First Baptist Church is very active in mission giving, especially during the Advent season. But it's been awhile since we've take a travel mission trip. Kevin Davenport and I (Eric Hasha) traveled to Cuba as a mission exploration trip is to witness the ongoing relationship between the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Fraternity of Baptists of Cuba. Our focus was to explore opportunities for mission for our church.
If we are going to send a group to serve in Cuba we first wanted to walk through the motions, to see who we would work with, how we get to where we are serving, how to exchange our money and meet churches and leaders.
Who do we work with? (Eric) - The Fraternity of Baptists of Cuba was started in 1989 by three churches who were expelled from the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba. They were kicked out because of their political views, as well as their stance on female ordination. Today the FIBAC is made up of 43 churches throughout Cuba. These churches range in size and theological makeup. Some are located in city centers, while others are in more rural parts of the country.
The mission of the FIBAC lines up more with our own view of mission. First of all, the FIBAC is ecumenical in practice as it is a member of the Cuban Council of Churches. This organization is made up of 25 Protestant denominations and they are focussed on being united to serve the people of their country. Second, FIBAC is committed to serving their community. Speaking to each church leader it was evident that churches are not just concerned about people’s souls, but also their well being. The churches are seeking ways to minister to the needs of their community. We saw this in each church and each church did ministry in different ways. One church located in a fishing village was committed to repairing a fishing boat so that one of their members could catch fish and sell it at a lower price to the locals. Another church was active in social justice making their church open to all people. Third, FIBAC is committed to Christian education. All of the pastors we met with are seminary educated and trained. In each church the pastors spoke of the importance of their church being educated to read and understand the Bible. All of the churches had a comprehensive education program ranging for all ages.
Logistics (Kevin) - Traveling to Havana was very easy and no different than flying within the US. A passport and visa were the only additional requirements. The religious visa application has to be completed 3 months in advance. The CBF and FIBAC (The Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba) assisted us with this process which involved filling out a simple 1 page application that included basic contact and passport information as well as travel dates.
We were advised to pack very light, and each took one carry-on bag with a checked suitcase. One of the advantages of traveling with a religious visa is the ability to take extra supplies for the locals. We used our checked suitcase as a way to provide common over-the-counter medications to churches in Cuba as these commodities are difficult to come by.
We left on Sunday afternoon and travelled to Atlanta. We spent the night in a hotel close to the airport which also provided a free shuttle the next morning. We had no trouble going through security at the airport. The flight was a direct 1.5 hour flight with Delta from Atlanta to Havana. Once we landed, we picked up our checked bags, and met Maykel, who is the pastor of a local church and president of FIBAC. FIBAC provided a van and driver for transportation throughout our stay. The agency also has a larger vehicle to be used by larger groups.
Cuba has two currencies, one for locals called the Cuban Peso and one for tourists called the CUC. Cash was the only form of payment. One dollar was equal to 1 CUC or 25 Pesos. Even though the exchange rate is about the same, everything is less expensive in Cuba. A typical meal in a nice sit down restaurant was between $5 and $10 compared to $10-30 in the US for the same. While it was inexpensive for us, it was 1 to 2 weeks worth of income for the average Cuban. One of the advantages of working with the CBF in Cuba is their connections and relationships. We were able to exchange our dollars to CUCs with a relative in Havana who owned and operated a restaurant which made the process very simple and more affordable.
Food (Kevin) - Traveling always comes with uncertainties, and in Cuba, the two biggest concerns going into the trip were the language barrier and the food. The food was especially a concern for me as I’m not the most adventurous eater. I’d heard beans and rice were very common and assumed I might be able to find a Cuban sandwich, both of which I could handle. But, I had no clue what to expect other than that. I went prepared with at least 2-3 protein bars per day that I could use as backup in case I couldn’t handle a particular menu item. By the end of the trip, I had eaten only two, and those were only for a late night snack and mostly to make my pack lighter.
While we did have a lot of black beans and rice, it was some of the best I’ve ever had. All the food we ate was delicious and not uncommon to food we would eat in the US. Our host made an amazing breakfast each morning that included eggs, ham, bread and a fruit such as banana, papaya or guava. For lunch and dinner, we ate at local restaurants. There are no fast food or chain restaurants. Menus were typically made up of chicken and pork, rice, beans, pasta and fruit. We had two meals at the FIBAC Camp, where most meals would be provided for a church group. They served chicken, black beans and rice, and a side similar to potatoes. While the water in Havana is treated and the locals drink it, it is not recommended for tourists to drink because our bodies are not used to it. We always drank bottled water or other commercially bottled drinks like Coke.
Lodging (Eric) - Whenever I travel internationally for mission I am always nervous about the lodging situation. You never know what kind of accommodations you might be living in. I’ve traveled to refugee camps in Thailand where I slept on bamboo floors and I’ve been to Mexico where we stayed in a plush hotel. We were told we would be staying in people’s homes. I was nervous we would be staying in someone’s spare bedroom and it would feel awkward. But what we discovered once we arrived in Cuba was that there is a large market of AirBnB style lodging available. Kevin and I stayed in a four bedroom home and lived very comfortably. I stayed in the bedroom upstairs, which had my own bathroom. Kevin stayed in the bedroom in the back of the house with his own bathroom. Our accommodations were very comfortable and private and also included air conditioning. The lodging was also very affordable at only $45 per night and included an amazing breakfast each morning.
Groups might expect the same lodging in the future, or they might expect group lodging at the FIBAC office compound. Lodging at the compound involves bunk beds and two bathrooms with showers. Also warm meals each day would be provided. I’m not sure what the cost would be per person per night but it would most likely be cheaper than staying in rent houses.
Safety (Kevin) - The people in Cuba who we encountered were very friendly, honest, and humble. I never felt in danger, unsafe, or the need to look over my shoulder. The CBF and FIBAC leaders were very familiar with the area and places we visited. Along with the food, another concern was not knowing any Spanish. We did have a translator with us and most common communication could be understood with the help of body language and context. Many Cubans in the tourist areas know a small amount of English. It was certainly a new experience being in a place where I could not speak or read the language.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR MISSION
The mission opportunities seemed endless and only limited by our own creativity and skill set. Construction and repair work is one of the most visibly obvious needs. Maykel’s church has blueprints ready and has partially started on an addition to their church that would add a kitchen, eating area and lodging. This addition would allow the church to house other mission groups that would provide some income. And also support projects and outreach in the community. The other churches we visited had basic construction needs like the installation of new toilets, plumbing improvements, and updated electrical wiring and lighting.
Community engagement (Kevin)
Each church is seeking ways to connect with the community surrounding the churches. Community engagement might look different depending on the needs in each community. Engagement might look like programs directed at children or adults. The possibilities are endless in this category.
The Cuban government meets the basic needs for all Cubans, but that’s where it stops. Basic medicines can be hard to come by for the people and dental care can be difficult to acquire. We don’t know what the exact needs here, but we do know this is something of an issue, especially in the rural parts of Cuba.
Golden Age (Kevin)
There is a large portion of Cubans that are reaching older ages. With age comes more difficulties. Churches are trying to find ways to help those in their community that are older.
Relational Building (Eric)
FIBAC is focussed on building relationships with churches in North America. These partnerships help the FIBAC churches to do ministry in their communities by offering them resources and continuing education. But they see these relationships as reciprocal. Churches that travel to Cuba testify that they learn just as much from the churches. The Cuban church is growing and we have a lot to learn from them as they do from us.
Cuba is in a constant state of change and the needs are changing as well. There are many skills the Cubans can learn from us such as backyard gardening, raising chickens and aquaponics. As we build a stronger relationship with the Cuban churches we can discover what skills are lacking that we might be able to teach. There is also need for ministerial workshops.
If you've made it this far, you might be wondering what's next. Eric will be working with our Mission and Outreach ministry team to begin discussing if it's in the church's interest to begin forming a mission team for a 2018 trip. Information will then be spread to the church to allow members to sign up with a deposit. So stayed tuned and begin praying about your own involvement in this mission.