Saturday, March 16, 2013

Thoughts on God and Mission


When I was a boy, one of my aunts – everyone called her Tia Gude -- arrived at Miami International Airport.  I don’t remember when, but I remember the day because anytime someone arrives here from Cuba, or for that matter in Cuba from here, you can bet it’s going to be an arrival filled with emotion.  I've always been thankful that I was able to experience that arrival of Tia Gude so many years ago, because it left a lasting impression on me.  In those days arrivals were less frequent (not that they are all that common now), and even as a child I could sense the intensity of the moment; I feel it now like it just happened yesterday.

Today, another aunt arrives from Cuba.  This time, it’s my Tia Mercedes.  I first met her through black and white photos as a child… “Who is that Mami?” I would ask my mother. “That is your father’s cousin, a very sweet girl.  Your father and I spent a lot of time with her.  We loved her very much.”

The Cuban revolution had caused a rift in my family, as it did with every other family when it came upon the island.  In our family, the side that felt this rift the hardest was my father’s.  The majority of his family was pro-revolution.  As the new system took hold, my father became more isolated from the people he loved; his cousins, uncles, aunts.  While my mother’s family, for the most part, was of the mind that the revolution was not good for Cuba, my father watched as he drifted away from the passion his family held for the new regime.

Mercedita was an adolescent child when the revolution came to Havana.  All I knew about her were photos; images of her playing in a river, standing near a palm tree, always with family.  Looking at those photos over and over again as I grew up, I would progressively learn new things about them.  First, I learned my father took all the photos and developed them in his homemade darkroom.  He complained a lot about the cheap Russian paper he had to use to develop the photos.  I also learned he had added color to some of hte pictures himself.  They were beautiful pastels.  Growing up, I looked at the old photos from Cuba so much, I soon memorized them.  The collective memories of my parents and grandparents stored in these images became part of my own memory, though strangely, of a place I had never been.

And there was this girl, Mercedita.  So pretty; so vibrant and expectant.  But to ask about her seemed to bring pain to my mother’s eyes.  Over the years I learned that questions about family in Cuba should only be asked on rare occasions.  The pain was always palpable when the subject was raised.  Answers were always preceded with a heavy sigh and a downcast look.

So it’s no wonder that I didn't really know who Mercedita was until I visited Cuba in 2011 and met her myself.

Our church has planned 3 trips to Cuba.  I went on the first trip in 2009, and the last trip in 2011. We called these “missions trips” or “mission of reconciliation”.  Some in the United States government and humanitarian groups were thinking about reconciliation as well, because we later learned they were using the term too.  But for us, this wasn't about politics, ideology, or warm-fuzzies.  For us, this was all about the Gospel and a wound in the Cuban psyche that runs deep.

I visited Mercedita in tenement housing built by the Cuban government after the revolution; Russian designed buildings that make the island paradise look like Chernobyl.  We ate lunch together, cried and laughed.  She showed me photos of my family as I held her beautiful blue-eyed great-grandson in my arms.  She cried as she remembered the day she discovered my father and mother had left… “Why did he leave?  Why is he gone? Donde esta mi primito? Where is my cousin?”  She tells me it was one of the hardest days in her life.  The family had fallen apart.  There was a time when the family was always together.  For her, this ended when my father left.  The final tear in the fabric of the family.  In her words and the words of other family on the island, the family was never the same again.

Sitting there with my tia, neither of us spoke of politics.  Neither of us placed blame.  I was with the little girl from the photos, now in her 60’s.  She was with someone who looked like and was named after one of the people she loved most.  Nothing mattered at that moment. A bridge was being built.

Today, that little girl in the pastel colored photos arrives in Miami.  She and my father will see each other again.  My mother will see the girl she loved so dearly again.  Over 50 years have passed.  This is a big moment.

In American Christianity, we like things big and in HD-1080p. Give me the numbers… how many people were in attendance at church today?  How many responded to the altar call?  Was the pastor’s servant relevant?  Did the worship "connect" (as if worship exists to connect with us)?

On  mission's trips… did you guys take the guitar; enough Bibles?  How many classes did you teach?   Did you build a church or school?

Everything must be quantified.  Everything must be big.  To show effectiveness, you must be prepared to show us the video (with the obligatory Casting Crowns song playing in the background) and we better see a lot of people, preferably listening intently to a pastor or better yet, holding hands in prayer.  Oh and tears… lots of tears.  Then it was effective.

I went as a missionary to Cuba.  My mission was my family.  My tools were a heart willing to put ideology aside, and a bag full of food and clothing to give away.  I met several family members.  On occasion I was asked why I was there.  I would answer (shyly, I don’t speak in HD), “because Christ has made my heart new”.

Here in Miami, people wondered what we were doing.  For that matter, we wondered what we were doing. It couldn't be described, because it was personal to each of us.  It had too many variables to consider.  Still, it was clear God wanted me to go. But even while on the island, I struggled with what I was there for.

I drank beer.  I smoked cigars.  The rum was acceptable.  The black beans were tasty. This was a funny looking mission's trip.  Lot's of talking and listening.  Lot's of time doing nothing really.  Oh... I did spend about 30 minutes inside a church building; there was that.

But I sat with my aunt in her small apartment.  It was hot and humid.  Through the window I could see more tenement structures, piles of garbage, clothing drying on lines stretched between buildings.  The apartment was cramped; I was amazed how they fit 3 bedrooms into such a small space.  

But there in that space, the tears flowed and the embraces were powerful.  I knew at that moment that she was the mission.

Today, my aunt comes from Cuba to Miami.  She’s not coming because my church, Granada Presbyterian, organized a mission’s trip. To be honest, I was pretty lame with my gospel presentation to her.  I didn't convince her to come, and her leaving Cuba isn't the point.  But I did show her love, and she loved me too.  God was working between us in that moment, and I believe God has designed this moment.  He is an artist with timing and with hearts, and places each brush stroke exactly where it needs to be.  His pastels are amazing.  Sometimes He does things big.  Most of the time, I believe he does things small.

One person will be arriving on a plane today from Cuba.  She will embrace her daughter and family.  My father will see his little cousin again.  My mother will look into her eyes and see that little girl she had not seen in over 50 years, and memories beautiful and painful will rush in.  That will be a moment no HD video can quite capture.  It will be a moment no words will effectively describe. 

God moves outside our expectations.  He is not manipulated by our plans.  He works despite our arrogance, and through our humility and openness. 

I’m okay with not knowing what God is up to with me, with Cuba, and with the rest of the world.   Mercedita and my parents will be reunited today after more than 50 years.  God was putting things in place long before I even planned on visiting Cuba.  Today, I am in awe of how He loves us in this broken world.

Cigars, Rum and Grace.   I was thinking today what a ridiculous title that is for a blog.  But I’m okay with being ridiculous.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Identidad



Papi and Mami enjoying a beautiful day in Cuba.

I'm no missionary.  I'm more of a cussing, drinking and smoking kind of guy who loves Jesus desperately... sometimes.  

And Cuba is one of the most spectacular places on earth.  There. I said it.

As a boy I heard stories of mountains I imagined climbing, caves with ancient Ciboney (Caribbean indigenous peoples) carvings waiting to be explored by adventurous boys, beautiful lakes, rivers and springs for fishing and swimming, the majestic city of Havana with an unrivaled rich colonial history, the expansive blue beaches of Varadero. When Columbus landed on the island of Cuba, it is said he declared it was the most beautiful land human eyes had ever set eyes upon.

Almost 500 years following the Columbus landing, I was born in Miami, at sea level, next to a swamp... and we have a lighthouse built in the 1800's.  So yeah, I've carried some bitterness over that. Sue me.  I can understand why my father and mother never imagined a life outside of their island paradise.  Cuba is just that amazing.

Among the many memories my parents passed down to me surrounded their life growing up in an Evangelical Christian community.  Their experiences attending Wesley Methodist School and Church in Santiago de las Vegas, Havana Province, made up some of the richest stories about life in their little town.  When they arrived in the United States, grateful to their God for bringing them to a country where they could live in freedom and worship Him without fear of persecution, they also made sure to pass on their faith to their children (I have posted previously about this legacy in this blog).

So I grew up attending church in Miami.  My parents left the Methodist tradition and embraced the Presbyterian church.  Not just any church though; this was a Cuban church, make no mistake (pa' que lo sepan). While most of my Cuban-American friends attended Catholic mass with pretty much every other Cuban in Miami, I attended a Presbyterian church with Cuban grandmothers dispensing enough hugs, kisses, and candy from their purses to make any kid feel at home.  Being part of this church meant I received a weekly dose of Calvinist reformed theology, with a shot of Cuban coffee after each service.  Everything happened in Spanish.  Potlucks included rice and beans and lechon.  Traditional hymns were accompanied (on occasion) with bongos, clave, guitar and guiro.

Over the years, my identity has become cemented in these two truths.  First, I am a Christian.  Second, I have a passion for the homeland of my parents.  As a Christian, I am at a place in my life where it's not about attending church, being pro-life and voting Republican.  I identify more closely to my faith in Jesus Christ than with anything else. My faith is the lens through which I see everything; my wife, my children, my world.  There is no distinction; a church life and regular life. My faith defines my life.  I believe that calling yourself a Christian means something, and that it dramatically changes how you see, hear, and interact with everything around you. But if we don't allow the message of the Gospel to penetrate our hearts daily, it will always seem like just a nice idea for people and cultures to ascribe to.  We will reduce what Schaeffer called "...the greatest intellectual system the mind of man has ever touched" into a nice idea to pass along to the kids.  


Those are big words, and they create a problem; or better said, a tension. God is a ferocious pursuer of men; He does not relent. Among other things, he would not relent with me about Cuba.  I needed to go.  There is work for me to do there.  It's difficult to identify what that work is exactly.  It's one of those things that you can't easily define or put your head around because there are too many variables.  So in 2011, I would go again.  I had to; there was no choice in the matter.  I would go despite all the fear and trepidation that goes with being a first generation Cuban-American going to Cuba, whose parents had fled the island in fear some 50 years prior.  Therein lies the tension.

While everyone around me is speculating and guessing as to why I have gone and wish to continue to go to Cuba, I can honestly say that I haven't figured it out yet.  What do I know about being a missionary?  Nothing.

My father, Roberto Perez and I discussing my trip to Cuba over lunch.

What I do know is my parents started their faith journey in a tiny church in Santiago de las Vegas. This little church would be the next step -- a baby step -- in my journey with Cuba.  To help me connect with the old church, my father put me in touch with a family friend, Pastor Roberto Perez.  I met with Roberto and he asked me, "Why do you want to visit the old church?"  I responded enthusiastically, "I want to share with the people there the story of the impact that church made on my life, and how my parents passed that legacy on to me."  Roberto looked at me and said  "Okay.  I can get you in touch with someone.  She still lives there and she knew your parents.  I have to send an email to someone else in that town who has access to the internet, in order to get a message to her though, so it may take a while. I'll see what I can do."

So the second trip to Cuba began with plans to visit, pilgrimage style, the church where my parents were married and started their life together.

At the time, this seemed like a good idea.





Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Background Story

Santiago de las Vegas is a small colonial town on the outskirts of the capitol. It was established on May 3, 1749.  The old cathedral in the town square was built in 1694.  We don't know exactly how far back our family lived in that town, but we do know our time there and in the neighboring town Bejucal goes back as far as the early 1800's, and possibly earlier.

On December 24, 1962, my parents, my sister, grandparents and several family members left on a ship called the African Pilot, after an agreement reached between the U.S. government and Castro.  1,113 prisoners, brave men captured after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion were released, my uncle Jose Peruyero included.  They arrived at Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  It's reported that over 1,000 of the prisoner's family members left Cuba on or around that Christmas Eve.

My grandmother embracing my uncle; a tearful reunion for a Pedro Pan family.

My dad says the night he left, everything moved fast.  Some goon came to his door and told my parents to step outside the house.  They were to take only a change of clothes.  My mom packed a bag, the door was locked and police tape was put up to block re-entry.  Later that evening my grandfather Tuti (aka Tito) jumped the backyard fence, broke in and took some extra clothes for my sister, then just barely a toddler.

That night they headed to the African Pilot, never to return to Santiago de las Vegas.  The town my dad knew since childhood.  The place where my parents met and later fell in love.  The place my family called home. 

59 years pass.  Time goes by and places once known by heart are forgotten.  Names of friends; gone.  The colors of buildings, faces, facades and shop signs, many lost from memory.  There are still some good memories, but mostly the painful ones overshadow.  Tears, anger, rage, regret.  Too many horrible memories of betrayal, loss, fear and terror.  My parents always told me, "We will never go back."

Then I decide to go.

It's hard for my parents to swallow.  The memories come in again on them in a flood.  Mami cries, get's angry.  Papi just stares and thinks.  This goes on for weeks.  Then the moment of truth...

"Give me a pen and paper.  I want to show you where we all lived."

Mami draws out a partial map of Santiago de las Vegas.  Suddenly, the streets and places come into focus.  She can still see the houses as they were.  She draws a little box.  "That's Wesley Methodist Church.  It's probably a disaster now, but...".  Another box.  "This is where I lived.  I've seen pictures and they put this horrendous addition on the roof.  It's ugly and it wasn't there when I lived there." Another box is drawn on the other side of the street. "Aqui vivia tu papa...".  Your father lived here right across the street from me. "This house is where the Balido's lived, and this is where Rose Bagley lived..."  Another box.  "I lived in this house when our family first moved to Santiago.  It had beautiful columns in front..."  Another box.  "Aqui estaba el mercado del Chino, donde tu papa compraba su chicle". This is where the Chinese grocer had his market; where your father would buy his gum.  


Within ten minutes, my mother has written out a map of all the places that mattered to my parents in Santiago de las Vegas.  It rises from a place deep in her heart, where all the really great memories are kept safe.

Then the warnings.  "Be careful who you talk to.  Be careful what you say.  Don't trust anyone."  I say "Yes Mami..." The fear is still palpable, and I can see her in my imagination standing in front of a door sealed with tape, standing next to a man with a shotgun.  I give her a kiss and I leave.



My mother's home at the far left... with the ugly addition on the roof. 
These homes are from Cuba's colonial period.





Tuesday, February 21, 2012

El Willy

I spent my first 2 days in Cuba with my good friend Don.  We stayed in a "casa particular". These are homes throughout Cuba where the residents are allowed to have rooms-to-let.  I would explain how this system works, but frankly I just want to show the Willy video, and this topic gives me a headache.  Like the tax code in America, pretty much everything the government does in Cuba leaves you going... "huh?".

Our ride was a 1942 Willy. Roy is a local and he gave us a ride.  He was cheaper than paying a taxi, which was fine with us since we knew it was helping his personal economy.  Roy and his dad rebuilt 2 Willys in their front yard (amazing).  It was great hearing Roy talk about his dad and how they worked on the jeep together.

We had a blast riding around in that Willy.  You can see the jeep in action by clicking on the link below.  The town we are riding through is called Fontanar, just outside the capitol.  My dad tells me this was a new development in the 1950's and my Tio Alberto owned a few lots to build before they were taken away by the regime.

Our journey in Cuba was underway.  On this Sunday, I was off to attend a church service at the same church my parents went to youth group, attended school, and were later married more than 50 years ago.  I would be the first of my family to step in this church since my parents left in 1962.

Please note the 2 liter bottle of gas sitting between me and the driver, and the towel he's using to wipe away... spilled gas.  The 2 liter bottle is a homemade gas gauge.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Broken Island

I visited Cuba for the first time in 2009, and it was an amazing trip. It was exciting, terrifying, saddening and hopeful all at the same time.  I look back on that trip as one of the pivotal points in my life.  I wrote a little about it, not being able to put too much into words that would accurately express what I felt in that first Cuba experience.

In 2011, I took my second trip.  Things are a bit clearer after that trip.  In 2011, my experience was real; the romanticism was stripped away.  The first trip was a vacation of sorts; a magical week of seeing the world I may have been born in under different circumstances.  The second trip was going to be the completion of the first; a time to finish the experience of Santiago de las Vegas, La Habana, and all those places my family passed on to me via memory and nostalgia.

In the second trip, I was intentional going in.  I was intent on telling more people about Jesus; this was after all, a missions trip.  I was intent on giving of my time to listen, to love and to be with those people I came into contact with.  And in the end, I was able to do all this, but it was difficult.  It was difficult because Cuba is a hard place physically, mentally and spiritually.  It was also difficult as it exposed things about me; those ugly things that dwell inside us we would rather not look at.

I snapped this photo my first night in La Habana.  This is El Capitolio, the Capitol Building.  For years this building sat in darkness, as the leaders sought to conceal and erase the grandeur of the city's past.  Now the tourist dollars demand lighting.  The consumer cries out for a view of this once great city, and the irony is missed by the ideologue tourists walking it's streets.  The statue designed in the 1920's by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli casts it's shadow majestically on the marble wall.  For a moment it takes your breath away; especially at night when you can't see the destruction just across the street from El Capitolio, where underwear from Miami hangs from the balconies of decaying buildings once used as offices and residences for men of commerce and law.

Havana is a city living in the shadow of it's great past.  And as I walked down it's majestic old streets, I realized why it's leaders let it decay the way they did; why they hid it for so long in the darkness as if hoping people would simply ignore this city, once and still considered one of the most beautiful in the world.  As long as the city casts it's shadow, it reminds everyone that somewhere in time, a huge mistake was made.  Something beautiful was lost.  A city was broken, and the people broken along with it.

Over the next few posts I will create a journal of my 2011 Cuba experience.  I want to be honest as I write, so I will most assuredly piss off a lot of people.  I'm okay with that.  It has been my experience lately that honesty is progress.  It helps us progress past our own collective bullshit.

I'm not looking to be overly poetic.  I have no idealism left for this place either; it is simply broken.  I do, however, have hope.  There is a story to tell here, and a lot of good stories start at a broken place.  So I hope this is a good story.  The story hasn't ended, so this is a work in progress.  In writing this down I also hope to find, in the end, redemption.





Monday, November 28, 2011

Cuba

In the days leading up to my next trip, some time to reflect is in order.  

We have 1 goal with this trip... to build friendships with those God puts in our paths and to share the truth of the gospel with them.  I hope I can give a reason for the hope that lies within me; the hope that this world of politics, cash, materialism, one-upmanship,  communism, capitalism, liberalism, conservatism and religion is not all there is. There is more to this broken world, and it has nothing to do with me and my happiness.  It has everything to do with Christ and his finished work of redemption.

I reflected today on Spurgeon's Morning and Evening. "He who blesses others cannot fail to be blessed himself. On the other hand, to seek our own personal greatness is a wicked and unhappy plan of life, its way will be grievous and its end will be fatal."

Specifically, I pray today that I can take my focus off my own "personal greatness" by thinking I can make a difference.  I can't make a difference.  Only Christ can as we make ourselves available to accept his grace and love... isn't that crazy?  Yet, it's the only thing that makes sense, if I'm being honest. If I'm lying to myself about who I am... yeah it's crazy because of course, I can make a difference because I'm a "good person".  I really pray this week and going into next week when I'm in Havana, that I will be able to strip myself every minute of the "good person" label.  





Monday, July 11, 2011

No Reservations - Cuba, Reflections from a Cuban American

What it's all about... Family. Here cousins meeting for the first time in Santiago de las Vegas
Okay. So right off the bat, kudos to Bourdain for being one of the first shows EVER about Cuba where the embargo wasn't mentioned even once.
I watched the episode tonight with a group of friends. In the room, 2 other guys who went with me on our 2009 trip. I liked the episode. I liked it, because I love this show and I love Cuba. I thought Bourdain handled it with a lot of class. I believed him when he said those wonderful things about the Cuban people, and once again as always, he has proven himself to be a pretty honest guy. My hats off to Anthony from this Cuban-American for a job well done.
I met with my buddies on the back porch for some cigars following the show. Among the group were 3 Cuban-Americans including myself, and 3 Gringos. As we puffed on our Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars, drank Chilean beer and Australian Port (yes... Australian), we thought about what we had just seen. The baseball. The restaurants. The cars. The baseball. The buildings. The baseball.
And we all concluded the same thing. The show didn't tell us much about Cuba. It was like "the baseball episode" or something. Something was missing, or better said, some things were allowed to be shown while others weren't. But that's the way Cuba is, and it's definitely not a reflection on the guys bringing us No Reservations. Even when you go, when you are right there on the island smelling the air and walking around Havana, there is a cloud that obfuscates everything. That's the way it is. You only see what you are allowed to see. You only do what you are allowed to do. And (I believe) if you are filming for international television, you only speak with those you are allowed to speak with.
This is the point where some naysayers would scoff and say "It's not like that. Cuba has changed and it never really was that bad anyway."
Well, they are wrong. I was there. I was there in 2009 from the outside looking in. I can tell you with no reservations (yeah I said it) that it is indeed that way. If it was like that for a ragtag church group trying to do missions work, I can't imagine how it would be for a high profile TV show. There is only so much you can do in Cuba. I'm sure there is only so much you can film in Cuba.
Understanding this, I look back on the No Reservations Cuba episode and I'm satisfied knowing that it's the best one can do considering the circumstances there. I'm also thankful that this kind of exposure was given, and that Anthony handled it with as much compassion as one can when writing a show from an oppressed country. The exposure he gave was this... the current regime isn't fooling anyone anymore. And he asked questions that frankly, I think took some cojones to ask. Could he have asked harder questions? Maybe. But you ask those when the Khmer Rouge has vacated the premises, not when they're still there or may still be lingering about. It's not safe.
Best line in the episode for me was while at the baseball game... the one about "the brutal dicatorship" not allowing beer to be served at the games... that was classic.
But I digress. There's also the other side; the ones who believe Bourdain should not have gone to Cuba, should not have eaten in restaurants, should not have done this episode. I respect their opinions. I respect it, because as Bourdain noted there are a lot of feelings surrounding Cuba. It's hard for people like my parents to look at something like this and feel okay with it. It's not okay, because again, something happened in 1959 that resulted in them having to leave the country they loved. For many, there is nothing Anthony Bourdain could have done that would have made this episode right, except not to do it. I agree with this group, and I respect that view as I respect and love my parents.
At the same time, I respect Bourdain for being respectful of these sentiments. You will never do it "right", you can only do it as best you can, and I believe he did. I understand Bourdain's desire to go to Cuba even more than he does, because my parents have lived and continue to live Cuba for me since childhood. Some choose not to go. I had to go. Not for the buildings and the cars of course, but for roots. To fill the void of a place that existed only in my head. Thankfully, I went to Cuba and found that the Cuba I loved had already been given to me by my parents. I'm eternally grateful to them for that.
I could say a lot more but I won't.
So again, this Cuban-American will not be black-listing No Reservations, and I will continue to record each episode on my DVR in an expression of solidarity with Mr. Bourdain. Actually, let me not make THAT big a deal out of it... IT'S JUST A TV SHOW. I'll keep recording it because I like it a lot.
And yes, that 7 year rum is that good.