Sunday, July 24, 2016

Building bonds of friendship

Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. – I John 4:21

Cuban farmer Hernan Hernandez owns 300 mango trees on 20 hectares of land in the village of San Miguel de los Banos. Last year, a severe drought decimated most of his crop.  

Hernan says that most years there is plenty of rain, but last year, there was almost none. MCC partner CCRD (Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue) helped Hernan purchase new seeds and seedlings this year and MCC provided an irrigation pump.  

There is a bountiful crop of large, succulent mangos on the trees this year. Unfortunately, the state mandates that farmers sell most of their crops to the government for a low price, but this year, the truck that was supposed to pick up the mangos broke down and wasn’t able to pick up the mangos. Hernan will receive no income.  

After he showed us his crops. Hernan shared a cup of mango juice with 
each of us.
Since the Cuban government also controls the country-wide system for processing mangos, there isn’t much that Hernan can do with his mango crop except sell a few of them if he is able to his neighbors and watch the rest of the crop rot on the trees. 

Hernan seems resigned to knowing there will be another difficult year ahead. 

Just a few miles away, outside of the city of Cardenas, Hector Correa owns 23 hectares of land with his three sons. For 31 years, Hector and his family have combined the work of farming and pottery making. Standing outside his pottery shop, Hector tells us that when either farming or pottery isn’t going well, he always has the other to fall back on.

But last year, the drought was even more than Hector and his family could weather. Like Hernan, Hector also received similar support from CCRD and MCC.  

Hector feels blessed to have three sons who understand that it is possible to live well on the land they own. Hector and his sons grow coffee and green beans and any other product they feel might have a market.

Hector says he mostly sells his pottery and his produce to the large tourist hotels in the beach communities. He makes oversized pots which are hard to dry in his kiln, but these pots are in high demand from the hotels and they will make arrangements to come pick them up. Recently, Hector began growing green beans because he discovered that beans are one crop in short supply in the hotel kitchens.  

Empowering rural communities is only one part of CCRD’s work. The Center responds on behalf of the churches to community emergencies, provides pastoral counseling, trains leaders in conflict resolution and brings the community together to address a multitude of social issues.

It is no small secret, CCRD leaders tell us, that there is a real issue of access to food in Cuba. Thirty percent of Cubans live in poverty and those in poverty are disproportionately located in the rural communities. Almost 70% of arable land is not being used. CCRD believes that training small scale farmers can make a big difference in peoples’ lives.

Pastor Samuel of the Second Baptist Church in Cardenas participates in a pastors’ circle coordinated by CCRD each month. He says that before the circle the community pastors and churches had very little contact with each other. But now, in their peace working table, Samuel say the pastors pray for each other and talk about important issues in the community.

Samuel says the peace working table is a way for the pastors to recognize the work of God in the community, to work together and to build strong bonds of friendship.  

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Walking in God's way

Be strong and courageous and keep the charge of the Lord your God – I Kings 2:2

Since the revolution in the 1950s, the churches have had to find their way in Cuba. More recently, national policies have become a little less restrictive and the Cuba Council of Churches now includes about 50 member churches.

Council president and Presbyterian pastor Joel Ortega Dopico says the Council’s purpose is to help the Cuban churches be more effective in their mission. He says the church can never lose sight of their two fundamental responsibilities – developing church leaders and serving the community.

Pastor Luis Hernanez has been the national president of the more than 150 Brethren in Christ (BIC) churches for less than a year. While the BICs are not a member of the Council of Churches, Pastor Luis demonstrates his commitment to these responsibilities as well.

Pastor Louis earns about 300 Cubanas each month (about $12 USD). For his salary, Louis is the director of the national church, the administrator of a teaching center and the pastor of a local congregation in Palmira.

Sunday morning, Pastor Luis welcomes the congregation and many of the 17 BIC pastors of the Cienfuegos region who have assembled here for our conversation later. He shares from John 17 about Jesus’ desire for his followers to be one. He tells the congregation that they should be prepared because God is calling them, too.

After the service, we talk to the pastors. Many walked for hours, bicycled or shared a ride to get here. One pastor says he’s supported by the community, even though they don’t have the resources to do so. Another couple says their primary ministry is to help the poor, be involved in the community and win them for Christ.

The pastors meet together each month to support each other and to be accountable to each other. One pastor tells us that our visit is a real joy for the churches and that the churches have been praying that we would be able to visit them. “Through MCC,” he says, “the churches here can touch people in need all over the world.”

Another pastor tells us that the BIC churches are poor and they may not be able to share food with people in other parts of the word, but they can offer words of encouragement and share what they have.

One pastor says they need to struggle for their land, but they are thankful to God that they live in Cuba. We prayed for these pastors and asked God to give them strength for their leadership of the churches and for their work in these communities.

The next day, we visit one of the BIC house churches in La Havana. A family has contributed part of their house for worship for this church community. As we stand in the front area of the small worship space and talk to the pastor, we can look through the entrance into the rest of the living space and see family members going about their daily routines.

Despite all the challenges, Pastor Luis says, the churches here share what they can with each other and with their communities and they will continue to share. 

He says that, as a leader, God simply asks him to walk in God’s way, and to be strong and courageous, just as King David instructed his son Solomon. Being strong and courageous is how I would describe Pastor Luis, too.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.