Just over a hundred miles south of Florida’s Key West, 11 million people drag their feet through the streets of a Caribbean “paradise.” Their faces bear the scars of Communist oppression—in expressions of sorrow, hopelessness, anguish, and despair. Some beg for money, some beg for food, some beg for work—and some of the youngest girls engage in the oldest profession in the world.
Welcome to Cuba.
Out of those 11 million people, Donato and other Christians wear a different expression—one of hope, trust and joy. They live under the same Communist regime; they work in the same conditions; they starve and they weep; but their smiles hint at something different.
I met Donato when my church, Park Cities Baptist, in partnership with East West Ministries, traveled to Cuba to provide craft supplies for and to assist with Templo Bautista’s Vacation Bible School (VBS) in Camaguay, Templo Bautista El Redentor in Cespedes, and Templo Bautista in Florida. Donato spearheads several area churches’ children’s ministries, and also serves as an English translator for visiting missionaries like me.
Several mornings, Donato took me to the center of the town in Florida (flor-î-da) to shop in the market. The market was stuffed with ripe avocados and guavas, bartering crowds, and pig stands that dripped with blood as flies swarmed around the meat. In the government-run “dollar” store, where the managers must turn off the air-conditioning from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. to save money, our moist shoulders stuck together as we squeezed past others in the aisles. Emerging from the dollar store one day, I had to insist before Donato finally consented to eat ice cream with me—the vendor sold four small scoops for only 50 cents. Days later I learned that fifty cents is a day’s wage for the average Cuban.
Each day of our visit, the church served up large quantities of pork and other food. I felt like Esther at the Feast of Purim. One day, I asked the group through our translator, Raymond, if the Cubans ate like Mexicans—a big meal for lunch and a small meal for dinner. Everyone at the table erupted in laughter. “No,” someone quipped, “We are not like Mexicans. Here we eat big meal, big meal.” Everyone laughed again.
Like before, I found out later that Cubans never eat large meals—they were treating us. In fact most Cuban families receive a salary from the government of twelve to fifteen dollars per month, along with rations of one pound of rice and three pounds of black beans. Children six years old and younger receive milk rations. I wanted to burrow into the ground like a mole.
Donato later spoke candidly about the country’s food shortage. “My wife and I have a small piece of bread for breakfast, and then we eat a small plate of rice and beans for dinner, and that’s it. No lunch. We don’t eat lunch. Only two meals a day. Except for [my 18-month-old son]—he gets milk and three meals a day. There is not much motivation to eat three meals. When you eat rice and beans every single day, you get sick of it, you know.”
I nodded as if I understood and empathized. But I didn’t know. How could I? I live in a place where the “experts” tell us to eat five to six small meals a day. We don’t understand “no” or “portion control.” Obesity rates escalate and weight-loss surgery is replacing the hottest fad diet. How could I identify with Donato’s life?
Three days later, during VBS, the reality of Donato’s words hit home: an eight-year-old girl, Misleydis, confided that she had no time to eat lunch before she arrived, but I suspected that she didn’t have enough food at home—period. I assured her that we would give her something to eat at snack time. I hugged her bone-thin frame, remembering the lunch I had inhaled: flaky fried fish, white rice, creamy shrimp bisque soup, and chocolate cake with vanilla frosting.
Aside from rumbling tummies and cracked lips, the kids in Cuba formed a collage of different characteristics, just as they do in the States. Those who attended VBS were excited to join in worship. Some were hyper, others shy; some impatient, others helpful; some mischievous, others loving. Overall, they all wanted love from the teachers and acceptance from the other students.
While Cuban adults rely on the Lord for provision and work to stretch their monthly rations, they also learn to live without another commodity: good healthcare. For example, Raymond’s wife battles diabetes—a disease manageable in the United States, but a death sentence in Cuba. Although Raymond has faith in the Lord and fellowship with other Christians, he expressed his frustration: “Unless you have a friend who is a doctor, you might as well stay home. Doctors give you the wrong medication or diagnosis just to get you out of the office, and we cannot get prescriptions.”
Despite the difficulties of life in Cuba, Donato and other church members stand out from the crowd. Their faces reflect hope and joy—qualities born out of love for Jesus Christ. The Cuban believers’ source of contentment does not stem from education or medicine, despite the number of doctors, dentists, and seminary students in the congregation’s attendance. Their contentment does not flow from money, pride or prestige, but from a peace that the God who freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and Babylonian captivity is the same God yesterday, today, and forever—and He promises in His time also to free them.
“Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes. Cease from anger and forsake wrath; do not fret; it leads only to evildoing. For evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land. Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there. But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (Ps 37:7-11).
Over the past forty years, while these same congregations have continued to flourish, God has raised up pastors, teachers, worship leaders, performers and puppeteers from within the church body to lead their brothers and sisters. Yet, they long for connection with the outside world—to build relationships with us. Let us encourage them, as Paul modeled, through our letters and prayers.
For information on how to encourage Cuban believers, contact Park Cities Baptist Church at 214. 860. 1537 or visit the web at www.pcbc.org . Contact East-West International Ministries by visiting www.eastwest.org .