U.S. Friends Visit to Cuba, December 2021

[Report courtesy of Friends United Meeting]

Worship in Velasco.

In December, Jade and Tom Rockwell, under the care of Camas Friends Church/Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, followed a personal leading to visit Friends in Cuba. They called the ministry ¡Viva Amistad! — Living Friendship. Since Covid has created such difficulty in traveling to Cuba, we thought Friends would be interested in Jade’s report.

We were able to visit two Friends churches during our trip to Cuba in December, Velasco and Puerto Padre. We wanted to visit Havana as well, but, unfortunately, they were closed because of the holiday during the portion of our trip when we were in Havana. (The Friends in Havana Meeting are all from Oriente and return home to spend the holidays with family in the Eastern part of the island.)

The Velasco church only recently reopened after two years of closure for Covid. They are keeping their services short in duration in consideration of Covid risks. Cuban people were under a mandatory lockdown for Covid, which was only lifted in November. People were not permitted to leave their homes during this time, so it was much stricter than what we have had in the United States. Although this is now lifted, masks are still required both indoors and on public streets and this rule is enforced by a fine. The good news is that upwards of 85% of Cubans are reported to be fully vaccinated at this time. In Velasco and Puerto Padre, many restaurants and businesses were still closed. In Havana, most had reopened. 

There are widespread shortages of supplies that are affecting every sector of society. This has led to situations of civil unrest this past year, though we did not encounter any protests or confrontations while we were visiting. 

Included in the shortages are almost every medicine, medical supply, or household item. Even tropical fruits that fall from the trees are scarce in these times. We’re told people take what there is and sell them in Havana where they can make a better profit. It is recommended that visitors bring absolutely every personal item they may need for their trip because if you forget a small item, you likely will not be able to buy it anywhere. For our trip we brought donations of needed items and gave these to the Puerto Padre and Velasco churches for distribution. We also donated some supplies to some Quaker medical students to distribute in their clinical work in the wider communities. Trail mix was a nice luxury treat to share and we were grateful for it when transportation difficulties delayed us and we were left without meals. 

Donations we brought: latex gloves, soaps, toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry soap, sanitizer, deodorant, menstrual supplies, first aid supplies, condoms, batteries, over the counter pain/allergy/diarrhea relief, vitamins, school supplies, instant read thermometer for Velasco church (other churches could still use these), and some very small gifts for kids in Sunday schools. I can say that absolutely every item we brought was much needed and appreciated. We were told that people are being turned away from needed surgeries if they cannot furnish their own latex gloves, suturing thread, etc. Donations that carry much monetary value are difficult to manage well. Useful-but-not-valuable are the best things to bring. Think what you use most frequently at home. The churches keep a stash of these supplies to respond to needs, but in these times, if the public knows that there are resources, people take them to hoard or sell, so our leading was to let the pastors or healthcare professionals that we know handle them with discretion according to needs they encounter.

We also brought some videos from my Yearly Meeting of songs and greetings and these were very much appreciated. In Puerto Padre, we were able to share them in a worship service. This really encouraged and inspired people to be able to connect and share worship. Puerto Padre and Velasco have both gone through changes in the past few years of embracing more Cuban-style music and expression in worship, and this is bringing a lot of spiritual vitality to their Meetings. In the past, Cuban style instrumentation and music, as well as expression such as movement and clapping, was seen as not appropriate in a Quaker Meeting, but now these communities have a different leading. Friends described this change as liberating their worship, as expressing their authentic selves in worship (rather than imitating a foreign culture), and as expressing the joy of their faith that some described as a spiritual gift of Cuban culture. It is part of a formal music ministry in Puerto Padre, and their praise band sometimes visits other Friends churches to share (not only Cuban music—they enjoy many styles).

We greatly enjoyed participating in this joyful worship and praise in both Velasco and Puerto Padre.

In Velasco, because they did not have a projector, we were not able to share our videos in worship, but we shared with our host family and church leaders who appreciated them. We also captured video greetings from Cuban Friends to bring home.

In Puerto Padre, the church has been able to persist in their construction projects, completing more of them during Covid. They pause the projects when they are short on supplies. Right now they are not able to get cement at an affordable rate, and this is the main material used in the construction projects. However, they are pleased to have completed a cafeteria which is used for a ministry feeding elderly people, and also overnight for up to seventy visitors. They also have a carpentry shop where they build wooden furniture to raise funds for the church. 

There have been some very devastating Covid losses in Quaker communities that folks are still grieving. We remain in prayer for our Friends there, and give thanks that the vaccination campaign has hopefully brought these tragedies to an end in Cuba. 

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