By Sylvia Graves
Nearly every year for the past decade or more, Friends United Meeting has sent a work/visitation team to Cuba with several goals in mind: learn about our Cuban Friends, build relationships, encourage Friends ministries and do a work project. Our team came back thinking we had received much more encouragement from our Cuban Friends than we gave them.
Quakers first visited Cuba in the very early 1900s, establishing the monthly meetings that would make up Cuba Yearly Meeting, which became a member yearly meeting of FUM (then Five Years Meeting) in 1927. The monthly meetings and “mission” churches (set up by the monthly meetings) that make up Cuba Yearly Meeting include: Gibara, Floro Perez, Pueblo Nuevo, Holguín, Las Calabazas, Banes, Retrete, Puerto Padre, Delicias, Bocas, Vista Algre, Velasco and Havana. Friends in Cuba still honor the missionaries who helped start their meetings, including Zenas and Susie Martin, Sylvester and May Jones, Juan Francisco Martínez, Emma Phillips and María Treviño.
In their early years, at least four of the meetings in Cuba established schools. The school building at Gibara is now dormitory space for the yearly meeting, but the other schools were kept by the government after the revolution. The school at Banes is now a military school. The school in Holguín still displays its historical name engraved in stone (Colegio Los Amigos, Fundado en 1902) and is alive with middle school youngsters. The building in Puerto Padre, however, is in shambles. The meeting hopes to take ownership back from the government someday, but until the government declares that it has no use for it, it continues to be a heart ache for Puerto Padre Friends.
Some American Friends remember visiting Cuba in the 1950s before the revolution. Visitors now are delighted to see many American cars from that decade still on the road, along with other simple forms of transportation such as horse-drawn delivery wagons and bicycle taxis. Many ride in the back of large trucks that might be 50-years old. There are a few newer vehicles from China or Korea, however. The average worker makes $5 a day. The government supplies food rations and still controls most of the property ownership, though it was noted that government ties to land ownership seem to be loosening some.
Cuban Friends numbered around 800 before 1962. When the government declared Cuba an atheist state, many churchgoers were afraid to hold on to their memberships, so the number of Cuban Friends was drastically reduced to below 100. In 1992, the government allowed churches to function by declaring a separation of church and state. Building new churches was not allowed, but existing ones could be repaired. That is the premise by which Friends United Meeting has been sending work teams, to bring materials, funds and helping hands to assist Cuban Friends in repairing the meetinghouses that were erected in the first quarter of the 20th century. Today, there are 545 members in the monthly meetings of Cuba Yearly Meeting and over 1,000 people who attend worship.
This year’s work team, including 12 people from five different FUM yearly meetings and one from Philadelphia, traveled under the leadership of Linda Garrison. Linda has made 11 trips to Cuba, first with Friends in Iowa Yearly Meeting and more recently with the FUM work team. She has developed many close ties with Cuban Friends.
Our team’s work projects were in two locations. At the meetinghouse in Holguín, teams have been working for years to prepare the facilities to be the yearly meeting office, as well as a place for seminary study and the Quaker Institute for Peace. Cuban Friends have made tremendous strides in the development of these facilities between our work team visits. Our job of carrying sand, water and cement to mix the mortar for stucco walls seemed rather trivial in comparison to the huge steps Cuban Friends are taking to establish such a training center, but the funds, materials and friendship we brought were clearly appreciated. We shared the excitement of Cuban Friends as we heard about plans for training Quaker leaders with classes in Friends history and beliefs and in peace-building in Central America. They plan to open the training center yet this year with visiting staff from the Earlham School of Religion and others from the Friends Seminary in Guatemala.
The other projects our team participated in were in Gibara, the current meeting place for the annual sessions of Cuba Yearly Meeting. Gibara was “home base” for our team, where most of our meals and overnight lodging was furnished by a very hospitable crew. Our tasks included assisting local contracted workers who were renovating the side entrance by altering the gates and building a wall to create a garage that will house the new yearly meeting van. Some of our crew painted the doors to the meetinghouse and others painted the iron gates. Everyone participated in the “bucket brigades” to move water, sand and gravel as needed.
Most, if not all, of the meetings in Cuba have several group activities during the week. On each of our nine days in Cuba, we attended worship or fellowship activities at one of the meetings. At Gibara, we met with the youth group to sing, play games and make friendship bracelets. At Holguín and Vista Alegre, we attended ladies’ night meetings and were inspired with the creative lessons and testimonies that were shared. In several of the gatherings, the children were featured in singing and delightfully artistic dancing. February is the “Month of Love” in Cuba; there are activities to engage people of all ages all month long, intended to celebrate the love of Christ in our faith communities and families.
The visitors on the work team will never forget the memories of the trip to Cuba. Friends United Meeting is enriched by having Cuban Friends among us and long for the day when travel to and from Cuba is made easier so our friendships can be even deeper.