On the 5th of November 2016, Caleb Traynor and I flew into Holguin, Cuba. It’s only about an hour flight from Miami Airport to Holguin Airport. We left my home at about 2:45 in the morning making our way to Birmingham eventually arriving at Holguin at 12 noon. We were not sure what we would encounter but very sure that God had sent us to Cuba.
So how did I get to Cuba you may ask? It began in my prayer notebook. I have different pages for different categories of prayer needs; on several of those pages are mission concerns for Pathway Outreach Ministries. Over five years ago I had a burden for Cuba and Cuba was listed as a prayer item. I did not know anyone in Cuba and I did not know anyone who had been to Cuba. I just prayed for Cuba not knowing that God was going to open a door for us in Cuba and open a man’s heart to Jesus at the same time.
About two years ago, I was flying out of Haiti on Delta Airlines (I usually fly American Airlines). I had proceeded through immigration and security and was looking for the often-moved Delta waiting area. I saw a group of folks and went up to this one guy and asked “Is this the Delta waiting area?” He looked at me quite confused, so I repeated, “Delta?” He replied, “No, Cuba (pronounced in Spanish as “koo-bah).” After finding my waiting area nearby, I was drawn back to the “Koo-ba Man”. I returned and sat down next to him and engaged him in conversation with my raw and broken Spanish. I told him I was a pastor and we had a church and school in Haiti. I learned that he was an engineer working on a project in Haiti and I will refer to him as the Airport Man. I gave him my card and said “Adios” as he left to board his plane for Cuba.
I considered Cuba a closed country and had doubts if I would receive any contact such as a phone call or email. I returned home thankful that I had at least talked with a Cuban citizen. In about two weeks, I received an email from a pastor’s family who had been given my card. We began a dialogue via email and learned a bit more about each other and our Christian faith.
So when Caleb and I landed in Cuba, we went down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac anxious to meet our Cuban family we had never laid eyes on. We had sent them pictures and they had sent us pictures. We anxiously went through immigration; I had no trouble just a few easy questions but they gave Caleb a little more trouble sending him to about four different officers before he rejoined me. Then we were sent through security; kind of strange—because I have never gone through security after arriving at an airport. When we exited the airport, the area was crowded with taxi drivers and awaiting families—then in an instant there was Pastor and his daughter. We greeted each other as if we were a forever-family and then we began our four hour journey to their hometown.
The main roads were pretty good and not crowded as the streets of Haiti. We arrived first at his house and was fed a wonderful meal of rice and black beans, stewed goat, and fried bananas. It was very good and some of the best goat I have ever eaten, the sauce was crazy good. After dinner, we stayed for a church meeting where he wanted us to greet the church and then we would go to our casa particular. The pastor’s home and church was one building; the church was built on one end of his house. It was basically a covered area with makeshift walls. The church folks were very friendly and intensely interested in us. We were the first Americans to have visited their church.
After our church greeting, Pastor drove us to our lodging. We didn’t know what to expect but were pleasantly surprised at our accommodations for a week. The small room had two regular size beds, an air conditioner, adjoining bathroom with a hot shower. Our host would prepare us breakfast each morning. The room cost us $25/day total for the two of us and breakfast was $2.50 each. It was great. Breakfast the next morning and every morning was an egg omelet, hot dog panini sandwich, expresso coffee, yogurt smoothie, a small orange, and papaya fruit. By the way, it is against Cuban law for a foreigner to stay in an unlicensed Cuban home.
Sunday morning, Pastor picked us up for church. We greeted all the folks before church; they were very loving and friendly. The worship was very exuberant with the typical Cuban sound of bongo drums, tambourines, maracas, guitar, and a guiro (a percussion instrument made from a serrated gourd and played with a wire). The young lady leading the singing was an excellent singer and guitar player. Before church I asked her if she knew the Spanish children’s song “Alabale”, she didn’t so I sang it and she picked up the words and tune immediately. We started the worship service with that song—they loved it even though it was slower than what they were used to.
Caleb and I went into Cuba on as an exploratory trip. We told Pastor we were coming to visit and we would respect his judgment on what we could do in his church. We were allowed to greet the people and give a testimony. He was afraid he would be fined or get in trouble with the authorities if we preached behind the pulpit.
Remember the Airport Man, the Cuban man I met in the Haitian airport? Well, when I greeted the church and told my side of the story of meeting him; a lady with a big smile on the front row started waving her hands—it was his wife! They lived only three houses away from the church. He was away on a work project so I did not get to see him but his wife told the other side of our God orchestrated story. This gives me chills even now as I write this. She was a Christian and member of the church but when I met him, he was not a Christian, his heart was closed to God. Something happened to him when we met, he was struck by the fact that the Lord sent a man of God to him in a foreign airport who had been praying for Cuba—he was struck by God’s grace and love and soon became a Christian who is now following Jesus. I was blown away!! You know, Hollywood can’t even make these stories up!
At the end of the service, we were invited to go to the door and greet everyone as they left. We soon learned the customary greeting of the Cubans is a hug with a kiss on the cheek. All the ladies hugged us and kissed us on the cheek and the men gave us a big “bear hug”. It was all in good, righteous Cuban Christian fellowship but I felt like I had set up a kissing booth at the county fair.
We had a wonderful experience in the afternoon. After lunch, we were just talking and getting to know our new found Cuban family. One of the older church members came in with her 40-something year old daughter. The daughter looked sick and we were told some of the specifics of her illness. She was brought by her mother so we could pray for her healing. So I asked Caleb to come and join me in prayer for her.
We began to pray for this lady and as we prayed she was overwhelmed by the Spirit of God collapsing into Caleb’s arms. We put her in a chair and continued to minister to her when she went into an even more life-less state as her arm fell limp from the chair arm. I could discern she was not fainting from sickness but from the Spirit.
I told her to rest in the Lord’s presence and to just receive God’s healing. She regained a little more consciousness and I remember telling her several times to just surrender to God. In a few minutes, she sat up more alert in the chair and eventually opened her eyes. She said she felt the power of God touch her. Then she surprised me, by saying, “I am not a Christian but I want to surrender my life to Jesus.” She related that just before I told her to surrender to God, she heard the Lord speak to her and say, “Just surrender to me!” Pastor led her in a prayer for salvation.
Some may ask, “Is there a biblical pattern for that type of experience where someone is overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit before they are saved?” Yes, Saul was knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus before he surrendered to Christ. I have found that God does not fit too well in a religious box!
That night we enjoyed another wonderful service in the church. The music was great and we learned to move as the Cuban Christians move. I had flashbacks growing up in the fifties and sixties with “I Love Lucy” and her husband, Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban band. The church music definitely had that Cuban flair—Hey, they are Cuban, what would we expect?
Pastor preached a powerful message. He and his family are very humble people who love Jesus and love the people of God. We were immediately accepted into this family and church as if we had known them for years. We share the life and oneness of Jesus; it is a connection in the Spirit that supersedes language, culture, nationalities, and race. This spiritual connection would be hard to describe unless one had experienced it.
Monday morning, some of the brothers in the church killed a hog (about 125 pounds dressed weight) and began the process of roasting a whole hog, Cuban style. They dug out an area about eighteen inches deep and about the size of a grave for the fire pit. After the fire had burned down with a good layer of coals, they started roasting the pig. The pig had been killed about 8:00 in the morning and was skewered on a long pole.
The hog was not put over any heat until about 3:00 in the afternoon. They started the pig high over the fire and lowered him closer to the pit as the flames turned to more coals. The pig was slowly turned for about five hours. When finished, the skin was a beautiful golden brown, crispy, and delicious. The meat was similar to our pulled-pork barbeque. It was a great experience and a wonderful meal. By the way, Caleb and I ate some of the tongue just after it was taken from the fire. My dad would have been proud because he believed in eating just about everything from a hog except the squeal.
Over the course of the week, we visited a number of homes with Pastor, where we prayed for many sick people. All the people we visited received us as angels of God and were so receptive, hospitable, and kind to us. He also introduced us to several pastors and we visited another church one night and greeted the people with a short testimony.
On Sunday, Pastor announced that they would not have a regular Wednesday night service but have a cultural exchange meeting so people would have an opportunity to ask Caleb and I questions. We were having our evening meal at Pastor’s house on Wednesday just before the meeting when we were informed there was a police informer present in the gathering at the church. We were advised to be careful and not criticize the Cuban government. Well, I wasn’t planning to do that anyway but it gives you a wake-up call that you not in Alabama preacher man. The meeting went well and the pastor’s family said we handled the questions in a good way.
Since the embargo in the early ‘60s there have been no imports of American cars, so there is an abundance of old American brand-name cars of the ‘50s. Yes, I had to take a ride in one. Caleb and I not only were able to ride in a 1953 Ford but the taxi driver let us drive it too. It is not what you think—they are not all original parts. Our ride had a diesel engine, Toyota steering column, Toyota dashboard, and no-telling what else. Nonetheless, it was fun for this old man to ride in a car that was built two years before he was born.
On our last day, we were packed and ready for home. Our hostess rose early and prepared us some expresso coffee and yogurt smoothies which we drank with our breakfast bars. We were on our way by 5:30 AM, to begin our trip home. Our bags were lighter, our cameras full, and our hearts were overflowing.
We had arrived in Cuba with some apprehension and uncertainty but leaving we felt a strong connection to a family, a people, and a church. The two countries of Cuba and America have been in a state of enmity for decades but we had come to Cuba as ambassadors of love and peace in the name of Jesus. We had come to bring encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ and in turn, we were embraced and loved as visitors from Heaven. Our trip into Cuba was into the unknown but on our way home, we knew this would be one of many journeys to the land of old cars, warm smiles, and loving hearts.
You can see all of our pictures in Cuba here.