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.