“A beacon of hope”— that’s how Daniel Izquierdo, pastor of our sister church in Cuba, described time spent with the group of 16 Covenant members who traveled to Cuba last week.
First-time Cuba Mission Team traveler Lynn Adams said Daniel told the group: “It’s been three years since anyone has been here to see us. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting very dim. Now that you have come, we can see a bright light at the end of the tunnel.”
Covenant has been building relationships with the members of Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada in Luyanó, a barrio of Havana, since 1994. Because of Covid, it had been three years since our last trip. Nine of the 16 travelers had previously been part of Covenant’s Cuba mission trip. For those, it was “a deeply-anticipated and long-desired reunion,” said Cuba Mission Team Leader Jack Kern.
Jack, who has been to Cuba in a mission capacity 29 times, said the returning members were disappointed at the number of young adults who had left Cuba.“We so greatly missed them,” he said. “The difficulties of everyday life are much more oppressive than we have seen in the past. Covid has greatly impacted the church and people of Cuba. Like Covenant, people have been slow to return to church.”
In fact, NBC News reported last spring that communist-run Cuba is experiencing some of its worst economic conditions in decades. Shortages of food and medicine, and sky-rocketing inflation are due, in part, to tightened U.S. sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic. Customs and Border Protection data showed that, in March 2022, the seven-day average for Cubans crossing the border to the U.S. was up 460 percent over the prior year.
Excited Cubans Welcome Covenant
It seemed that all the church members who had stayed in Cuba showed up to welcome the Covenant visitors their first night on the island. “The turn-out to welcome us vastly exceeded the pastor’s expectations,” Jack said. “It was a very warm welcome and reunion.”
Seven Covenant travelers were first-time Cuba visitors. “For them, and for all 16, this was a time of deep spiritual transformation,” Jack said. “That is the same in every trip.”
Lynn said the Cubans were happy to meet new people, but their excitement was “off the charts” to reconnect with returning travelers. “You could tell they felt a real connection to the people who had already been there.”
Fun, and Functional, Activity
Jack shared trip highlights. “We had a wonderful time decorating canvas bags with adults and children. We brought the craft materials, distributed decorating supplies, and for those few who needed it, we helped decorate the bags. We borrowed this amazing bonding activity from our Covenant team that travels to Cuba for VBS. We combined interactive fun with a very functional outcome — much needed bags for our Cuban brethren.”
Lynn echoed Jack’s sentiment. “Paulette (Kern) had bought basic, inexpensive white bags. Our job was to help decorate the bags with the theme of friendship. We worked together to stick on rhinestones and ribbons, and we used paint pens.”
The room was filled with mostly older women, all very excited. “They were like little kids,” Lynn said. “One woman I worked with didn’t speak any English, and she seemed almost irritated because of my language skills. But when the women finished her bag, she turned to me and said, ‘This is the best day of my life!’”
Like Jack, Lynn was quick to recognize that the activity wasn’t just a fun craft. “The bags are something that makes a significant impact on them,” she said. “They walk everywhere, and they need bags to carry things.”
Other activities during the week included dining at the homes of church members and visiting a new daycare program at a Presbyterian church in nearby Guanabacoa, where unchurched children from infants to pre-kindergarteners learn Christian values — a real novelty in Cuba.
The team also visited the Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization of 26 Protestant groups. “We told them about Covenant’s Courageous Conversations that we’ve been having this fall. They reminded us that the Cuban Council of Churches has practiced this for years,” Jack said. “They unite around service rather than splinter over dogma and theological differences.”
Sunday worship was another experience Covenant members participated in, and Jack, even on his 29th trip, said the service is always special. Lynn added that many of the women came with their decorated bags; some asked for bags for their friends.
Jack, reflecting on his many trips to Cuba, said, “Each trip has been special in unique ways due to the different combinations of Covenant members assembled by God. All have been transformational.”
Lynn, departing from Cuba for her first time, said she was filled with excitement. “I was excited that I’d been there and excited to go home, and hopeful that I could go back and deepen some of the relationships that I started.”
While Pastor Daniel and the older Cuban church population expressed much gratitude for Covenant’s visit, Lynn was pleased that even the little kids asked them to come back next year. “I felt so uplifted,” Lynn said. “It really seemed like a great thing for all involved.”
Covenant will plan more trips to Cuba. Learn more about this ministry partnership at covenant.org/cuba.