I’ve been home a few weeks now… from a 1 week trip to teach and preach in a communist country… Cuba. In some ways… I still can’t believe that I was there. The weeks leading up to the trip were stressful. The night before I left, I didn’t sleep 1 wink. I trusted I would be ok… that our team would be fine, but it was really hard to know I would be someplace where I wouldn’t be able to have contact with my wife our our kids. No Skype. No social media. Not even email. The hope of a couple of 2 to 3 minute phone calls back home was about the best we had. We were going to a country that for the greater part of the last 50+ years has been – and continues to be for the most part – isolated from the United States. Most of us in America know very little about Cuba… Most would probably be able to identify the name Fidel Castro, some would be able to tell about The Revolution when Castro took power in Cuba, some might know vaguely about the failed CIA backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 – known as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when the world came to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Beyond that, Cuba became a very unknown place to the majority of us in America.
Within minutes of landing in Havana – my uncertainties, fears, worries were gone. I can’t explain it really – other than, I guess I had sort of pictured scowling armed military personnel, holding machine guns and questioning me about why I was there… Instead, I got off the plane and met smiling, airport attendants who were anxious to help and get me where I was supposed to go. The entire week went by quickly… and I will definitely go back…
One of my favorite moments in Cuba was an afternoon towards the end of my week there… we drove into Havana and made our way across the bay – under it actually through the Havana Tunnel that goes under the bay… Across the bay overlooking Havana is a 66 foot statue called El Cristo de La Habana… or The Christ Of Havana. It was a surreal moment driving up the hill to this giant statue of Jesus… carved out of white marble and overlooking one of the most famous – communist and atheist – cities in the world. The statue was built a few years before Castro overthrew the government and became the dictator of a comment regime… I’m not sure why the statue was not taken down then, especially when you consider that one of the first things that happened in The Revolution was the forced closure of many churches and religious schools. In the last 20 years the Cuban Government has definitely made inroads to allowing churches to operate more freely… but the Revolution was nearly 60 years ago.
Standing at the base of that statue with a group of Cuban pastors and praying for Cuba, for its people and for its leaders was one of the more powerful moments of my life… one I will never forget. The reality is that in Cuba – just like many other places in this world – freedom to worship God is not taken for granted. People there have endured an awful lot to have an open and unapologetic relationship with God. They have learned true sacrifice – including things like imprisonment, being outcast form the community, seeing the loss of their livelihood because of expressing their faith in God… All things that are such foreign and unthinkable realities for us in these United States. But through it all… The Christ of Havana stood, overlooking the city. I love the symbolism of that so much… No matter what, He is always present, always watching, always, always.
I was privileged to preach at several house churches in Havana… to spend time with the pastors who live there… to walk through neighborhoods and pray with with people on the street… to go into their homes and sit with them and hear their stories… and I realize how blessed we are here… (for example the average income in Cuba is $15 PER MONTH.) We should never take for granted what we have as Americans and be thankful every day for the blessings we have.
I am anxious to get back to Cuba and spend time with the people there. We are looking for ways for our church to have a permanent relationship with the house church network in Havana… not because they are so desperate for our help, but because I know how much they can help us… Their enthusiasm for Jesus is contagious, their positive outlook on life is inspiriting and I know that our relationships will bring strength and encouragement back here to us just as much as to my new friends in Cuba.
Jason Rehmel is the Lead Pastor at Eastside Christian Church on the east side of Cincinnati. If you are someone who has had a terrible experience(s) at a church or churches – stop by some weekend and give it one more shot with Eastside. Whether you have felt judged, or dismissed, or unwanted – wherever it has been – Eastside is different.