is my own?

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city, as the old rooster, joined by its kin, awakens the city. Hopes two daughters, anger and courage[1] are alive and well in Cuba, we are told by Rev. Raúl Suárez. He is celebrating his 60th anniversary of being a pastor, just as Cuba is celebrating its 60th anniversary since the revolution, a process which ruptured the previous system. “At the time of the revolution we were indignant about our circumstances, but we had the courage to change it, despite our being perceived as demonic for taking part in the revolution. It was a challenge of the church to live out it’s faith in and through those changes.” I am comforted by the knowledge that Canadians, such as myself, have a special place in the hearts of the Cuban people. “When all of the other countries turned their backs on us, Mexico and Canada always kept their doors open for Cuba and this has enabled our relationship with your churches.” The Cold War was indeed a time of frozen hearts and minds for those who sided against Cuba. Our meeting comes to an end, and as we hold hands and pray, I reflect on this symbol of unity amidst diversity.

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city as we make our way to the seminary in Matanzas. A walk through the seminary’s labyrinth offers a much -needed time of reflection before our trip to the Kairos Centre, a centre founded in 1994 to meet the spiritual and economic needs of the people through the arts amid the dream of improving the quality of life of the people; to lift self esteem, belonging, and identity. Meanwhile, I feel less like myself than ever as the culture shock deepens.

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city of Havana as my study tour to Cuba comes to an end. I board the plane to Toronto with visions of the comforts of home which the people I leave behind can only imagine. The passengers come mostly from resorts of one kind or another, and I witness a young woman yell at the staff for stealing her phone which she left on the plane after her last flight. Yosmel’s words echo in my head. “They see what they do not have, and they long for it.” Oh, my precious, precious phone- how would I do without connection to the rest of the world? I wonder, although I’ve never felt so at a distance.

     The Jesus of Havana stands tall looking out over the city as I lie in my bed in that place between dreams and wakefulness, trying to make sense of my journey. I recall the words of Joel Ortega Dopico, the president of the Cuban Council of Churches, as he reflects of the Council’s mission. “We Cubans live in dreams, because our reality is not good. Our first dream is for the Cuban churches to remain united. Our second dream is more progress and economic development.” Yesterday marked the beginning of the week of prayer for Christian unity - a time where we are called to celebrate diversity and be faithful to Christ’s call for the unity of his Church. As I begin my week in prayer, my heart and mind remain fixed on all that the Jesus of Havana may see and hear.


[1] Quote attributed to Augustine