10 Years Later: Remembering Cuba

I realized last night that it has been a decade since I went to Cuba as a college sophomore. It was my first time ever out of the country and, true to the cliche, it had a big impact on my life. Since then, that week has always been one of those pivot points in my story. It is where I began to see things differently.

Last night, I couldn’t sleep thinking about that week-long service learning project. So I did what I normally do in those situations: I wrote a blog.

It wasn’t good.

This one is not going to be great, but the one last night was filled with a good deal of regret. It looked back on a wide-eyed 19 year old and wondered what the crap happened. And that’s not an accurate tone for my life. I am happy with where I am: happily married, happily a dad, and still growing.

There is one thing that I wrote last night that has stuck with me: I wish that trip had made as big an impact on how I interact with the world as it did on how I see the world. For years now, I have been framing Cuba as this dramatic shift in my life. I do not think that the way I have lived necessarily indicates that. A shift in thinking does not produce much good unless those thoughts turn into some kind of action.

But that’s not something I want to dwell on. Right now, I simply want to remember.

I remember being on the receiving end of such loving hospitality. My fellow students, professors, and myself were aliens and strangers in their land. You would not have known it. We were treated like long-lost relatives. Our Cuban brothers and sisters opened up their homes, their tables, and their hearts to a bunch of American college kids. The idea of God’s family turns into reality when you see it close a big cultural gap like that.

I remember a bunch of beautiful churches. One was no larger than my living room, but it was packed to overflowing. Dozens and dozens of people stood outside and looked through every opening in the building. I remember the church in Matanzas that opened my eyes to what it really meant to reach out to a community, to love in a real and vulnerable way. I remember the stories of organic gardens, baseball teams, and dance troupes lifting up a neighborhood filled with poverty, drugs, and hopelessness.

I remember hearing Cuban Christians express concern about the United States invading Iraq. Sadly, it was the very first time I had ever heard a church profess enormous reservations about war. That opened my eyes in a way for which I am incredibly grateful.

I remember a pastor that was imprisoned for his faith when Christianity was illegal, but was then serving in the nation’s legislature. I remember the testimony of his life, his wisdom, and grace. I remember Vic Greene likening it to hearing a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi speak and feeling like that was an accurate assessment.

I remember a home for the elderly and infirm run by Catholic nuns. I remember that there were rooms where men were in such rough shape that there was an ache in the pit of my stomach. Yet there was so much love in that building that it somehow shoved its way through any pain.

I remember people begging at the entrance to the cathedral. I remember ignoring them and the way that it filled with me with regret. I remember poverty no longer being a hypothetical scenario “out there” but something that I had seen with my own two eyes.

I remember a worship service in Matanzas that was not a copy of the worship back home but was liturgy, the work of these people. I remember the energy in their native music. I remember the conga line that broke out during a praise song and the way that we were pulled into it. I remember Cubans and Americans, men and women, old and young singing Hallelujah as we danced through that sanctuary.

I remember a lot of joy. Children singing. Laughter. One of the best baseball games I’ve ever seen. Some incredible food. Dancing. Fellowship. Walking tropical beaches in the dead of winter. Kids playing baseball in an empty lot. And so much more. I remember that this joy came in spite of real world ugliness. The joy was beautiful not because everything was perfect but because so much was imperfect.

I remember conversations about life and faith, the kind of conversations that seem to happen more often in college. I remember us grappling with all of these new experiences and dreaming about how things could be different. I remember those conversations cracking the door open to places that I am today. I wish those talks were a more regular part of my life today.

I remember one conversation where I said something to the effect of not wanting to go home as if all these things had not happened. I did not want to live as if I had forgotten. Ann Quattlebaum, who we affectionately called Mama Q on that trip, said she was confident that I would not. And I haven’t forgotten, but I wish that her confidence would have been honored more than it has.

I have a few regrets. I wish that I did not try the frutabomba smoothie in the Cancun airport. I kind of wish that I got my passport stamped. I wish that, in spite of my awkwardness, that I had danced on that rooftop in Havana that one night. I wish that my insecurity did not hold me back from getting to know my classmates and the people whom we met better.  

Yet on the whole, I look back, I remember, and I am incredibly thankful. Even though the idealism of that 19 year old has eroded away in the last ten years, I look back and I can still hear his heart beating. Those memories still speak to this pragmatic, nearly 30 year old that has to fight off cynicism everyday and that is a good thing.

Yes, I am thankful when I remember that wonderful week ten years ago. And when I remember, I realize that perhaps Cuba, and the God I saw another side of, are not done with me yet.

All the Trees of the Field Shall Clap Their Hands

N.T. Wright, WALL•E, & Rethinking Heaven