Last summer, the 2016 Camp Cuba Mission Team of six youth and young adults and two adults traveled to Cuba to participate in Camping and Youth Ministries. Over the course of their mission experience the team connected and built relationships with more than 100 young people in Cuba!
The 2016 Camp Cuba Mission Team is the third interprovincial youth and young adult team to serve the Camping Ministry in The Moravian Church in Cuba. Sponsored by the Eastern District of the Moravian Church Northern Province in cooperation with the Board of World Mission, the team was involved in cross-cultural and leadership training, camp ministry, relational community ministry, preaching and teaching in local churches, and home visits.
Cuba is a beautiful country with beautiful people, beautiful inside and out. Our 2016 Camp experience connected us with 70 youth and young adults from all over Cuba. We shared in devotions, games, program, Bible Olympics, cross-cultural small group events and worship.
Following our time at Camp in Havana we traveled to Jaguey Grande where we met 30 additional young people. Church and community members welcomed us warmly everywhere we went and on several occasions our group was welcomed into homes of those we served.
On our last two days, we stayed in Havana at a Casa Particular, a private home licensed to welcome overnight guests for a small fee. While in Havana we moved about freely, traveling from our Casa to downtown historic Havana to experience the history, culture, and food of Cuba. As we walked the city squares we found ourselves immersed among Cuban people. No matter where we went, we were surrounded by friendly and welcoming Cubans.
Four members of our team share details of our experiences:
Zachary Oatis – Palmer Moravian Church
A Moravian missionary? Who me? HA, no way! When I first heard about the opportunity to travel to Cuba as part of a mission, I was interested, yet felt unqualified. I’m 23. I don’t know enough of the Bible to teach. What could I possibly offer? I soon learned that the team I would be a part of was full of different skills and knowledge, and that I actually would be of some use.
The goal of this mission was to develop Christian relationships with the people of the Moravian Church in Cuba. Our primary focus: to immerse ourselves in unbiased cross-cultural learning and foster pre-existing cooperation with local congregations.
Our travels included Havana and the Matanzas Region. In Havana we participated in a weeklong summer bible camp and cultural immersion. In the Matanzas Region we strengthened personal relationships and worshiped. This mission was filled with eye-opening moments and amazing experiences; it has forever broadened my sense of the Moravian Community. Moreover, it has helped me to better define my own faith.
The Cubans wanted to make sure that we were treated with the utmost respect and shown every hospitality, because we were their guests. They cooked, served, and cleaned up after us for each meal. This was directly counter to our goal to be seen as equals and integrate into their church community. It was uncomfortable but with time, effort, and honest discussion we made progress and better understood each other’s cultures.
While communication presented a minor challenge at first, the language barrier became less and less apparent as camp progressed. We played soccer, volleyball, and even some harmless pranks amongst the entire camp. One night the Americans introduced the Cubans to the game of Twister. However, we played a “camp” version. Instead of Twister game mats, we used plastic shower curtains and washable paint. At first, the Cubans were hesitant to participate for fear of ruining their clothes. We explained the rules and that the paint wasn’t permanent. As soon as the game began, everyone was very excited and having a good time.
The game itself became less and less important. We no longer needed language. A simple game brought down barriers and filled the hall with international fun and laughter.
As the game came to a close, paint covered the ground, walls, handrails, stairs and everywhere else. The American contingent cleaned, scrubbed, and washed away all evidence of the game. This game and the clean-up became a significant moment in the mission because everyone was able to see and feel the culture and language barriers melt away.
Once Bible Camp ended, we were able to spend time in a smaller group with the youth leaders of the Cuban congregation. We invited them to come to a popular beach across the island for a day of relaxation and cultural experiences such as shopping, dinner and sightseeing. This created an environment for personal interaction and discussion about topics like culture, politics and social issues. The group was relaxed and we were able to explore what it meant to be people from different nations bonded by a common faith.
The mission was a personal and overall success on many levels. I feel very fortunate to have experienced how receptive and openhearted the Cuban community is. Despite being poor, they generously opened their homes and lives to us.
Being exposed to a foreign culture is always exciting; I was especially interested to learn more about Cuba and its historic role in the Cold War. While answers varied when I asked what it felt like to be a Cuban during such tumultuous times, national pride and a feeling of responsibility to improve one’s country was a common theme. The Russian influence was pervasive. Russian housing projects were commonplace yet many were left unfinished. The Russian Embassy was located apart from others and was clearly designed to project a sense of power. I was amazed to see how generally untouched the Cuban culture was. American-made cars from the 1950s dominated the roads with only a few modern imports from Europe or China.
The Cuban Moravian Church is established but struggling financially. One of the congregations we visited worships in the pastor’s garage. The space is cramped but it is the best option they have. They are working and saving money so that someday they will be able to purchase the building across the street.
We brought sixteen suitcases full of items usually unavailable to our Cuban Church family. Simple things like paper and printer ink that are used in worship are in extremely high demand and difficult for them to acquire. We also brought soccer balls, Twister games, toothbrushes, medicine, bug spray, pens and lots of other supplies.
Rev. Cynthia Rader Geyer and the Moravian Board of World Mission are an impressive group. Together they continue to affect positive change in the lives of our American youth and even more so, the lives of those whom they have been called to serve abroad. The mission was enlightening both culturally and spiritually; I feel as though I have taken a big step in defining my own faith and developing my relationship with God. The experience was incredibly grounding and will no doubt have a lasting impact on my life. While my experience growing up in the Palmer Moravian Church was wonderful, this trip allowed me to see the much broader community of faith and the global reach of the Moravian Church.
Now as I look back, my doubts about being unqualified were ridiculous. Each of us shared our gifts, skills and knowledge, creating a small team able to accomplish something special: the development of Christian relationships with the people of the Moravian Church of Cuba. While I was deeply moved by the assistance we were able to give the Cuban congregation, I firmly believe that the personal growth I experienced was just as significant.
Sashamarie Long – Life Church, introduced to the Moravian Church by members of Calvary Moravian Church
This my second experience in Cuba and each time I visit, I change for the better. My eyes are opened to the natural, raw beauty of everyone and everything around me. The streets in Cuba are filled with diligent, hardworking people, fighting day by day to survive and support their families. Most do not know what the next day will bring, if they will even have food to feed their family, if they will be able to work, if the government-owned stores will have goods needed for daily survival. They struggle daily and smile. That is what I have learned. Despite what you are going through, despite what you are feeling, you must smile and be joyful not for your own sake but for the sake of others. As one of the girls at camp told me, “It’s okay to not be okay, but you must be happy and smile for others, so that you can be okay for someone else. Someone else will see that you are happy and filled with love and they will be changed.”
I am amazed at how people living in a country that has gone through so much pain and struggle can still be filled with so many genuine smiles—smiles that changed my view on my own emotions and smiles that fill me with nothing but happiness and love.
In Cuba I have the chance to see a whole new side to happiness. In our culture here at home we often focus on what we should be or have, we think about what we don’t have and how we may never be able to get it, or on how we are different from everyone else. In caring too much about the physical things, we forget about the importance of our emotional being, staying in tune with who we are as individuals and precious children of God. In Cuba I find myself, feel loved, experience happiness and I am very grateful.
I think I feel more love in Cuba because it is a country of people that have every reason to be filled with resentment, fear and loneliness and yet choose to fill themselves with love. They choose to focus on what they have and who they are and find the joy in their lives. They choose to be happy. They choose to put their daily struggle and pain aside. As one of my fellow Cuban campers said, “I choose to be happy because if I don’t, I won’t be able to take on the day.” While I am in Cuba, their happiness pours onto me and I find that I see myself as a reflection of who they choose to be. I find that I am truly happy within myself, with my faith and with what I am accomplishing.
Slowly the everyday struggles of home and the desire for material things don’t matter; all that matters is my relationship with God and the people I love. When I returned home I told my friends that during my 12 days in Cuba, I had no phone, no car, no Internet, etc. My friends and family seemed amazed and asked how I survived. My response was that it was actually easy. When you put all the non-important things aside you become more aware of what is going on around you. You see God working within you and others as well. Instead of texting at the dinner table, you have no service so you talk with people. Laughter fills the room instead of buzzing phones. Smiles fill the streets instead of heads glaring down at bright screens. Love and happiness begin to grow inside you instead of an emptiness you can’t fill with the physical things.
The definition of happiness I’ve come to know has changed me as a person. Before experiencing the people in Cuba I thought happiness was a reflection of what you had. When I was in Cuba I realized that happiness comes from sharing love as you build relationships.
Now I know that happiness is based upon things much greater. Happiness is not created by physical things, but by people. The memories you make with the people you love, the laughs, tears and smiles will stay with you forever. Surround yourself with people who love you, the love will consume you and fulfill any emptiness you have.
Victor Tory Reid, John Hus Moravian Church
First and foremost, I would like to give all praise and thanks to Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior for blessing me with my third opportunity to participate in Campamento de Jovenes de Morava de Iglesia. I was excited and overjoyed to reconnect with old friends and eager to create new relationships. We had a great time in the Lord through the Bible competition, having devotions each morning and evening, and traveling with the entire camp to historical landmarks of Havana.
After the camp concluded on Friday, we traveled to Jaguey – Grande, Matanzas to interact more with the Cuban campers from that area along with their families. During our time in Jaguey – Grande we stayed with Pastor Obed and his lovely wife, Alay. They, along with our Cuban friends, were so warm, gracious, generous and hospitable towards our mission team by sharing their food, laughter, and opening up their homes with us and treating us like family.
Throughout this mission experience my faith was enriched, revived and reenergized to higher heights. I was reminded to Trust and focus your faith on God, not your struggles. The storm will end. Don’t let your situation break you; instead let it build you up. I was also reminded that it’s not money or material wealth that produce manners, morals, respect, trust, patience, class, integrity, love, character and common sense. The time I spent in Cuba reminded me of what Dr. King said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the full staircase.”
From the theme of this year’s Eastern District Synod To Us, To Us The Task is Given To Spread God’s Word Amen, I would like to encourage all children and young people within our communities and Moravian congregations to lend a helping hand by getting involved in mission experiences and trips whether locally or globally. Giving is better than receiving and if we all do this our world would be a safer, greener and healthier place to live, work and play for both you and me.
Lastly I would leave you with my confirmation text which guides me in fulfilling my call to participate on mission trips which is “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:13
Courtney Heist, Egg Harbor City Moravian Church
If I could use three words to describe Cuba I would use community, love and faith. Cuba is a beautiful country filled with a most gracious and loving people. Although they lack tangible possessions, their faith, love and community outreach far exceeds the worth of superficial items we in the States view as essential. What they have in their hearts and souls matters more than what is in their hands.
During this mission trip I took away the act of forgiveness. While relations between Cuba and the United States have warmed recently, our history is filled with turmoil. Despite opposing political views and clashing histories, our mission team was welcomed in Cuba as the loving arms of our sisters and brothers surrounded us and encouraged us to share and grow in our faith. Yes, there were some Cubans that were skeptical of us, but most were willing to engage us in conversation and seemed willing to forgive us for the difficulties our countries’ policies have caused in their lives.
While in Cuba, the idea of forgiveness touched me deeply. I began to think of my own personal battles with forgiveness. For some time now I have been struggling to forgive someone for taking something very precious from me. If my Cuban brothers and sisters can find the courage and the faith to forgive people that have engaged with them in military conflict and whose government has sanctioned economically for more than 50 years, then I can work harder to find the faith to forgive the things in my life that I find unfair, that I resent and/or regret.
This year our mission team was invited to lead morning devotions and we elected to share a Moravian Lovefeast which none of the participants had experienced. This would be a big step in sharing the way we worship in the U.S. with the emerging church in Cuba.
Our mission team took this responsibility very seriously. We spent hours planning the Lovefeast with a PowerPoint presentation that included a variety of hymns and praise tunes. Just as we were starting worship, the power went out. As Pastora Rhonda [Robinson]
would say “God laughed at our plan, ’cause God had something else in mind.” With no power, we couldn’t use the PowerPoint or music to sing our songs…how were we to proceed with worship? There wouldn’t be English to Spanish translation, music would need to be sung as a capella, and no one would know the words.
But, the Holy Spirit stepped in and we experienced a “God moment.” A Cuban camper ran and got his guitar so he could play songs, three girls stood up and said that they were willing to sing, and somehow they were led to select hymns and praise tunes that the entire congregation knew so that we could all sing in our own languages, English and Spanish. The Lovefeast went on. It was an amazing moment, everyone working together to introduce a dear Moravian tradition of worship. In that one moment when we looked at each other thinking that all was lost we felt the Holy Spirt take over, leading each and every one of us—Cuban and American—to come together in God’s name to praise and worship our Lord in a very special way.
This year we stayed at the home of Pastor Obed Martinez and Pastor Alay Martinez. They opened the doors to their casa as well as their hearts to us, providing us with food, shelter, activities, a view of every day life…and most importantly, love.
On Sunday we went to church with Obed and Alay. The congregation of 50 worships in Obed’s very small, very hot one-car garage. It’s not the best of circumstances but it is still a place where the people are able to gather to worship and praise God. The congregation does hope to purchase a larger gathering space. The new building fundraising is going very slowly. However, in typical Cuban spirits, they are making the best of what they have and are hopeful that God will bless them with a new church home soon.
Seeing the congregation together in that garage and being welcomed into their worship changed me. Even with the heat and stagnant air, not understanding everything that was said, or trying to sing unfamiliar songs, the love and joy on their faces as they praised God and invited me to do the same truly changed me. It changed the way I look at love and faith.
I went to Cuba thinking about myself, what would happen to me, how would I eat, where would I stay, how would I fit in, and did I have everything I would need. Since my time in Cuba—experiencing a new culture, sharing what little we had together, enjoying the world around me, finding ways to name how God is at work in my life and the lives of others, and putting others first in my daily life—my faith is growing stronger. I am appreciating the little things so much more, and I am experiencing a love for others and the world around me in new ways daily. For me, traveling to Cuba was about sharing in the love of Jesus and making new relationships with others, with myself and with my faith. This experience has been life changing and I plan to return next year, to continue to grow in faith with my brothers and sisters in Cuba.
To be a part of the movement developing Christian relationships with the people of Cuba, consider joining our 2017 Camp Cuba Mission Team. This summer there will be two Camp Cuba’s, one in the western area and one in eastern area of Cuba. Tentative dates for the Western Camp Cuba are July 27-30; Eastern Camp Cuba dates will be announced at a later time and will likely happen the week before or the week after the Western Camp dates. Our Camp Cuba mission experience will encompass both camps giving us an opportunity to visit both sides of the island over a two-week period. Applications for participants ages 16 to 30 and interpreters of any age from the Northern or Southern Provinces will be accepted starting March 2017.
Immerse yourself in a cross-cultural mission opportunity making a difference in the lives of those you serve as you engage one-on-one with the people of Cuba and grow a heart for servant leadership and a deeper relationship with God.
For more information contact Rev. Cynthia Rader Geyer, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Northern Province, Eastern District at email@example.com.