On May 8, 2016, an intrepid group of eleven members of Christ Church, Pensacola, left Orlando, religious visas in hand, for a charter flight to Havana, Cuba. Upon arrival in a country that had seemed like exotic forbidden fruit all our lives, it was surreal to think we had been in the U.S. just hours earlier. The goals of our adventura in Cuba were to learn about the country; meet with the Cuban bishop, Griselda Delgado del Carpio; and begin a relationship with a potential sister congregation, San Marcos, in the city of Holguín.
(Photo Right) Christ Church team with members of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) Episcopal Church in Palmas Soriano, Cuba. The small parish has a new water filtration system and handicapped restroom along with a daycare, vineyard, garden and chicken/turkey yard. Pictured left to right, Front: Yeleny Santana, two members of St. John the Baptist, Rev. Jessica Babcock; middle: June Linke, Mia Jerrems, Carrie Stevenson, Dick Hooper, Hilda Jones, Ray Jones, Eric Stevenson, pastor of St. John the Baptist, Rev. Halbert Santana; back: Warren Jerrems, Dwight Babcock, Owen Drey.
Spending time in Cuba is like turning back the clock 50 years. Beautifully designed old homes and buildings were crumbling in place, and everything needed a fresh coat of paint. Legendary ‘40’s and ‘50’s era American cars were out in full force in the tourist centers of Havana, offering taxi rides and city tours. We were surrounded by history, with intimidating Spanish forts dating from the 1500’s and reminders of la Revolucion at every turn. Our first meal out included an overwhelming amount of beans, rice, fried plantains, fish, and lobster at a very low price, yet most residents couldn’t have afforded restaurant meals. Finding incredible food in Cuba was no problem, although drinkable water and toilet paper came at a premium.
We learned that nothing in Cuba gets done easily or quickly. After arranging for a tour bus to take us 500 miles east of Havana to Santiago and Holguin, we learned the morning of departure that our vehicle was no longer available. We were able to arrange transportation in the form of a 1952 Dodge “bus” that may or may not have been a dump truck in a former life, which had air-conditioning in the form of windows that slid open and rainfall coming in through the roof. By the grace of God, skilled drivers, and a very patient Cuban translator, we made it to our distant destination of the Iglesia de San Lucas (St. Luke’s) in Santiago de Cuba. Their priest, Father Halbert, and his family were among the most gracious people we met during our time there.
(Photo above) Leaving Camaguey in our typically Cuban mode of transportation, nicknamed the "Amarilla (yellow) Thrilla"
We had the honor of bringing Father Matt Currin’s vestments to Father Halbert, and baseball equipment to their sons—it was like Christmas, and a joyful moment for us all. Halbert serves four churches within a 100-mile radius of his home in Santiago. While staying there, we ate like royalty, visited several churches and parishioners, and spent time at some of the most beautiful scenic overlooks in all of Cuba.
Once in Holguin, we met seminarian Gil Fat and his family along with the faithful members of San
Marcos (St. Mark’s). They have held Sunday services for eight years in parishioner Maria's living room, and will continue to do so until they have bigger and better facilities. Church members cooked all day long for us, and we joined together for a remarkable Pentecost Sunday service led, in Spanish, by Mother Jessica Babcock. Christ Church donated English/Spanish Books of Common Prayer to the congregation, which we used during the service.
(Photo Right) Reverend Halbert, Mother Jessica, and seminarian Gil celebrate the Eucharist on Pentecost in Holguin.
Before leaving ten days after our arrival, we were able to provide funds for a motorbike for Pastor Gil so he won’t have to walk many miles daily to seminary, the church, and home. Many of the Episcopal churches in Cuba serve as centers of their community, providing clean, filtered drinking water to their neighbors, childcare and educational opportunities, and community gardens. Our ultimate goal in beginning a relationship with the people of Cuba is to share our blessings, pray for each other, and help them fulfill their dreams of a new rectory and church building for St. Mark’s. We also hope to provide help for improved facilities at Camp Blankingship, a facility with many things in common with our beloved Camp Beckwith. We are planning more trips for next year.
(Photo left) Expert (and charming) workers at Havana's Romeo y Julieta cigar factory demonstrating their skills.
Carrie Stevenson is a parishioner at Christ Church, Pensacola.