Our Cuban siblings in Christ in Camajuani and Remedios lived out the greatest commandment. From the moment we arrived in Cuba, we were received as one would receive Jesus coming into your home. Hugs, food prepared upon arrival, incredible Christ-like hospitality. We brought 16 people, 11 youth and 5 adults from University and First Presbyterian Churches in Austin, Texas and stayed at the Presbyterian-Reformed Churches of Camajuani and Remedios.
Primarily, this was an opportunity for U.S. teenagers to develop friendships and relationships with Cuban youth, and that goal was achieved. We spent most days together, visiting the two cities and learning of their culture and history, traveling to the beach, visiting the elderly in their homes and providing food for them, playing with children of the community and making friendship bracelets and paintings together. We also enjoyed much “unstructured” time together where cross-cultural friendships blossomed. It was such a joy to watch youth play dominoes together, teach each other card games while translating from Spanish into English, tell each other jokes and share stories, and ask deep questions about what daily life as a Christian looks like in these two distinct cultures.
First Presbyterian Church hopes to continue a partnership with the church in Camajuani where most of the members of our youth and adult group resided, and we will continue conversations with Pastor Marielys regarding what that partnership will look like so that it is mutually beneficial and supportive for the Cubans and the U.S. disciples. One of the greatest learnings is that more than ‘help’ or ‘materials’, our partnership is one of mutual respect, prayer, and learning from one another, and that this partnership can change as God’s vision unfolds.
Looking back on the trip, two moments stand out above the rest. The first happened on Saturday morning. We were planning to create pottery with children of the community at a home in Camajuani where a woman teaches pottery classes. Marielys came to me before breakfast and shared that the plans for the day needed to shift because she’d learned that the woman did not have any clay to make the pottery.
During our morning devotional, I shared this need to change plans and led a devotional on the topic of flexibility and openness to God’s Spirit. One youth shared that some of her expectations about engaging with the Cuban youth and children had not yet been fulfilled and that she was disappointed we wouldn’t get the chance to share in the pottery experience.
We talked some more about flexibility, adaptability and opening oneself up to God’s spirit, and then one of the youth asked Marielys, “Could we go into the town and invite children to come to the church at 10 and figure out games and activities to do with them?” Marielys agreed and so at 9:00 AM, three of our youth accompanied by the pastor and our translator, Maykel, walked the streets of Camajuani and knocked on doors and invited children to the church.
Meanwhile, those of us back at the church found friendship bracelet thread, paints, canvases etc. and planned impromptu activities with the children. By 10 AM, about 10-15 Cuban children and youth came to the church and the spirit was incredible. Children were learning to make bracelets with the youth, they were painting pictures for one another, playing pick-up games of tag, catch and soccer, and Spanish/English conversations were flowing. The joy was palpable.
After a morning of activity, we went into the sanctuary and learned two Spanish songs together and gave thanks to God for the experience. The entire morning was Spirit-filled and I will never forget the creativity and flexibility of the group in creating an event that was meaningful for everyone involved in such a short time.
The other moment is preaching in Camajuani on Sunday morning. Marielys invited me to preach, and I preached in Spanish. My Spanish is good, but not as good as it has been in years past due to lack of practice. I was extremely nervous, but grateful for the opportunity to participate in leadership of worship. Getting up to stand in the pulpit, I felt a peace that I did not expect. The Spirit slowed my racing heart and calmed my nerves and allowed me to preach the gospel in a different language than I am accustomed to. My message was basic and my Spanish was passable, but the joy of sharing in worship with my Cuban brothers and sisters made the experience holy ground and one I will never forget.
I hope that other youth groups will take the opportunity to travel to Cuba and participate in the vibrant faith life there. We were safe, we were well-loved, and our lives were forever changed by the power of the Spirit. I would be happy to share details about planning a trip like this with other youth groups interested in participating.
Rev. Dr. Sarah D. Allen
Pastor of Children, Youth, and Families
First Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas