This summer, a group of eight youth and young adults, ages 16 to 28, journeyed to Cuba to work with the newly emerging Moravian churches in one of the Unity’s newest mission areas. In responding to Christ’s call to serve on the Cuba Mission Team, these youth and young adults, and two adult leaders, utilized their spiritual gifts and talents to establish relationships with our sisters and brothers in Cuba.
In June 2013, the Rev. Cynthia Geyer, who had been called to be the Eastern District’s Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, began her work of seeking to provide a ‘hands on’ mission focus at both a district and congregational level. She found Christ’s church alive and active, offering youth and young adults many local and global mission opportunities. One of these opportunities came through the work of the Board of World Mission. In partnering with the Board of World Mission, Cynthia was introduced to the culture and ministry of our sisters and brothers in Cuba.
A Homegrown Church
In 1997 a small band of Cuban Christians began, on their own, to study the history and mission of The Moravian Church. This “Hidden Seed,” under the leadership of Rev. Armando Rusindo, a former Catholic Apostolic National Church Priest in Cuba, sought to establish contacts with various leaders in the worldwide Moravian Church. The Rt. Rev. Stanly Clarke in Jamaica, reached out to Br. Rusindo. Through dialogue they shared a strong belief in the unique work of the Holy Spirit in Cuba, noting that establishing a Moravian Church in Cuba would be an exception situation, because it would be the first time that a Moravian Church would be established in a country by the initiative of their native people and not by the work of missionaries from abroad.
Relationships between the worldwide Moravian Church and the Moravian Church in Cuba continue to grow. Currently the Moravian Church in Cuba is linked with more than 800 people serving Christ through eight congregations, fifteen fraternities, a children’s outreach ministry in Havana, a Christian education program, eight students enrolled in Laurel University Theological Extension program and one ministerial candidate enrolled in the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, and a Summer Youth Camping Program.
An invitation to camp
The Youth and Young Adult Leaders in Cuba extended an invitation for up to eight youth and young adults and two adult leaders from the United States to attend the Summer Youth Camping Program. The Summer Youth Camp Program in Cuba provides a four-day opportunity, Monday at noon through Friday at noon, once per year for Moravian Youth ages 12 to 30 from all over Cuba to come together for fellowship, faith formation and just plain fun. The Board of World Mission, with this invitation in hand, contacted Sr. Geyer and asked if she would be willing to gather a group of youth and young adults to attend camp in Cuba. And just like that a new mission outreach partnership was born.
As with all Moravian partnerships, this one started with prayer. Groups here in the United States representing youth and young adults and the Board of World Mission and groups in Cuba began praying in July 2013 about the next steps to take for this mission opportunity. David Sommers was selected as a second adult leader. Being fluent in Spanish, he would be the Cuba Mission Teams’ interpreter as well as co-leader. Together, Br. Sommers and Sr. Geyer met to discuss the details: the who, what, where, when and how. They knew where (Matanzas, Cuba), what (Camp) and when (August 3-10), but were stuck on the how. How would they get the Cuba Mission Team from the U.S. to Cuba?
A challenge to get there
Cuba and the United States have been at odds since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. While successive U.S. administrations have employed tough measures, including prolonged economic sanctions and the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, none have substantially weakened the government. There has been some softening in U.S. policies toward Cuba since Castro formally transferred the Cuban presidency to his brother Raúl in 2008 and Barack Obama became U.S. president. Meanwhile, Raúl Castro has gradually implemented major economic reforms and lifted travel restrictions, moves that help the country strengthen its international position and consolidate some of its domestic changes.
The how of getting to Cuba came through authorization by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, under a General License for Religious activities in Cuba. Once licensed by the U.S. Treasury the small Moravian group of ten could travel to Cuba from the US via a sanctioned charter flight company. Religious Visas from the Cuban government would also need to be obtained before the team could enter into Cuba. Now they had the what, where, when and how. All they needed was the “who.” Who would make up the group going to Cuba?
Within a short period of time it became clear that the small group of ten people selected to participate in the Cuba Mission Team would have the distinct honor and responsibility of being the first Moravian group to venture out in mission to Cuba from North America. After prayerful consideration and with the blessing of the Eastern District Executive Board, participation with this distinct group was opened to all Moravian youth and young adults in North America. Individuals interested in becoming a member of the Cuba Mission Team would be required to submit an application including an overview of their spiritual journey, insights into their current relationship with Jesus and their experience serving Christ and his Church, and a recommendation from their pastor and/or Board of Elders/Trustees. Being able to speak Spanish, was seen as a bonus, but not a requirement.
Each person selected to serve would also be responsible for raising funds to cover the financial costs of their mission experience and be required to participate in online mission, cross-cultural, small group and leadership training both before and after traveling to Cuba.
Out of the pool of applicants, eight uniquely gifted youth and young adults were selected to serve as North American representatives on the first Cuba Mission Team. They include Victor Tory Reid, Leonardo Gutierrez, Beth Behrend, Justin Rabbach, Frederika Mohr, Taylor Wickert, Andrew Seagreaves and Andrew Mengel. Here are some of their insights about the trip.
The Rev. Cynthia Geyer is director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Eastern District, Northern Province. Photos by David Sommers.
Cuban Mission Trip Reflections
I would like to thank Jesus Christ my Almighty Father and Savior for this distinct opportunity and privilege to represent the Eastern District of the Moravian Church and my church family — John Hus — on this historic Mission Trip to Cuba.
During the training session before the trip, we discussed how foreigners often stereotype Americans. The discussion was very interesting because we figured out as a group how we can change these negative stereotypes into positive ones.
On August 3, we flew to Havana, Cuba and there we met Br. Armando who is a president of the Moravian Church in Cuba. Together we took a bus from the airport to a Catholic Camp Center in Matanzas.
The next day youth from various Moravian groups in Cuba arrived at the camp. We greeted them with open hearts and arms but it was very difficult at first because some of us didn’t speak Spanish. Those who didn’t know the language created effective ways to communicate with our new Cuban friends (such as finger pointing) or constantly pestering our three fluent translators, Dave, Leo and Justin to relay a message.
When singing songs in times of devotion and mediation, my two favorites were ‘Toma Tomalo’ which means ‘Take It’ and ‘El Gozo’ which means ‘The Joy or Pleasure’. These two songs encouraged me to strengthen the Christian bonds of Love with our Cuban brothers and sisters. The songs also reminded me of how our Cuba Mission Team members left the comforts of home to serve, worship and minister with our Cuban Moravian family.
Throughout this mission experience I learned to be grateful for everything that we have, to be humble, to inspire others to accomplish greatness, to do our best and never give up, to help one another to find joy in all we do and to reach out to care for each other always.
When I first found out about the Cuba mission experience, I really didn’t know what to expect. I figured it was a good way to meet Christian brothers and sisters of a different country. What I didn’t expect was that I would form such deep and meaningful connections with every single camper and leader, Cuban and North American.
While our financial and political situations are different and varied, we all came together through the love and grace of God. Although we spent only five days getting to know our Cuban brothers and sisters, by the end of our time together it felt like I had known them forever. The same goes for my American brothers and sisters who accompanied me, whom I had never truly met before that first day we gathered in Miami.
They are people I will always hold in my heart and hope to be able to see them again and to learn how they are growing personally and in their faith. Before we left many requested our email address so that they could keep in touch, even though for many that would and does require a great effort and even for some the expenditure of money.
I want to thank Great Kills Moravian Church for supporting me and encouraging me to be involved in this mission experience. My thanks also to all those involved in making this mission experience a reality and for selecting me to be part of such an historic event.
The Moravian Summer Camp in Cuba ran under the leadership of the Rev. Obed Erelio Martínez Lima with the help of a group of six young adults. This group was similar to the Regional Youth Councils at some of the Moravian camps here in the United States. They planned the camp’s evening activities, led morning devotions and worked diligently behind the scenes to make camp a success.
On our last night, Rev. Obed had this team stand in front of the large group and say a few words about their experiences leading camp. Then he said he and other church leaders were getting older and the group standing before him would soon need to take on larger leadership roles in the Moravian Church in Cuba. Rev. Obed pointed out that leadership needs to be passed from generation to generation to continue the work of Christ.
In my personal experience I have seen church leadership handed down through generations. My grandparents, Dr. Charles Bean Sr. and Donna Bean, where on the first mission team to go to Costa Rica in the 1980s. Two generations later, I got to go on the first mission trip to Cuba. Since my grandparents’ first trip, more than a dozen mission teams have gone to work with the Moravian churches in Costa Rica. Their example of serving others inspired me and other Moravians to answer God’s call to mission work. If it is in God’s plan, many more mission teams will get the chance to go to Cuba.
Additionally, Dr. Bean was involved in the choir at the Waconia Moravian Church in Waconia, Minn. and every Christmas Eve service for more than 50 years, he sang a solo of “O Holy Night.” This past Christmas he was not well enough to sing at the Christmas Eve service, so his son and three grandsons sang the first two verses. The third verse was sung by the congregation. It was his way of passing on his leadership in the church.
While it may not always be easy to have someone take over a leadership role, especially if that role is a tradition that is held dearly with emotional ties, God equips others with exactly the right talents and skills to pass on a song or a spot on a mission team. Coincidentally, when we attended church in Cuba, only one song was sung in English, and it happened to be the Christmas song “O Holy Night,” sung in the middle of August.
The church service was held outside a woman’s home in Havana. We sat on plastic lawn chairs, shaded from the hot Cuban sun. Several of our mission team’s members helped lead the service, even if they were not fluent in Spanish. We learned that the homeowner may no longer be able to host the church services, since she is very sick.
The Rev. Armando Rusindo showed a few of us the building they are hoping to buy and turn into a church. He is concerned that if they are unable to purchase the property by the end of September, which is the deadline to buy, they will start to lose church members. They have not yet raised enough funds to buy the building, but with God’s help, prayers and strong leaders, all things are possible.
As we continue to build relationships between the U.S. and Cuban Moravians, it may be beneficial to think about what leadership looks like and how God is calling us to serve one another. We should foster leadership in our brothers and sisters and be excited to see leadership passed on to a new generation of church leaders.
As a team, we recognize the great joy and the great responsibility we have to share our experiences in Cuba. As the traveling community, sent by our home congregations and province to connect with the Moravian Church in Cuba, we are the group charged with making the connection between the two, carrying messages and acting as ambassadors for both.
No moment was more powerful to me than when it was shared that a woman who taught our bible study one morning had never met her grandmother, as she had been killed by an American bomb during the attack of the Bay of Pigs. In this moment, we realized the importance of the ministry of presence, and how our actions would speak so loudly to shape and change perceptions. We had come carrying the perceptions shaped by what we had heard about Cuba, and they about America. Following the sharing of this woman’s story, a prayer was offered in which we recognized the need for reconciliation, and renewing of relationships.
Our relationship with our Lord is not complete, until we also seek and build relationships with one another. By sharing the stories of how much joy filled our time together, we hope to be living messages that transcend the sometimes mainstream messages of complication, tentativeness and fear associated with Cuba. In one moment, a handshake, a smile or a conversation can transcend and break down our old perceptions. All things can be made new through our common relationship in Christ.
I experienced God’s presence when both the Cubans and the Americans were asked to come forward if we wished to be more committed to God. At first only one person stood, then slowly other people went up, and eventually everyone was huddled in the middle of the room.
Once everyone was in the middle of the room some of the Cubans started to sing about raising your hands and asking God to grant us the strength to do what He set out for us to do, and for strength to be more committed to God. We all raised our hands as we were listened to those who were singing. And then while our hands were raised we started to join hands. Eventually all our hands were connected as we swayed back and forth to those who were singing, filling the room with music.
My eyes were closed and I just felt God’s presence in the fact that we were all doing the same thing at the same time while we were all connected and asking God for the same thing. Knowing that we were all doing the same thing and feeling God’s presence just made me smile. It made me happy to know that we will all be there for each other, supporting one another as a family of God, even if we live far away from each other.
I am honored and blessed to have been a part of the first Cuba mission team to attend the Campamento de verano para jovenes en la Iglesia morava de Cuba (Summer camp for young people in the Moravian Church of Cuba). This is now my tenth successful mission experience but by far the most rewarding and enjoyable one.
By God’s hand the missionaries chosen to participate in this trip came together seamlessly, leaving a lasting impression of the American Moravian Church on those in Cuba. I am honored to have shared this experience with the people that I did and Cuba 2014 will always be something special that we share.
The faith of the young people from Cuba in the very young Moravian church was the most inspiring part of my experience. Many of the youth take on large roles of responsibility to plan and coordinate the church camp. These youth shared prayer before meals and led beautiful devotions in the mornings, games in the afternoon and the bible competition on Tuesday night. I was wowed by the numbers and large age range of the youth and how harmoniously they lived, worshiped and played together for four days.
Just like the very strong friendships etched by God in such small amounts of time at church camp in Wisconsin, I think everyone on this team would agree that our new friends in Cuba became part of our ever-growing Moravian family. The most amazing miracle is that God allowed these connections around a substantial language barrier.
While the Catholic retreat center where the camp was held was more than we expected, I cannot begin to imagine the actual hardships that these peers of mine face in this financially poor country. I don’t know what their lives at home are like, but I believe that I have come to truly know my Cuban counterparts by experiencing a part of their God-given spirit and faith.
On cultural night that included presentations by the American team and some Cuban youth, I shared how most of my friends I have outside of church related activities don’t understand why I go to church every Sunday, participate in things such as church camp and mission trips, and help teach VBS and Sunday school. I am often times faced with ridicule when I have to turn down plans with friends for church activities.
I discovered later in a note from Cuban camper Sinaí that she greatly appreciated my story and was happy to find that she wasn’t alone in feelings of opposition from good friends about being involved in religion. I’m glad that I could make her feel this way; it was one of the moments I knew that God sent me to Cuba for a reason.
A part of my heart will always remain in Cuba. I will be praying for the Moravian churches there and keeping in contact with my new friends via email. I thank everyone who supported this first trip of many to Cuba, and those who helped make it possible. It has been a blessing to have had this experience and been able to work as the hands and feet of Christ, spreading His love to the Cuban people.
Going into this mission experience I didn’t really know what to expect, no clue what was going to happen in Cuba. I envisioned a lot of poverty, that the camp would be small and everyone being crammed into small building to sleep. I also expected the language barrier to be a huge factor on this trip.
To my surprise, the camp was absolutely beautiful. At first the language barrier was difficult, but as the week went on I was able to learn more Spanish and the kids used more English. We also used hand motions to communicate which slowed us to connect.
The camp program was also nothing like I expected. It was more laid back than I thought it would be. We had Bible study class two times during the week. I learned a lot from it. We also sang a lot.
Most of our time was spent building relationships with the youth and young adults in Cuba. We did this by having fun — going to the beach every day, hanging out with each other, sharing a culture night and challenging each other in the “Bible Olympics.” All of this helped us to get to know each other.
This trip was the biggest eye-opening experience I ever had. Not only did my faith grow, but I grew more as a person. I will never forget our Cuba mission experience.
Throughout my travels, I have experienced places with all types of cultures and social acceptances. When I traveled to Matanzas, Cuba, I experienced a greater revelation beyond the heart-warming personalities, the guava trees, renowned cigars, enchanting beaches and even the misunderstood people.
I personally saw the spirit of God travel through and connect ten Americans to about 50 Cubans. This connection was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever been a part of; the emotions that were felt throughout my time in Cuba are almost indescribable.
Throughout our trip, the group from North America lent each other emotional and spiritual support, exhaustingly translated Spanish to English for those who were stopped by a language barrier and genuinely showed love towards each other through faith and vigilance.
The link made between the Americans and Cubans was inspirational to me and undoubtedly God’s will. The first day was like a scene from an eighth grade dance, where everyone is standing on two sides awkwardly waiting for someone to make the first move. By the end of camp, there wasn’t a dry eye as we said our final goodbyes and prayed to God that one day we would get the opportunity to see each other again.
The connections were made through hand charades in order to communicate, kooky games, joyous singing and dancing, prayer, sharing of food and cultural understanding. Our Cuban hosts showed a sincere interest in what we had to say even when we couldn’t speak the same language. God’s will brought us together in ways never imagined and has now inspired us to continue those relationships.
I am truly blessed to be a part of the first Moravian mission experience to Cuba. I will be thanking God every day for this opportunity and praying for my newly made family in Cuba. We paved a path that could give more and more Moravians the opportunity to serve God and represent our country. As my team leader Cynthia Rader Geyer has taught me, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
Imagine 57 Cuban and American youth and adults eager to sing their hearts out, dancing a conga line, and clapping to the beat chanting “El gozo” (“Joy”). In unison we proclaimed “El gozo del Señor es mi fortaleza…mi ayuda y refugio” (The joy of the Lord is my strength, my help and refuge).
The infectious joy of our Cuban brothers and sisters inspired us to experience the fresh, renewing flow of God’s spirit. Song after song of praise in Spanish, and even in English, gave us a taste of Pentecost when the faithful in Jerusalem sang in multiple languages.
By traveling to Cuba we had moved out of our comfort zone and daily routine. Now, we had to build a community for five days with people new to us, trying to decipher a language unfamiliar to some. What better way to join hearts and hands, elicit smiles and ease our nervousness as our new Cuban friends welcomed us with the solidarity that singing in unison offers.
By week’s end we had become an international fellowship knit together in Christ and singing from memory “Y ahora fluye, fluye, en mi corazón…el gozo eterno de la Salvación” (“And now flow, flow in my heart, the eternal joy of Salvation”).
Our camp site was a beautiful Catholic retreat center located directly across from the beach. Each day as we gathered for meals we could see the deep blue ocean rolling in and out, covering the pristine white sand on the beach. Our days were filled with morning program, small group time, mid-day activities, free-time at the beach, siesta time and evening program.
Our group elected to skip siesta time after free time at the beach and before dinner in order to gather to share about our daily experiences through devotions and reflection. We met in the back corner of an upper room in the retreat center. Team members in pairs took turns leading our time together. Most evenings the discussion opened with the reading of our Daily Text followed by a question and discussion to draw out life-changing spiritual growth among the mission team members.
Questions like, “Where did you experience or see growth today?” “How did you choose the easy path today and how might you stretch yourself tomorrow?” “How did you experience Christ today?” “Where did you feel overwhelmed and/or frustrated today?” “How would others know by and/or through you that God is moving among us?” “Who are you praying for and how are you praying for them?” “How has your perspective changed in the days you have been in Cuba?”
I was totally blown away by what I heard. Here is just a little of what was shared:
• I didn’t expect this! God is here bonding us together. You can see God in the faces and actions of the campers.
• We have gotten so close to each other and to our new brothers and sisters here in Cuba so fast. Is that the Holy Spirit?
• I love how we are living in the ‘here and now.’
• This is a spirit-filled place where people love life.
• I finally understand what ‘ripples in the water’ means.
• A young woman came up to me and gave me a hug, she hung on to me and would not let go. Just like my sister at home. In Christ I have family all over the world.
• I like this culture: they are smart, direct people, who work hard and live their faith. I wonder if and how I could do that at home.
• At the end of the day, it all comes back to us. We cannot put limits on how or who we serve. We have to share and serve everyone out of grateful hearts for all that God has done for us.
Throughout our week together the members of the Cuba Mission Team living as servants of Christ, deepened their faith and developed leadership their skills. As they return to their individual corners of the world, they honor the life and ministry of Christ by their words and actions. All glory and honor and praise to God for blessing our church with each of these faithful witnesses. May others recognize Christ in each of them as they continue to serve in his name.
Thanks to Cynthia Rader Geyer, David Sommers and the entire Cuban mission team for their insights and thoughts on their trip to Cuba. Photos by David Sommers.
From the September 2014 Moravian Magazine