It was Spring Break, and like most university students in the southeast we were heading for a warm and sandy destination. Our posse was a pretty tight group of people. We had met on multiple occasions since Christmas planning and hoping that this trip would be memorable and smooth. But this trip was different. Oh yes, it was memorable, and for the most part it went very smoothly; but this trip far exceeded any of our expectations and left on every one of us indelible marks.
We traveled to RDU international airport by van and then flew to Miami where we stayed our first night. For dinner we had a taste of our destination, Cuban cuisine. Our wait staff gave us odd looks as they over heard our plans for the next week. For most of them, we were talking about the home of their parents and a place they wished they could see for once in their own lifetime. It was a sober reminder that our trip was a privilege.
At the airport the following morning, we witnessed our first miracle. The baggage fee, which we were expecting to be near $1,000 turned out to be only $100. Don’t ask me how that math worked out, but it sure was re-assuring at 4 AM in an already overly crowded airport that the path was being laid ahead of us. The ensuing plane ride and entry into Cuba also went very smoothly and we were greeted with open arms by our hosts.
We left Santiago de Cuba and headed west to the Baptist Retirement Center that would be our home and work site for the next week. During the bumpy van ride we caught a glimpse of San Juan Hill among the rugged mountainous terrain. The road was full of sights not commonly seen on American roadways: donkeys pulling carts, soldiers on horseback, motorcyclists swarming like bees, the occasional European and or Asian make car; or, even rarer a 50’s or 60’s model Chevy. It was indeed as if we had stepped back in time.
Our reception at the retirement home was warm and welcoming. We were introduced to the staff and interpreters, then invited to spend time resting before our meal. The retirement center was not yet functional, and that was why we had come. The tile lined rooms where we found our beds were the future living quarters of retired Baptist pastors. We were informed that when pastors take on their role full time, they give up all legal right to health benefits and retirement. Thus the burden of a pastor’s (and their family’s) well being falls on the congregation. This retirement home was a product of sharing that burden among many congregations. However, it also served a multi-faceted purpose as those retired pastors who would soon call the center their home would be able to teach at the Baptist seminary that sat adjacent. The two facilities functioned together as an almost self-sustaining community. The innovation of the designers incorporated fresh water well fed by a mountain stream, pools that would soon be stocked with tilapia, multiple gardens of tomatoes, peppers, and yucca, citrus, plantain, almond, coconut, and mango trees, and a menagerie of livestock.
As we joined this community for the next week, our tasks would be to clean, paint, and landscape. Originally we had been told to prepare for doing block work. However, the construction projects were finished for the time being and we had an opportunity to learn the most important rule of missional service: flexibility. Our goal was to fill in the cracks as the entire staff prepared for the retirement center’s biggest moment yet, it’s dedication ceremony which would be taking place mid-way through the week.
Before the work gloves and boots were put on, it was time for church clothes. Our Sunday morning started on Saturday night with a youth service at Fourth Baptist Church in Santiago. The building was packed with well over two hundred “youth” ages 18 to 35. Many shocked and inquisitive faces stared back at us as we introduced ourselves and gave brief testimonies via translator. “Americans” was on thing. “American Christians” was another. “American Christians from a Christian University” was entirely another. It was humbling as much as it was inspiring to see so many young adults intentionally attending a church service on a Saturday night. They were making social and personal sacrifices by being there and it showed in their worship, in their attention, and in their reception of us. The scene repeated again at three more churches on Sunday, each time being unique and special. The earliest service actually took place in the newly built chapel at the retirement center. Just knowing that this was the first “church building” to be built in Cuba in over fifty years was a sacred experience. Our final service of the day took us to the site of the oldest Baptist church building in Cuba. The crumbling ceiling and walls still stood as if a hand were holding them up in preparation of something to come. The pastor of this church gave our team a century-old Italian tile pulled from the rubble as a token of remembrance. It would be hard to forget even without the tile.
The work leading up to the dedication ceremony was a blur of sweat, dirt, paint, and smiling, laughing children. The professional workers who had been hired and with whom we were working alongside brought their entire families to the jobsite. Thus, our break times were filled with pick-up baseball and soccer games. The kids were full of smiles and roughly translated questions about our lives at home. We passed out frisbees and balls we had brought with us which turned into instant treasures in the hands of the kids. Another small miracle manifested itself as we handed out the toys; we had exactly the right number and no child left broken-hearted or empty-handed.
The dedication ceremony brought in a large number of guests, including the executive director of NC Baptist men, Richard Brunson. Our team became hosts, passing out ponchos during the short rain storm and washing dishes in the kitchen. The emotions written across the faces of those attending testified to the fact that we were witnessing a special moment in the history of the Cuban church. The chapel seating was packed and most of the team could only catch a glimpse of the service through the windows, but it was evident that the Spirit was moving and could be felt by all present.
With the dedication service over, our manual work was finished. Pastor Donnes, the head of the retirement facility arranged for the team to do street evangelism with some of the youth from Fourth Baptist in Santiago. We divided into groups of two or three and left with teams from the church and walked into a bustling city of nearly 1 million people. We were recognized immediately as Americans which caused most people to stop and pay attention to us as we told them in broken Spanish “Dios te bendiga” (May God bless you) or “Christe te ama” (Christ loves you). These simple phrases made big differences in many lives that day and each team came back with incredible accounts. These accounts are too numerous to be listed here.
Lives were changed in Cuba that week. The reality is that many of those changed lives were our own. Our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who call Cuba their home send greeting and affirm with us that God’s work is being done. Their gratitude as well as that of the team goes out to you who supported us with your finances, your donations, and most importantly, your prayers. May the eternal well of Christ’s love continue to be poured out and shared to you.
Josiah Antill, ‘11 Ministerial Assistant and Resident Director