From Calmar to Cuba: Missionaries share humble happiness with locals

By Tad Mueller (submitted by)

The Calmar Lutheran Mission Trip group in Havana, front (l-r): Julie Anderson, Mica Thompson, Jackie Anderson, Presleigh Eich, Jill Dahl, Kristy Meyer, Rachel Meyer, Billie Wagner, Chance Adam, Bridget Adam, Chase Adam, Augustina (staff). Back: Pastor Daryl Thompson, Addie Anderson, Lisa Mueller, Tad Mueller, Savannah Solheim, Paul Eich, Tiffany Wagner, Brad Dahl, Jayden Clinton, Caylie Adam, Bo Wangsness and Ash and Julieta (staff). (submitted photo)

Twenty-two members of Calmar Lutheran Church traveled to Cuba July 21-30 on a mission to support the Cuban people. Travel days were Friday and Saturday, landing in Havana on Saturday afternoon. We spent that afternoon traveling to Santa Marta Matanzas, where we settled into rental homes and enjoyed a traditional Cuban meal of fruit, rice and beans. We spent six days there and our hosts were amazing. Our rooms were clean and well-kept and they prepared meals for us daily. Coffee was a little limited but that is understandable; when we pay $7 to $8 for a bag of coffee here, they will pay $50.

We were fortunate that the group working with us had a couple of older diesel-powered vans, one without a working air conditioner, to transport our group and our luggage. Much is made of the pristine looking U.S. cars from the 1950s in Cuba. The fact that these cars exist and are maintained is more out of necessity than desire, as the majority of people in Cuba don’t own cars. They rely on electric scooters, bicycles, horse and wagon, buses or walking and hitchhiking.

On Sunday the group traveled to the city of Jovellanos and split into two groups to attend church services there. Services are different from what we are used to in the U.S. – they are held in a large room of someone’s home or in a small meeting area in the city and are loud and filled with excitement. Religions are not allowed to openly evangelize in Cuba. All religious activities are held inside and out of the public eye. By keeping services exciting, it helps attract people to the churches.

On Monday the group spent the morning working on the church farm as well as cleaning rice. The farm is owned by the church to grow fruits and other foods. Our work on the farm involved cleaning the area up for a youth camp to be held later in the week. The individuals working on cleaning the rice were hand removing chaff and rodent droppings so that the rice could be distributed to families.

The next day we spent bagging food and interacting with the Cuban people while distributing the food and supplies. This was a very emotional day for everyone in our group as the Cuban people welcomed us into their homes. One home that particularly struck us was no more than an open garage with a fence around it. The occupant’s bed was an old plastic lawn lounger. 

One thing that impressed us was how happy and eager the Cuban people were to welcome us into their homes. Sure, we were bringing them some food and supplies, but they seemed less concerned about the supplies than just the fact that we came to visit and interact with them. Another impression that our group was left with is that even though they seem to have nothing, compared to us they are a happy people, happier than the people of the United States are with their lives.

Wednesday, we visited an old church location in Santa Marta. After the revolution in the 1950s most churches in Cuba were shut down because the church leaders had sided with the corrupt government that had been overthrown. Even though religion is still discouraged it has been relaxing the restrictions. In the case of this church, it had been turned into a city dump. Several years ago, the dump was removed, and banana trees were planted. Now the plans are to move the banana trees to an area farm and convert the church and grounds to a youth camp. Our group spent the morning cleaning up brush and rocks as well as the remnants of the dump. 

That afternoon we visited what would be considered an adult day care. In Cuba they do not have, or cannot afford, full-time assisted living or nursing homes. Families take care of the elderly in their own homes. During the day the elderly cannot take care of themselves, so they come to this facility while their families are at work.

Thursday we returned to the Jovellanos church, where each week the church provides an opportunity for families to bring their handicap children there and have volunteers work with the children to give the families a break. Similar to the elderly, families take care of handicapped members of their families at home. 

Our group was given the opportunity to work with the children and visit with the families and the church sponsored a children’s activity day. Our group had prepared several crafts and recreation activities. We were expecting about 30 children, however, 90 showed up. Needless to say our plans changed and rather than have organized groups on rotation, the children were allowed to participate wherever they wanted. 

One person from our group spent 20 minutes throwing a beach ball back and forth with a little girl who never stopped smiling. She was happy just throwing a beach ball. Another group member was making a pencil pouch out of duct tape and got tape stuck all over her hands. They and the boy just broke out laughing. This all happened despite speaking two different languages. At the end of the day, we gave out children’s books and some of the kids immediately sat down to read, not willing to wait to get home before they read the book. The excitement and happiness that we experienced that day was amazing.

A couple of people who are in the health field visited with a doctor on Thursday. Even though healthcare there is free, they have no equipment and supplies. The stethoscope the doctor had was over 30 years old and when she was given a new stethoscope from one of our members, she broke out crying with happiness. We were told that before a person can have surgery that person has to go out and find the supplies to have the surgery as doctors don’t have them to perform surgery.

On Friday we said goodbye to our hosts and traveled to Havana where we stayed in rental rooms and spent the day touring Old Havana and interacting with the people there. The next day we departed from Havana and many of us in our group experienced the most stressful part of our trip: going through customs in the U.S. 

Why Cuba?

Cuban families receive a government ration of food once a month that provides enough food for their families to last three to four days. The rest of their expenses (food, rent, utilities, etc.) must be covered by their income. The average salary for those who work in this area is $150 to $200 per month, retired people on government pensions get $6 per month. Unemployment is very high.

They have very few resources for export and cannot manufacture or export anything to the United States. This results in no income being brought into the country. Since Cuba is known to have some of the best beaches in the world they have been working on promoting tourism, opened for tourism after 2015 U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba officially resumed. Many Cubans were allowed to set up their own little shops and rental rooms for tourists. In June 2017 these policies were reversed and many could not pay off the investment they made in remodeling their homes. Now only people outside the U.S. visit Cuba as tourists. 

U.S. citizens can visit Cuba under one of 11 designated reasons, including “to support the Cuban people.” Americans can’t use U.S. credit cards because U.S. banking is banned by our government in Cuba and can only stay in rental homes as the U.S. government bans us from staying in hotels owned by the Cuban government.

Having the opportunity to travel to Cuba and support the Cuban people was an amazing experience for all of us. 

We would like to thank everyone who supported our group and made it possible to participate in this life-changing experience.

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