I was not able to access the blog from Cuba, so I am bringing it up to date now that we are home. If you want background to the recent stories, I suggest you start at March 17 (see "previous" at bottom of the page) and work your way up. Or just look at the pictures! More photos and blog entries coming soon!
Today was the big day! Over a thousand people came to the sports arena for the conclusion of the 9-day evangelistic seminar. It started with enthusiastic singing and special musical pieces, including a band. Ryan had mentioned to the music director that he plays clarinet, so he was pulled in to play as well. Dr. Ortiz and the dean of the Andrews School of Theology both spoke. The Andrews/Sus Manos team sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with soloists singing in several languages, including Adonías in English for the opening two lines. It was amazing how good we sounded after just a couple practice sessions. These pastors can sing!
After the church service there was a baptism in the pool next to the arena. There was little room around the pool, so most people stayed inside the arena listening to musical pieces. Mike was one of 32 pastors and elders who baptized more than 200 people. A few others joined the church who had previously been baptized, bringing the total of new members to 222. It was a beautiful, sunny day that mirrored the joy in the crowd. One of our Cuban friends told me she was excited because they hadn´t had a big conference like this since 1981.
After the baptism, everyone came back inside for the presentation of bicycles to pastors, Bible workers and others leaders. Several young people actively working for the church received bikes as well. Many received laptops, tablets and books to help with their work, too.
As we left the building, the children´s ministry leader told me she had never ever imagined this day. She had only been told yesterday that her husband would receive a bicycle and she would get a laptop. “I present seminars using just my phone,” she explained. “It is so difficult! This is going to make it so much easier.”
Sabbath afternoon we climbed those 475 steps up to the cross again. Andrés ran up them in about 3 minutes. The mission team met at the top for group photos and for a worship service together.
One last event! The Central church had a social to say goodbye to the two teams working with the Central and Amigos churches. We played funny games, ate cake and ice cream and the churches thanked us for our work and invited us back. Yesterday when Dr. Ortiz told us that the church wanted to do this, my boys said they were too tired to go. But once there, it was so much fun, they begged to let them stay longer. “Okay, one more game!” We ended up staying till the party broke up at 11:30 and headed home to bed, reluctantly realizing our time with our Cuban family is coming to an end and each one promising to come back… some day.
Our guys wanted to climb La Loma de la Cruz at sunrise yesterday, but I reminded them that we are not allowed to wander around without a Cuban escort. The pastor of the Central Church said he would be happy to go with us today. We got up a little earlier than usual, despite getting to bed at midnight, as the meetings went late last night. The sun was just coming up as we started up the stairs. Andrés said he wished he lived here, because he would like to run up those stairs every day. Walking up them was enough for me.
We brought interactive gospel materials that we planned to give out at VBS, but we realized the John 3:16 puzzle cards were too difficult for little kids and the little booklets that had pictures that seemed to move required explanation, so we didn´t put them in the gift bags as we had planned. Yesterday as we walked home from the conference office, I started approaching people on the street to show them the John 3:16 puzzle. Everyone I talked to was fascinated by it and excited to learn the trick. Now I take them every time we go out--including this morning--and find they are awesome icebreakers. I am sorry it took so long for me to start using them! I know these will be shared and re-shared.
Tonight was the first meeting in the sports arena with the combined churches and the last Sus Manos presentation. I couldn´t think of any way to describe the topic, heaven, so we did something more poetic. Each person had a word that described something about heaven, once the words were folded to show only the page-size initial, the kids moved around to spell the word “Indescribable,” in Spanish. However, that required many more people than just our team, so we recruited 7 or 8 Cuban young people.
As we were practicing behind the stage, someone escorted a visitor who wanted to see us: Yordan Manduley! He really came! I told him I was touched by his gesture. We chatted awhile and he showed me pictures of his wife and two kids. He told me that he had listened to the audio Bible we gave him and that his neighbor who “practices the same religion” (my guess is she is a Christian) told him that the Bible we gave him was a good one. He said he taught his son the John 3:16 puzzle. He seems like a sweet and unassuming man—a few people came over to shake his hand and a couple got pictures with him. I wished he could have seen one of our funny skits, but he was gracious about our presentation, even though audio difficulties made some of the lines hard to hear. He had told us he had another appointment, so he just watched from the sidelines (we thought he might want to stay incognito) and he left after our part. How I would like to invite him to bring his family to visit Oregon!
I didn´t hear an official count, but there were hundreds of people at the arena tonight, despite the rain, which keeps people at home.
I wondered if Yordan Manduley would really show up at the park this morning, but he did! We chatted about his career and I translated to simpler Spanish for my students. He is 31 and has been playing baseball since he was 12. He attended special middle and high schools for athletes and then a university that allowed him to play on the provincial team during the baseball season. He has played on the Cuban national team for half a dozen years as short stop. Yordan is definitely the most famous athlete on this side of Cuba.
Spanish II and III students made books about a childhood experience to give to Cuban children. One student made a beautiful hardbound book about his trip to the Grand Canyon which I planned to save as a special gift. I added it to a stack of gifts for Yordan, including a Spanish Bible, an audio New Testament and a couple really cool interactive gospel tracts. When we found out that Yordan has a nine-year-old son, we also gave him the book Josué and I made for VBS. We spent about an hour with him and invited him to come to the evangelistic meetings. He said he was busy tonight, but would come to the sports arena tomorrow night if he could.
In the afternoon we went to a home for abandoned and abused children. The dozen children who live there were excited to see my clown act. My students and I led them in some silly songs and I did my magic storytelling. I had asked David if I could tell evangelistic stories and he said to use whatever I had with me: “they are not going to throw us out.” After the show, we gave them some gifts, including the books written by my Spanish students. The kids began excitedly reading their books right away. I made a video of one boy reading his book; although he is in 5th grade, he read haltingly and it reaffirmed the value of this project as literacy support. As we left, children shouted “venga pronto”—come back soon. I wish we could.
Then it was time to get ready for the last day of VBS. We thought we were at capacity yesterday, but tonight we squeezed 98 children into the room. As usual, my student and I got things started with songs and the magic trick pulled from Josué’s backpack. We returned to VBS after our skits, because we wanted to see the conclusion. Our craft for tonight was a “luminaria,” a traditional Columbian decoration of a light inside a paper bag with punched out decorations. We thought it would be cool for the parable of the wise and foolish girls with their lights. Well, it was too cool.
We had been told we could have up to 100 kids and we brought 100 electric tea lights to put in the bags. Yes, we ought to have brought an extra box of 25 lights, but with 98 kids, we should have had plenty. However, some lights were taken before we could give them to all of the kids and we ended up a couple short. With so many children in a small space, handing out the gift bags we had made and the snack boxes the VBS ladies had prepared for them was also a bit chaotic, so we never did get to see the line of luminarias in the night that we had envisioned.
Mariela and I reflected on this experience. It is very easy for us to say, “How selfish to take something that was for the kids!” and of course, we were disappointed in the behavior we saw. However, perhaps there are some temptations that we, with our ability to find most anything we want at a store or online, cannot fully appreciate. We brought something that they had never seen nor had any hope of finding anywhere else. It highlighted for me the discomfort I feel about interactions between rich and poor Christians. We want to share our material goods, but it can be difficult to do it in a healthy way. Carlos gave me a set of hotpads and a kitchen towel and said, “These are homemade and I know they aren´t as good as what you can get there.” Of course I assured him they were wonderful, but it broke my heart a little bit that he felt a gift made with love was somehow inferior to one made by a machine.
As I write this, I realize how appropriate tonight´s skit “The story of two brides” is to the problem of materialism. One bride is focused only on external benefits, while the other is in love with the groom and gets it right: it is all about the relationship we have with Jesus and seeing and emulating the beauty of His character. I am glad that most of our interactions this week have not revolved around material things, but on mutual sharing of our relationship with God. On that scale, my Cuban brothers and sisters are rich indeed.
Worshiping together and sharing stories from each church is a fabulous way to begin each morning and it was our turn today to present worship to the team at the conference office. We led a couple of our favorite songs that we have learned this week. Actually, I shouldn´t say “favorite,” but “obsession,” as we can´t get them out of our heads. I am definitely taking them back to Spanish class. I told how we had gotten connected to Andrews, Mariela told of her surprise donor (stories told earlier in blog) and Josué read from his quiet time journal. Ryan is passionate about the importance of putting our faith to action and he gave an inspiring talk about that.
This afternoon we walked to “La Loma de la Cruz” viewpoint. You have to climb 475 steps to get to a cross at the top where the Pope kissed the ground and prayed for the city on his visit here. We didn’t kiss the ground, but we enjoyed the amazing view of Holguin, the valley and surrounding small mountains. A security guard pointed out buildings to us and told us that in colonial times the Spaniards kept watch from the little tower at the top of the hill and could quickly alert the fort below of any threat.
The baseball player we met in Miami had told us that if we mentioned his name once we got to Holguin, anyone would know who he was. When we mentioned meeting Yordan Manduley to the youth pastor of our church, he told us he had a friend who could give us his phone number. It took a couple days to reach him, but today we talked to him and he asked to meet us at the park next to the Amigos church tomorrow. Sweet!
Despite our prediction of having topped out in the 50´s for VBS, we were surprised tonight by the crowd of 85 kids. They love the “Navegando” song we taught them—it was our obsession song on a mission trip to Guatemala a few years ago and it looks like we have passed on the obsession.
Instead of a skit tonight, we had a volunteer from the audience help with an illustration--we gave him a gift and then made him step on it, crushing the ornament inside. Of course, I had another one to give him and I talked about how we may feel the Sabbath is of no value, but if we cherish it, we discover it is a beautiful reminder of our relationship with God and of the time we can spend with Him.
We spent most of our morning preparing for tonight´s VBS, but during their down time, some of our boys went to the plaza in front of Catholic church across street to play Frisbee with Richard, one of the AU students working at the Amigo´s church. There they met man who told them his life story of abuse and addiction. They invited him to come to the meeting. He said OK, but wanted to clean up first. They ran back to the church to get soap and a clean shirt for him. He asked for a Bible, too. Ryan had just bought one this morning at the conference office, so he had one to give him.
The man came to the church before the meeting started, but we were at VBS. He told the AU students he wanted to be sure to see our skit. However, just as the meeting was to start, he had a major seizure and fell down. Although police came and were going to take him to the hospital, he seemed to have recovered and he left before we got back to the Amigos church. Josué and Adonías had made a special connection with him during the time they spent in the park with him and were especially devastated by this turn of events. We had special prayer for him and I told them that seizures often make people want to sleep. [Update: the guys were able to find him a couple days later at the park, so they know he is OK.]
During the afternoon we went with AU students to pass out leaflets in park, inviting people to meeting. It was actually pretty easy to engage strangers in conversation and we enjoyed meeting people on the street.
VBS—we had about 54 children today. We think we will not hit the 100 we prepared for. It is raining here quite a bit and we are told people won’t go out when it is raining, as most have to walk to church.
Our skit for tonight, “I would love to follow you,” was a monologue I had found online. After seeing the enthusiastic response to our skits, however, we knew it was too dry and we needed to make it more dynamic. I rewrote it, keeping the plot line: a man (Ryan) goes through various stages of life, Jesus knocks at the door, but the man always has a reason why this is not the right time to follow Him. But instead of a monologue, our dramatic duo of Adoniah and Josué embraced the role of the man´s children, which added some comic relief and Mariela was convincing as the nursing home aide. When we presented the skit at the Central Church, we ended it much as the original did—the protagonist´s life ended without responding to Christ´s invitation. Sitting in the front pew, I realized we had created a real downer. Oops! I hopped up, grabbed a mic and gave a passable moral to the story and got a few amens.
As we walked to the Amigos church, we debriefed and I suggested a different ending. I read Revelation 3:20 (“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him and he with me.”) Instead of the sad ending, we ended with a positive, hopeful reminder that no matter what the stage of our lives, Jesus is knocking and we can choose to open the door. We appreciate having Central church as our guinea pig audience before presenting to our peers. Well, that is, my students´ peers.
Andrews University students are divided into six teams of four students; each team is assigned to preach at one of the SDA churches in Holguin. They rented the “Amigos” (Friends) Church, which is one block from the Central SDA church, to host a youth outreach. The four AU students working with the youth and two female AU students who preach at the Central church live with us.
Each morning we walk to the conference office about six blocks from our home to join the whole group for worship. Each of the six AU teams and Sus Manos share stories from the previous day. Let me tell you a couple.
Dr. Ortiz came by to see the first day of VBS yesterday. It was raining, and as he stood at the front door of the church, he noticed a young couple who were soaked by the rain. He asked them how far it was to their home. “Five blocks,” they responded. “Here, take this umbrella,” he insisted. They hesitated, asking how they would return it. “Oh, just come here tonight at 7:30 for the youth meeting,” he answered. And they did—maybe we should be handing out umbrellas instead of fliers to invite people to the meetings! [Update: they continued coming after the first meeting.]
Dr. Ortiz teased a Korean pastor in the group about slipping in some Korean when he spoke and then shared a story from a previous trip. There had been a Korean pastor in that team as well. One night as he preached with great passion, he switched to Korean! The translator didn´t want to break his flow and prayed about what to do. He decided he would say whatever God impressed him to say. After several minutes the Korean pastor switched back to English. After the service, the translator asked him, “What happened?” The pastor had been unaware of his slip and asked the translator what he had said. As they compared, they found they had preached the same message, coinciding on each point!
After worship and sharing time, AU students have two hours of class taught by Cuban pastors (translated to English), which Mike is sitting in on. My students and I go back to the Amigos Church to prepare for VBS and our skits. Then it is back to the conference office for lunch.
Speaking of food, we are soooo well fed here. Several students have vowed to return just for the food. We have eaten yuca, fried plantains, sweet potatoes and arroz congrí, the Cuban rice and black bean dish. Although I am sad that it is not yet mango season, we have enjoyed pineapple, guava, papaya and melon.
I always present a clown show at the orphanages Sus Manos visits each year, and I was excited when David, the field coordinator, managed to swing an invitation to clown for a children´s hospital here in Cuba. I clown at a hospital in Portland, but this would be the first time clowning for a hospital outside the US. However, just hours before our group was to go to the hospital, Communist Party officials paid a visit to that hospital and David got a call canceling the invitation. We hope to be able to go later in the week.
It is helpful to be living here with the Andrews University students. This morning as we talked with tonight's speaker, I realized that the skit we planned to present tonight didn’t really mesh with the sermon. Praying for inspiration, I decided to rewrite the skit this morning to be about a man (Andrés) who suffered from LWP (Life without Purpose) Syndrome and needed a new heart. I had meant to make a heart from construction paper, but couldn’t find the paper. While we were decorating for VBS, I saw a slightly inflated balloon that would be perfect for the heart. The ability to make the heart pulse ended up being a great addition to the drama.
The skit was good at the Central Church, but it was terrific in the Amigos Church. Dr. Josué and Nurse Adonías really got into their roles as they worked on poor patient Andrés. As they moved him up to the table for the surgery, his head made such a loud bang that I was barely able to keep myself from running up to check to see if he was OK. Fortunately it was more sound than impact, but it did add to the impact of this drama which people talked about days later. With Carlos at the keyboard at Amigos, our skits are like old time movies with the organ player providing sound effects and music. We adore this man and admire his quick thinking creativity.
Today we tried out our new schedule. We sang with the children at VBS (58 kids!), did the magic trick from Josh´s backpack, told the Bible story, then went downstairs to the sanctuary to present the drama, and dashed to the Amigos church to do the drama again, and finally went back to the VBS. Mariela got in extra mileage running from room to room, making sure everyone had what they needed.
The downside to our schedule is that we don't get to hear the full sermon at the Amigos church. Mike told us Joffrey's talk today about having a purpose in life was really powerful. Mike was standing at the door at the back and saw a man on the sidewalk behind him. A church member standing nearby asked if he wanted to go in, but the man shook his head and moved backward. However, as the service progressed, Mike observed the man moving closer and closer to the door. As the sermon came near its conclusion, the man put one foot up on the step into the sanctuary, then another. As the pastor made his appeal for people to come forward for prayer, the man stepped fully into the room and began waving his hand. At the conclusion, the man went forward with those wanting special prayer. He told the AU students about the trauma he was experiencing—his wife had left him and he needed to restore his confidence in God. He is not from Holguin and just happened to be passing through town when he heard the service. Divine appointment!
Our experience here is having a powerful impact on my students, as well as on the Cubans. Today Josué asked me, “Profe are you coming to Cuba next year?” Whether we are able to return or not, I pray this week will help each of us live life with purpose.
This afternoon as the kids were practicing tonight´s skit, several of them began to laugh and Mariela snapped a picture of me and Mike. “What´s so funny?” we asked. Unconsciously we were squatting Asian style next to Andrés, who was pretending to be passed out. Our posture looked funny to our American students, but we told them this was quite natural after our month in China a year and a half ago, and we challenged them to test their own flexibility.
Ah, flexibility. Forget American Express, this is the one thing you should not leave home without.
We were scheduled to begin VBS yesterday, but the Amigos Church was booked, so we we started this afternoon. The wife of the pastor of the Central church and Sabbath School leaders told us they are VBS pros and want to be closely involved. Praise God! It is our wish to have a strong collaboration with the local church.
However, the schedule and location were wrong: they want VBS to meet at the Central church during the evening meeting. It would be unlikely for parents to bring kids to VBS and then come to the evening meeting. Others felt the evening meeting was too late, as the “V” in VBS isn´t true here—kids are in school till mid-April. And there was the issue of the skits: we present twice each night—in the Amigos and the Central churches. Adding VBS into that mix sounded complicated.
This morning a decision was made: stick to the original plan. But… when the church ladies came to help us get ready for VBS that afternoon, they explained the situation more fully. Children might not be out of school by 4:00. Distances are long and transportation difficult, so these ladies would not be able to get home to feed their families between VBS and church. We prayed about what to for the following days.
VBS went off without a hitch this afternoon. My students and I led song service—the kids love to sing and asked to sing new songs over again to learn them. Carlos spontaneously went to the piano and accompanied us.
Josh and I had a short monologue, followed by a little magic trick that introduces the topic. After the Bible story, children divided into age groups, and our wonderful Cuban sisters jumped right in. Ryan and Andrés showed how to make the “wordless book” craft that uses colors to tell the plan of salvation. The pastor and the national president of the Friends Church were both in attendance and loved the craft, which they plan to use in their Sunday Schools.
Marcel and Adonías led out in the game. I overheard one of the Cuban ladies bragging to a friend, “We won!” so not only the children enjoyed it! Mariela kept us on track for time. There were about 21 children—for our first day and considering the rain, it was a good turnout.
Mariela had met a little boy at the park and he was the first one there. He told her he hoped VBS would be at 7:30 instead of at 4:00 during the week, as he had 10 friends he wanted to bring, but they wouldn´t be out of school yet at the earlier time. We say God speaks through the mouth of babes, and we took his comment as our deciding vote. We will make use of our F L E X I B I L I T Y to do two skits plus VBS during the evening meeting.
[UPDATE 3/21/17--Dr. Ortiz just found out that we were running back to finish VBS after the Amigos skit and said we were doing too much and not enjoying the experience, nor having time to really relate with the young people, which was one of our main goals. So now we will just open the VBS with songs, backpack routine and Bible story and leave the workbook, craft and game to the VBS pros of the Central Church, which will allow us to stay with the youth at the Amigos church after our skit. I love Dr. Ortiz--he is a great leader and has a fabulous understanding of the importance of relationships.]
John 15 says we accomplish nothing when we are not connected to the “Vine” Jesus, so each morning we take time to spend one on one time with God in Bible reading and prayer, journaling what we learn. Then we come together for 15-20 minutes before breakfast to share how God spoke to us that morning. Some AU students have joined us for the sharing time as well. It makes us think of the early days of the church recorded in Acts, when believers got together and shared spontaneously.
Carlos, the caretaker of the Friends Church (who is also the head elder of the SDA church) told me that the Quaker pastor says she is very impressed by the spiritual life of our young people. They have hosted 70 groups in this church, but have never seen a group of young people who get up and read their Bibles every morning! Without my students being aware of it, she took pictures of them during their quiet time. As Carlos said, “There is more than one way to preach.”