Sunday was just like many others: get ready, eat a quick breakfast and go off to church. But this Sunday wasn't like any other because my commute was more than three hours to the village of Cocodrilio to rededicate the first Lutheran church built in Cuba.
It was my second trip to Cuba. The first was in 2006 when members of the Florida-Bahamas Synod met with Cuban Lutherans and government officials to discuss the official return of several former Lutheran church buildings. This Sunday felt like a huge victory. The Lutheran church was re-establishing itself in Cuba. People in the village who knew about the ceremonies enthusiastically greeted us.
Lutherans have worshiped in Cuba since the mid-1800s, continuing a tradition of small groups gathering for worship in house churches. Built in 1944 by Americans who had moved to Cuba to farm, this church was the first permanent Lutheran building in Cuba. It is a simple building, set against a stunningly beautiful section of the Caribbean.
American Lutherans first arrived in Cuba 150 years ago. Now the Lutherans here are all Cuban, something reflected in the distinctly Cuban flavor of worship and in the church's deep concern for the greater well-being of society. It's an integral part of church life.
We got a taste of the hunger for the gospel many have. Some Americans may believe that 50 years of no highly organized church means Jesus left the island. But Jesus was always there, and we saw amazing expressions of that desire for a close relationship with Christ. As people gathered just before the rededication service started, I noticed a 5-year-old watching through the open window with his elbows resting on the sill. His hands were folded in prayer the entire service. I could see in his eyes the future of Lutherans in Cuba.
Hospitality has always been a Christian teaching. Yet it's hard to explain the extreme hospitality we experienced on this trip. As visiting Americans we had some uncomfortable moments seeing the suffering caused by the U.S. embargo that continues to bear down on the Cuban people. But instead of blame, we found love, true joy and a genuine fellowship among Christians. Cuban parishioners made significant sacrifices to host us. My host family insisted that I should get the fan. They willingly slept through the hot evenings. The meals provided were clearly above and beyond what Cubans would normally have. Yet from a deep-seated hospitality and genuine love, they made these sacrifices with joy.
Other Christians that met with us during the week also made an extra effort on our behalf. On several occasions government representatives also demonstrated a sincere level of courtesy and concern for our well-being, from the politeness of a Havana customs official who initially couldn't find our religious visas to a Department of Justice attorney who made certain that the transfer of the church had gone smoothly.
We all have much to learn from one another as we walk together to celebrate and share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know I can't wait for that next opportunity to visit Cuba, and I hope many ELCA members will join me.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers