Omar Brown is a student in the Masters of Theological Studies program at Boston University School of Theology. These are some excerpts from an essay he wrote about his experience on the 2016 Study-Travel Seminar to Matanzas and Havana, Cuba, co-sponsored with the General Board of Church and Society of The UMC. On the trip were New England Conference members Rev. Nizzi Santos Diganand Rev. Dr. Cristian De La Rosa, who was also one of the Conference presenters.
Cuba: times of transition in a revolutionary nation
The group that traveled to Cuba March 29-April 4, 2016,included seminary students, pastors, alumni, faculty, and administrators.
Participants varied in their theological commitments, ethnic backgrounds, age, gender and profession, but we all came together to celebrate the beautiful opportunity to discover the depth and breath of all that this small slice of time and Cuba had to offer.
Cuba was truly a proverbial “Tale of Two Cities,” the two worlds of development collided as we viewed a country that seemed to be fluctuating between the past and the present. At first glance, once arriving at the airport, one could see the vintage vehicles that would wet the appetite of any car collector in the United States. Yet upon deeper levels of observation you could see the encroachment of newer and more recently imported vehicles. The cars in the parking lot alone were enough to reveal both our expectations and our ignorance of the Cuban society.
Moving on to the seminary of Matanzas we were further greeted with the sights, sounds, and smells of the beautiful Caribbean landscape. The rolling mountains undulated into the relatively flat coast which then filtered into the majestic blue sea that the Caribbean is so famed for.
Our group gladly exchanged our hopes and questions for our current trip with eager anticipation and a cool decorum of introductory friendship.
“How did the church survive within the context of socialism?”
“Whatexactly is the Cuban experience of politics?”
“What would come of Obama’s visit?”
“Will we get to dance Salsa?”
Theconference titled “A Journey of Wisdom and Love” began in full force as we looked at the concept of wisdom,under the leadershipof the regal figure Pastor Ofelia Ortega, who has championed the ecumenical advancement of the seminary at Matanzas for many years.
The topics presented ranged from Biblical narratives on wisdom, to contextual understandings of wisdom, to wisdom as it is uniquely expressed through the struggles and ministry of women.
“This experience was life-changing and life-giving for me. … I felt very connected to the Cuban people, and I feel that this was a stepping-stone for me to begin making what I hope will be a lifetime of connections with this land and its people.”
– Gina Carloni, registrar,
Boston University School of Theology
We heard of programs that brought instruments in from Canada to develop music inside and outside the church. We also heard of a program called ‘Living Waters’ that equipped churches all across Cuba with the opportunity to provide potable filtered water to all members of their surrounding communities free of charge.
Those of us who were bi-lingual had the opportunity to converse with the young seminarians of Matanzas and hear their perspective on “Cubanidad” or Cuban identity. The feelings of the younger seminarians were mixed, in that they had great hopes for Cuba and recognized many of the benefits of the revolution (free health care and free education being among the most notable), yet there truly was a desire for more.
As Christians they spoke of the difficulties of ecumenism, sexual identity, gender identity, and increasing wealth disparities. They spoke to us about the challenges of living without the abundance that so many of our western societies have come accustomed to. Yet at the same time, these students spoke to us about the sincere camaraderie that existed among the Cuban people. That in the midst of lack there was truly a communal spirit, a camaraderie that could not be denied.
We left the Seminary of Matanzas for Havana and remarked on how developed the infrastructure of the country was. We did not see anyone wondering
“It was a transformative experience for me and my wife… and we loved every bit of it… stretching our minds, challenging our thinking, building new relationships and launching us into some new adventures that I’m sure will continue for years to come.”
– Phil and Virginia Doster, Boston University School of Theology alumni
the streets, we did not see anyone begging, and the normal signs of abject poverty that often accompany the landscape of many developing nations (especially within their capital cities) were not in sight.
We ended our time visiting Cuba’s International school of Medicine. We saw how over the past several decades, Cuba has provided humanitarian aid to almost every continent of the earth by taking in many of the brightest minds from around the globe (particularly within the African continent) and through a process of selection that prioritizes “the least of these” chooses young men as recipients of free education to become doctors, with the objective of sending them back to their home country upon the completion of the MD.
Yes, there was some time for the beach inbetween our seminars and discussions, and yes, there was an occasional traditional Cuban sandwich, but I think the defining realities of Cuba remain the outstanding love, warmth, hospitality and dignity of its people.
We left Cuba with many answers and many more questions and I think for many of us, though it was our first time, we earnestly hoped it would not be our last.