Moravians in Cuba: A growing faith
Traveling to Cuba is like stepping back in time, with the streets full of pre-1960 American automobiles, and grand buildings of the past untouched by renovation or repair. But there is more to the sense of difference in Cuba, subtle but profound. How far can we go, even in distant cities like Shanghai or Karachi, without seeing America’s commercial influence (McDonald’s, Burger King)? Yet 90 miles from Key West is a country that feels untouched by the culture of fast food and shopping malls. In fact, after the old cars, the first thing I noticed about Cuba was what was missing: advertising. Can you imagine how it feels to ride through a city (in a 1952 Chevy) and never see a sign enticing you to buy? To me, it felt wonderful.
But I say this from a position of privilege. It’s easy to dismiss the trappings of consumer culture when I can get anything I need. For Cubans, filling daily needs appears to be much harder. At the women’s conference, I heard leader Yolanda Brito describe the life of the Cuban mother, trekking daily from place to place to purchase something to feed the family. Women laughed and nodded and shouted in recognition. In another conversation, Armando Rusino mentioned that it is virtually impossible to buy fresh milk in Cuba. Thinking about the work that was necessary just to procure food, I am all the more grateful for the hospitality we were offered in Cuba.
Indeed, whatever scarcity one encounters in this puzzling, beautiful country—whose people love it “like a mother,” said one woman, “but a dysfunctional mother!”—there is never a lack of hospitality. Judy and I were overwhelmed by the warm reception from our Cuban sisters and brothers—always beginning with a big embrace and loud smacks on the cheek from everyone we met! But that warmth was more fully expressed in their eagerness to converse with us; in their helpful shepherding during a nighttime tour of historic Havana; in the handmade gifts they presented; and in the depth and sincerity of their prayers for us.
Some had taken a 14-hour bus ride just to attend this conference. Yet they rode into the conference center on a wave of enthusiasm, their excited voices filling the dormitory building where we would spend our nights. During our several worship hours, those voices were very often lifted in singing: upbeat, passionate, and Latin-flavored.
These women are excited to be Moravians. That excitement was strong enough to bridge even the worst communication gaps. Some conversations began with the simple words, “Jan Hus! Jan Hus!” which the women would pronounce with great pride (and a Cuban accent). One woman, with a sage nod, added, “Se le cortó la cabeza (his head was cut off).”
“No,” I said.
“No?” She looked puzzled. Searching for the right word, I held up my hands, wiggling the fingers like flames.
“Quemado,” I said. Burned.
“Ah! Quemado.” She smiled, and I thought, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. As much as I had always dreamed of seeing Cuba, the chance to actually go there came as a complete surprise; and now that I was there, I was calling up my limited Spanish to talk about, of all things, the death of Jan Hus! The Hussite heritage was now a bridge connecting me to my Cuban Moravian sisters.
Perhaps a bridge is not the best image. Bridges are created by human hands. The connection between Moravians in Cuba and America, and around the world, is organic. The Moravian Church in Cuba is part of a living organism—a new shoot, surprisingly sprung from ancient roots.
My grandmother had a rosebush that produced stunning red roses. After her death, I moved the bush to my yard, where it produced only one rose—a white one! Someone told me that transplanting the bush may have awakened an old root stock.
Thinking of the Cuban Moravians, I think of that white rose, lovely but unexpected. It seems that old roots hold the potential to produce new blossoms. What I experienced in Cuba was the result of spontaneous generation: a church created by the power of the Holy Spirit to push new shoots out of the soil where growth might be least anticipated. What grows in Cuba might not look or sound like “traditional” Moravian churches. Music, prayer, praise and preaching will all be different, drawing nourishment from their native soil. But isn’t that the best part: the opportunity to see what new sights and sounds are born in a truly new Moravian church?
Coming from old roots can also bring some of the same old problems of church life. In one workshop, the women discussed weaknesses of their church body and threats to its success, as well as strengths the church enjoys and opportunities that it presents. Weaknesses they mentioned included physical distances between congregations; the lack of ordained pastors; and the lack of a unified program for youth. Threats include secular difficulties: lack of jobs and other societal problem.
But the women also cited anger in the church, demonstrating that like all churches, they have already known the pain of conflict. Clearly, however, the Cuban women have the strength to overcome obstacles; among the strengths they listed were their leadership skills, their strong relationships, and their creativity, so necessary in a society where bringing something out of nothing is a survival skill. As for opportunities, the Cuban Moravian women look forward to meeting for study and reflection; to telling their stories; and to putting God’s word into practice in society.
May our Cuban sisters’ willingness to “go the distance” make us more eager to reach across distances ourselves. May their pride in Moravian heritage teach us to value and learn from it. May we, like they, look honestly at our weaknesses and celebrate our strengths, and in doing so may we be part of God’s ongoing work to make all things new.
Virginia “Ginny” Tobiassen is a member of Konnoak Hills Moravian Church and a candidate for ministry in the Southern Province. In photo below, Ginny (third from right) joins women in Cuba.
From the January/February 2013 Moravian Magazine