Felice Lopez and Chris Miller (Framingham, MA, Friends Meeting) and Carolyn Stone, Luci Arico-Muendel, and Marybeth Toomey (Wellesley, MA, Friends Meeting), traveled together to Puerto Padre, Cuba, in April to share community, worship, and work with Cuban Friends. The focus of our work was to assist in the rebuilding of the old Wilmington School building, which was returned by government officials to Puerto Padre Friends Meeting. Because of aging and lack of upkeep and maintenance, and helped along by a severe hurricane, it was in crumbling condition and threatened the integrity of the adjacent Friends Church.
Our intergenerational group, with lots of support from our two meetings, sponsored a fundraiser and collected construction and other materials to be carried to Cuba in our suitcases. We began by meeting together to plan, pray, and become more familiar with one another. In my experience, there is nothing quite as bonding for a group as traveling and working together to a place and culture like ours in some ways, but very different in many more ways. Of the countless experiences the five of us had that felt deeply enriching, transformative, and sacred, the creating and forming of us as a group was foundational. To be intensely in community with four others for a short 7 days and emerge as lifelong, connected (F)friends felt like a gift of the Spirit. Probably most important was our group’s daily time together in worship and reflection, grounding our work in spirit.
Likewise, we all bonded in different ways with our Cuban Friends. The Cubans have a boundless gift of hospitality and took great care of all our everyday needs. They made sure that we participated in all of their worship services—at church, in a private home, at mealtimes, at a wedding blessing. Some of us participated in First Day School, bringing a much-loved tie-dye project to the children (and some adults, too!). Two of us were asked to facilitate the Sunday adult worship service, a challenging but miraculous assignment, especially in an unfamiliar language! Luci, our only young adult Friend on the trip, spent quality time building relationships with the children and other young adults. They prepared us well for the work we would do each day, painting and repairing some of the school rooms. We were especially blessed by the presence of Chris Miller, who brought a lifetime of construction experience (along with many tools) to support the project.
We worked hard each day, but the Cuban Friends made sure we also had rest time, and guided us around the town, stopping at a Cuban sweet shop, learning town history, visiting the Malecon (seafront); and took us with members of the church community on a trip to the beach. Our experiences were many and varied but we also engaged with them in discussions of our Quaker beliefs and the ways that we benefit from our relationship despite the distances, the social and financial differences, and the political imperatives we all live with.
It was clear that the relationship between Cuban Friends and our Yearly Meeting is a precious and life-affirming but also crucial and time-sensitive. The Cuban Friends are very smart, skilled in building and strategic planning. They have ideas, dreams, and concrete plans for the community use of this building. Our physical and spiritual presence is nurturing in both ways, but we have material resources to offer that are indispensable and vital to the Cuban Friends community.
On April 10 the group of five from Wellesley and Framingham Meetings left for a week in Cuba, carrying extra bags of supplies, cash for the construction project, and our faith and energy. Hours later we were greeted by Jorge Luis as we left the terminal. When we arrived in Puerto Padre, at about 10:30 p.m., we were served dinner. It was our first taste of the joyful hospitality of Yerandi and Zusel, and Dania, who prepared our meals. Gratefully, we fell into bed around midnight.
And so the week went. After an easy day of resting up, exploring Puerto Padre, sharing music and settling accounts, we got to work painting in the Wilmington School. (However, Chris worked even the first day, preparing the concrete walls for paint.) Over the week we painted three classrooms and a number of wooden chairs. Others joined us, including Yerandi, his stepdaughter Maraves, Jorge Luis, Oscar Lopez, and others. On Sunday we had our lunch with people from the church in one of the classrooms we had just painted.
On the first afternoon, a group of middle school girls “kidnapped” our teenage group member, Lucy, and took her to visit the home of one of them. After church that evening, the girls buzzed around her, asking questions and practicing their English. And so it went—the Cuban youth looked after our one youth.
We worshiped with the community many times. On Thursday evening we introduced ourselves to the assembled. On that night we also observed the loving care that Yerandi shows the wider community when a drunk man joined the worship. He became outspoken and interrupted the speaker, and Yerandi put a gentle arm around him and settled him down. After worship on another occasion, people took turns singing solos, and we heard from Zusel, Adriana (Jorge’s daughter), and of course, Jesus.
On Saturday evening Jesus and his band performed. We also were invited to perform, so we sang Seek Ye First as a round with Jesus and Carlos (the keyboardist). They sang in Spanish and we in English. We also sang Tell Me Why. Jesus surprised us with a song he has written called, Puente.
The next morning was Palm Sunday. The day before, Yerandi asked Marybeth and me to lead a discussion about finding God in our lives. We felt we could do this only if we had an interpreter, but Felice (who served nobly in this regard all week) was making tie-dye tee shirts with Lucy and the children at this time. To our tremendous relief, Kenya Casanova appeared just as we began. We started out with some personal sharing of our own, and then invited others to share. Yerandi asked Chris to introduce laying on of hands, and they brought in a little girl who has a serious digestive disorder. It was a very emotional moment.
Meanwhile, Felice and Lucy helped the children produce a number of beautiful tee shirts.
After lunch we climbed into a camión with many members of the church community to go to the beach. While the Cubans complained of the cold water, we all went in to swim, play Frisbee, and frolic.
During la semana santa, Yerandi held prayer meetings at 7 in the morning, before breakfast. It seemed a little like our unprogrammed Quaker Meeting.
Jorge Luis showed us books of pictures and documents. In one we found the enrollment documents of the Wilmington School, going back to its founding. Another had pictures of the history of the church. We pored over these with great interest. After lunch Jorge and Carlos (the church keyboardist) took us on a walking tour of Puerto Padre in which they pointed out the home of the missionaries who had founded the school and of the newspaper editor who helped them. We completed the tour on a hill overlooking the town, with bougainvillea behind us.
Over lunch on Sunday Kenya and Jorge explained their plans for the continued reconstruction of the Wilmington School. We are quite excited about their plans to use the space for the needs of the community in Puerto Padre as well as the church. This is outreach that we are proud to support. Their plan is also to use some space for a carpentry workshop that will serve them and in time other Quaker churches. The school will generate revenue for the church. Jorge and Kenya made it clear that our modest donations can make this possible.
It is difficult to express the warmth of Yerandi and Zusel’s hospitality. We shared worship as well as hearty laughter. Maraves did our nails and our hair. Who knew that the patio of the casa pastoral was also a beauty salon? And the young people took Lucy into their care. We left with gratitude and heavy hearts.