It was a spirit-filled, emotional evening when our church, the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, Cuba, officially joined the Community of the Cross of Nails on February 7, 2018. The sanctuary was filled to capacity with quite a diverse congregation, including representatives from churches in South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and Canada, and we were especially honored to have Canon Sarah Hills from the Coventry Cathedral in England to present the cross. There was diversity among the Matanzas participants as well, with representatives from Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Metropolitan Community Church congregations present.
No doubt part of the intense emotion of the night was due to the theme of reconciliation and peace. When Canon Sarah spoke about CCN’s three-fold focus on grief, hope, and love, all the Cubans present could resonate deeply. Virtually every Cuban family has suffered the grief of being divided as a result of the various waves of emigration that have occurred over the past 58 years; over two million Cubans have left since the Triumph of the Revolution. Between 1960 and 1962, over 14,000 children between the ages of 3 and 17 boarded planes without parents or guardians (“Operation Peter Pan” emerged as a result of false propaganda that the newly formed government was planning to send children to Siberia for Soviet indoctrination). In 1965 the Cuban government opened the port of Camarioca for one month and permitted those who were not supportive of the Revolution to leave. Also in 1965 Fidel Castro and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson reached an agreement for “Flights of Liberty” with two planes a day carrying more Cubans into exile (around 250,000 people took advantage of these flights, which lasted until 1973). Then, in 1980 came the famous Mariel boat lift, in which 125,000 Cubans abandoned the island; among them were many people considered “unfit” for the new society that the Cuban government encouraged or forced to leave — prisoners, mentally ill, and homosexuals. And then in 1994, in the middle of Cuba’s “Special Period” of severe economic crisis and shortages, came the exodus of the “balseros,” those who risked the dangerous passage on homemade rafts.
Up through the emigration of the 1990s, these divisions were not just measured by geographical distance; they were laden with heavy emotional baggage. Many of the people who left had to suffer the humiliation of taunting as they made their exit, sometimes with garbage as well as insults thrown at them, as they were labeled “gusanos,” worms, traitors to the Revolution. Many of these “traitors” earned the label by joining hard-line political dissent movements intent on toppling the Castro regime. And so the division, the rupture, was deep.
That is the grief, the suffering. But there is also hope. The intense feelings have softened in the past 20 years. Since the 1990s, some of the emotional baggage has lessened and people are no longer stigmatized for leaving. The geographical distance does not necessarily mean a break in relationship. Exiles abroad now represent a large swath of the Cuban economy through the financial remittances regularly flowing back to families on the island. But the easing of tensions brought about by this economic support does not mean the wounds have healed. There is still so much work to do. And that’s where love enters the picture. The church as an ambassador of reconciliation trusts that the love of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the love instilled in us by the Holy Spirit, is a powerful healing force. This love is intentional, and requires action.
We are thankful for the ways First Baptist Matanzas has been part of love in action in our community over the past few decades, building bridges of trust and understanding not only among the various Protestant and Catholic communities, but also between the church and the Afro-Cuban religious communities which have been marginalized for so long. And now, we are so blessed and grateful to be part of this network of reconciliation, the Community of the Cross of Nails, which will provide us accompaniment in our journey. It is inspiring to know that we will have the accompaniment of prayers, prayers that are reinforced by so many stories and examples of communities that have experienced and are experiencing healing of historical wounds and traumas. We look forward to adding to those stories, and adding our prayers to the world-wide work.
Stan Dotson, Matanzas, Cuba