Sunday, March 2, 2014


I'm looking in the mirror at the skin of my sunburned nose peeling and flaking away, at my legs scabbing over where I was bitten by fleas (?) and at my rough and broken nails after my manicure dissolved in the heat and humidity of Cuba.  Was it really just a few days ago that I was splashing in the turquoise-blue water of the Gulf of Mexico?  On this chilly, damp night in Oregon it seems much longer than that.

Jeff and I went on a ministry adventure.  We traveled to Cuba, where few Americans visit.  I felt privileged to travel there and was greatly looking forward to our trip.  All I really knew about Cuba was that in the old days, Hollywood flocked there.  It was a tropical paradise that was sought out by movie stars, singers and writers...very artsy and probably not very moral.  I also knew it was famous for cigars, rum and the Cuban sandwich (which is a Florida creation, not Cuban...we asked).  And of course, there were the missiles and the Communists that frighten my mother to this day, 50 years after the crisis.

We arrived late at night and couldn't see a thing on our bus trip from the airport to the hotel.  I didn't even care that much about the scenery at that point, because I was in the miserable grip of the flu.  I had started the plane trip with what I thought was a migraine, but instead of progressing from pain to nausea and vomiting, this time I felt myself begin to shiver and ache while my skin became hot and dry with fever.  And then I started coughing in fits until I was exhausted.  Two days later I was standing at the hotel reception desk checking in, shivering in that lovely balmy air, telling Jeff how cold I was while I wrapped my sweater around my shoulders.  I crawled into my hotel bed underneath an extra blanket I found in the closet and closed my burning eyes and slept until 3 a.m., when I awoke with another coughing fit.  Ugghhh.  What a way to start my trip!

But the next morning I woke up sweaty and cool.  My fever had broken!  I got up and went straight to the door to our balcony, opened it, and slipped outside into the rosy light of dawn.  I could hear the water rolling onto the beach and could see it gleaming a lavender blue in the early morning light.  I quickly dressed and headed straight out to the beach with my camera.  We had a breakfast meeting at 8:30, so I didn't have much time, but I couldn't wait to step into that blue, blue water.

I thought I would go for a run, but I just didn't have the energy, so I walked the length of the beach, exploring the water holes and sandy spots and of course letting the gentle waves roll over my bare feet.  Okay, so it was colder than I expected, but still...I was wading in the Gulf of Mexico!  Out of time but satisfied, I hurried back to our room and got ready for the day.

Typical of many mission trips, we weren't quite sure what we were doing, where we were going, who was speaking or what the schedule was.  A big part of the disorganization is the great difficulty communicating with anyone in Cuba.  Their emails are all monitored and controlled by the government.  Sometimes their account will shut down for no reason and then suddenly come back a couple months later.  Jeff and I had no internet the whole time we were text messages, Facebook or email.  The Cubans were only slightly better off, but have to be very careful about the content of their communication, so everything is very vague until you actually arrive.  To prepare, we all just brought our notebooks full of messages so we could be ready at a moment's notice.  There were five of us---Pastors Phil and Judy Jaquith, who worked with the Cuban pastor to organize our trip, their daughter Harmony who translated into Spanish for us, and Jeff and me.  Our ride old VW van painted white with a bucket of paint and a hand-held paintbrush...and we climbed inside, got comfy on the dusty, cloth-covered seats, and headed off to a nearby city where the minister's conference was taking place.

The morning was heating up, but the church was built of concrete and had open sides so it was fairly cool inside.  The session was in progress when we arrived.  No problem...they just stopped everything and invited us up!  By the time Phil and Jeff had both spoken and we had ministered prophetically and prayed over the pastors, it was afternoon.  We walked down the street to the pastor's house where his wife had prepared us a meal of beans and rice, pork, chicken, fried plantain, and a cold vegetable plate with tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans.  When we were done eating, she brought out tiny cups and poured us strong and sweet Cuban coffee.  The only time I enjoy black coffee is when I am in countries like Brazil and Bosnia where they make it very strong and add too much sugar.  Cuban coffee is like that...if you get the expensive kind.  If you drink the common Cuban coffee, it is a 50/50  mixture of ground coffee beans and ground dried peas.  It's terrible!  That's what we drank in our hotel every day.  I was thankful every time we were served real coffee, strong and dark, by one of the pastors.

After lunch Jeff and I went down to the tiny church office and counted out piles and piles of money.  For three weeks before our trip, we had asked our congregation to consider giving a monetary gift for the pastors of Cuba.  Jeff had it on his heart to give $50 to each pastor in the fellowship (which was approximately 2-1/2 months salary)...and there were approximately 200 pastors.  That's $10,000...a lot for our little congregation!  But Jeff quoted our theme scripture of 2014:  "Above all you can ask or think."  Well, $11,500 came in!  That was enough to give every pastor $50, plus we gave some extra to the district pastors whose churches we ministered at to cover the gas and food they provided us.  They were surprised and blessed beyond measure.  One of the leaders told us it was a "historic offering."  What joy it was to bundle up all that cash into envelopes and distribute it to the pastors with a prayer of blessing!  (And what a relief it was to rid ourselves of that much cash!  We've never travelled with so much cash on our bodies before, and it was a rather uncomfortable feeling.  But God kept us and the money safe!)

After the conference, we were driven back to the hotel in time to catch a bit of the beach as the sun went down.  Then we enjoyed a late dinner together (although the food was awful!) and went to bed early as we were dealing with travel fatigue, first-day fatigue, and lingering sickness.

Next morning we were picked up in a different car...a big old car from the '50s that was nothing more than a metal chassis painted green.  There was no interior, just a metal frame and exposed bolts.  The motor had been rebuilt more times than could be counted.  The seats were old and weathered, with springs that sent us bouncing up and down on the bumpy roads.  We drove quite a way into the country and through many small towns before we reached our destination.  We first went inside the pastor's house where we were served fruit juice and crackers with mayonnaise, and then we walked across the yard to the church and ministered to the pastor's leaders.  By the time we were done speaking and praying, it was late afternoon and we were hungry.  The pastor took us back to his house and brought out the bowl of crackers again, poured us some soda and bottled water, and then offered us some packaged cookies.  We realized that was all they had.  We were grateful for how willingly they served us.  We got back into the green car to drive back home, and I pulled out some snacks from my purse...little bags of dried fruit and spiced nuts...and we all shared them.  The pastor and his wife loved them, and we enjoyed watching them try something new.

All the way through the small towns, the pastor would honk and wave at people he knew and they would enthusiastically yell out greetings and wave back.  Everyone seemed to love this good-natured, cheerful pastor.  Everywhere he went he had friends.

Despite the bumpy, uncomfortable car ride, Jeff had no problem falling asleep.  He was feeling headachey and feverish.  I guess I had passed on my germs!  But there was no time to be sick.  We got back to the hotel, freshened up, and then went for dinner...we were so hungry after nothing but crackers all day!  Then we were picked up by another pastor, this time in "The Black Beast," a monstrous black car that reminded me of the Batmobile.  The pastors had affectionately nicknamed their car, and they couldn't have chosen a better name!  I wondered what the hotel staff thought every time we caught a ride in yet another battered vehicle...all re-built and funny-looking.  The other guests who left the hotel were boarding tour buses or taxis.  We climbed into The Black Beast!

This pastor and his wife were also very outgoing, and the wife spoke fluent English so we had no trouble communicating.  We drove to their town where most of the carriages in Cuba were manufactured, they proudly told us.  Yes, carriages.  An old car like The Black Beast or the green machine costs about $15,000.  The average Cuban salary is $20 per month.  Do the math.  Many people drove horse-drawn carriages, and those poor horses trotted faithfully down the cobbled streets until they died.  There was no pasture for an old horse.  While we were learning these facts, suddenly the carriage next to our car came to an abrupt stop and leaned awkwardly towards the curb.  The horse had collapsed.  Men from the street ran to help the driver try to coax his horse back up, but as long as we watched, the horse remained crumpled on the road.  Poor horse!  Of course, that was my first thought.  Then I realized how great a loss this was for the owner.  He would have to save thousands of dollars to buy another horse.  He would be without transportation for a very long time.  He and his family would suffer from this huge set-back.  The pastor and his wife looked concerned for a moment, then continued to chatter on cheerfully.  This was life in Cuba.  I thought about the poor horse for a long time; they thought about the church service we were going to and the busy week ahead of them.

When we arrived, we were ushered into the pastor's house, which was attached to the church, as many pastors' houses are in Cuba.  This is New Testament-style church!  All the people of the congregation come and go right through the house, and church life and home life are one.  In North America, pastors hold the church at arm's length...our houses a safe distance from people who might interrupt our family time or personal space.  As I watched the lively interaction between the people and the Cuban pastors, I wondered what it would be like to live a life that was so entwined with the activity of the church.  Something told me we would have a more vibrant church if we moved into the house on our church property.  Something told me people would volunteer more and spend more time at the church and not just show up for services.  I was intrigued, and Jeff and I even had a "What if" conversation...What if we moved into the house on the church property?  What would happen?  Would we like it?  Would the church grow?  Would our people hang out there and get more involved?  What would our kids think?  It is an interesting concept, and I am honestly curious enough to wish we could try it out for a year and see what would happen!

The church service began, and we enjoyed another group of passionate worshipers.  Everyone is so expressive here!  They hit the ground running...ready to worship, fully engaged, joyful faces, and completely absorbed in His presence.  It is easy to minister to them...their receptivity draws out the anointing.  There is no working it up here.

After church, we were served lots of yummy treats.  There was flan, a common Latin American dessert that is eggy, sweet and rich, a cake with classic 7-minute icing, these wonderful little donut crisps sprinkled with sugar, and fresh pineapple.  After 40 days on a Daniel Fast without any sugar or white flour, I was a little overwhelmed at the sugar-fest...everything tasted so sweet!  But those little donut crisps were pretty awesome!  After eating, it was back into The Black Beast for the ride home.

The next morning we went for the longest drive of all, but we were pampered by getting to ride in a beautiful minivan with air conditioning!  We drove out to the countryside with the pastor who was the overseer of all the churches in the fellowship.  He wanted to show us the farm that he had grown up on and the land that he now wants to use for a youth camp.  It was wonderful to see the country in its raw form.  We passed community gardens and fields with palm trees and banana trees.  Fences were made from living trees, so each fence post bloomed at its top!  When we arrived at the farm house, a little boy shyly came out to greet us...or probably just to check out what was happening, as they said very few people ever drive out that far.  We walked among the chickens who roamed freely through the house and yard, and we listened to the pastor's stories of his his family became Christians, how he walked 7 miles to church, how they withstood the Communists who tried to pressure them to give up their land, and how he watched the soldiers hold a gun to his grandmother's head on more than one occasion as they interrogated and harassed her for going to church.  It was his grandmother's faith and determination to attend church no matter the threat that compelled him to make the same commitment to Christ.  It was a very poor and simple life in the country and fraught with oppression and even danger, but he loved the farm his family had fought for, and he wanted to share it with the youth, giving them a place to come to get away, play, and worship freely.  We prayed over the land and the pastor, that God would grant him government favor as he pursued the necessary permits to use his land as a youth camp.  And that was it...we got back into the van and drove all the way back to the pastor's home in the city where we met up with his family and shared lunch at a fabulous restaurant.  This was the first time we experienced variety in the Cuban menu.  Rice and beans is most definitely a staple, but there wasn't much to eat beyond that.  At this restaurant, we had beautifully prepared salad, plantain chips fried thin and crisp, stuffed plantain that tasted like pizza bites, chicken smothered in cheese, gorgeous drinks and even a Cuban version of bruschetta.  We ate out on the patio, which was surrounded by tropical greenery and chatty parrots.  After being well fed we parted ways, and Jeff and I joined the same pastor and wife we had ministered with the night before and drove out to a small rural town to minister at another church.

When we arrived at the pastor's house, we saw that it was in a dark, uninviting apartment building.  It looked totally creepy and decrepit.  In the States that building would have been condemned or at best a drug house, and no normal person would have stepped foot into that dark stairwell.  But here, everyone cheerfully entered and worked their way up the stairs in total darkness until we arrived on the concrete landing where a door stood open and light spilled out in a surprisingly welcome way.  We were greeted with kisses and given the best seats in the little living room, which looked quite normal with simple furnishings, laughing children and visiting adults.  The door to the balcony was open, and the men were gathered there in the warm night breeze while the women sat in rocking chairs and chatted comfortably.  When dinner was ready, we squeezed around a tiny kitchen table...some of us sitting on boxes, some of us on broken chairs (mine!  I discovered it when I leaned too far to the right and my chair tipped!).  We had another meal of beans and rice, chicken, tomatoes and cucumbers.  The pastor's wife from the night before was our translator, and she was so quick and good at what she did that it honestly didn't even feel like we were being translated.  The jokes were flying back and forth with a lot of bantering and laughter, and we had a wonderful time of fellowship with these three new pastors and their wives.  It was actually hard to pull ourselves away from that pleasant place, but we felt our way back down the dark stairs and out onto the dark dirt road and walked to the church where the people were already packed in tight, waiting expectantly.  We had another great service and then climbed into The Black Beast and headed home.

The next morning I woke up with bites all over my legs.  This happens to me on pretty much every mission trip I've ever taken...Costa Rica, Belize, India and now Cuba.  Jeff never gets them; I always get them!  Also, my feet, ankles and lower legs were all puffy.  This happened last year in India too.  It's probably a combination of too much salt in the food (I never salt my food), heat, humidity, and lots of sitting.  So my legs were not very attractive, to say the least!  This day we were driving to Havana, so we loaded up the nice air-conditioned van and headed to the big city.  I put my feet up, closed my eyes, and dozed a bit, which was nice.  Once we had checked in to our hotel and freshened up, we were picked up and taken to another pastor's house where we had another delicious dinner of beans and rice, pork, yucca root (very similar to potato), and tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by Cuban coffee.  Then we were off to a small church in Havana, which took place right in the living room of one of the congregation member's home.  The place was packed out right onto the porch, just like all the other churches.  And like all the other churches, this group of believers was expressive and engaged in worship.  The worship team played interesting gourd instruments that lent a fun Caribbean feel to the worship service.  We spoke and prayed and prophesied, and then were taken into the kitchen and fed cake and fruit before returning to our new hotel.

Havana is a beautiful city.  As we drove to church the next morning, I couldn't stop exclaiming over the gorgeous houses and buildings.  Although many were in a state of disrepair, the intricate architecture was still evident and the size and structure of the buildings was amazing.  The church we ministered at that Sunday morning was the largest church in Cuba.  It was another great church...packed out and vibrant with worship.  Here, all the children gathered into a straight line and placed their hands on the shoulders of the child ahead of them and marched through the church while the adults sang a fun and catchy song, serenading them out the door and to their Sunday school class.  There were two services back-to-back, so it was a busy morning.  By the end of the second service, the building was heating up.  Because the morning was longer than most of the other services we had attended up to this point, I found I needed a bathroom.  Every other day I was able to last until I had access to a decent bathroom, but this day I had to do what the locals do and squeeze into a tiny bathroom with only a toilet seat or lid and no toilet paper.  There was a sink, but only one tap that dripped water out in a weak, thin stream.  When it was time to flush, I pulled the makeshift string up from the tank, and it snapped in two in my hand!  So guess who had to reach her hand into the tank and manually flush the toilet?  Oh, yes...I make a good missionary!  But no worries, because I'm always quite prepared.  Inside my trusty travel bag I keep toilet paper and antibacterial gel!  I tell these stories because people always wonder!

After the service we went back to the pastor's house for lunch....yes, beans and rice, pork, plantains and a different root vegetable that was fried and crisp on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside.  Although the meals were identical from day to day, this particular meal was very tasty.  The pork was fall-apart tender and everything was seasoned and cooked very well.  The woman who cooked for us apparently used to be a professional cook.  She was an old widow woman who lived with the pastor's family and had taken care of the children like a grandmother since the kids were small.  She didn't speak a word of English, but she happily served us dinner and then brought us Cuban coffee to end our meal on a sweet note.

We had a young man drive us back to our hotel after lunch, but first he drove us to Old Havana for a quick tour of the main square and the waterfront.  It was beautiful!  He promised us a full tour the next day, and took us back to our hotel to rest and refresh before heading out to yet one more church that night.

Our final evening of ministry took place in a tiny little church that was nothing more than a porch with a metal roof overhead.  They had a very old keyboard and an archaic sound system and one saxophone.  But they could sure worship!  We were so blessed by the joy in every single one of the churches we had ministered at.  The people had nothing, yet they had everything!  Their whole lives were dedicated to the House of the Lord...the place of joy, fellowship, and relationship.  If only we could re-train ourselves to be so single-minded about the things of God!

Our ministry was done.  We climbed into bed feeling finished and fulfilled.  We slept deeper, released from responsibility.  When I woke in the morning, I jumped into my bathing suit and left Jeff to sleep in while I had a swim in the pretty pool.  Ahhh, the sweet sun shining so early, the blue water, perfectly still.  I swam quietly, just enjoying the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the water on my skin until it was time for breakfast.  After eating, we met up with the same man who had driven us the day before.  He had brought his wife along, who spoke very good English, and we had a double date!  For them, it was so much fun to take time off and have a little leisure.  For us, we had the privilege of personal tour guides taking us through Old Havana.  We could stop when and where we wanted and ask any question.  We had a great time together as a foursome, truly enjoying each other's company.  We loved the intrigue of Old Havana...a merry mix of brightly colored buildings, cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages, luscious flowers, stately historic cathedrals and theaters adorned with intricate carvings, balustrades and pillars, and vintage cars decked in glossy paint and shiny chrome trim.  There was an open market in an old warehouse filled with artisan goods.  There were quaint cafes with sidewalk tables.  There were street performers and living statues.  There was even Central Park, a big square of old trees and cooling green vines.  We walked for a good three hours, stopping at a food cart for coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell and taking pictures of everything!  Finally feeling hungry and needing a bit of shade, we ate lunch at a stunningly beautiful restaurant overlooking the cathedral and main square.  We dined on a delicious lunch of seafood while we talked about life in Cuba.  Our tour guides greatly enjoyed this special meal.  They had told us that their normal diet was beans and rice three times a day with a bit of chicken or pork and fresh vegetables whenever they could get them.  They told us that the government issued ration books for food, but it was the same for everyone no matter the size of the family.  They told us they had been trying to get permission to install a phone in their home for all 11 years of their marriage.  They told us that a dress cost about $20 and shoes about $35, but their salary was only $20 per month.  They shared about their childhood growing up under communism and how it had been slowly getting better the last few years.  They shared how they came to Christ and how their lives had become so much richer and more meaningful.  They shared their deep desire to have a baby.  We prayed together as our day came to an end.  Then they left us at the hotel to gather our luggage and meet our final ride back to our original hotel where the airport was.  We said goodbye to Phil, Judy and Harmony and joined the first pastor we had met on our first day in Cuba.  We drove back to Varadero as the sun set, stopping at a viewpoint on the way back overlooking a huge canyon with a river far, far below that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.  The guard rail was quite low, which made us quite hesitant to lean too far to look down, down, down, but the luscious colors of the sunset and the warm breeze were wonderful to experience.  By the time we arrived at the hotel it was dark.  We ate our "last supper" and crawled into our funny separate beds for the last time.

I awoke the next morning not to the sun and the sound of the sea but to a loud banging and men's voices yelling in Spanish.  It sounded like someone was right on our balcony, but a peek outside revealed that one floor below us was a flat rooftop that held all the ducting, and a group of men were busily working on it.  Well, that would explain why we were freezing cold that night but weren't able to turn the air conditioning down!  Jeff was still sound asleep, so I ate breakfast alone and then headed down to the beach.  I was excited to have a novel to read and a lawnchair to lounge on by the sea.  I have never done that before, and it sounded soooo relaxing and luxurious.  Jeff joined me a couple hours later, and we walked through the warm white sand to the grass hut that served pina coladas and ordered a virgin one.  Then we cooled off in the water, wading way out into the deep blue, rising and falling with the rhythm of the waves.  Ahhhh, this was the life!  Except that we hadn't really been in the sun very much that week, and we knew we'd better not overdo it.  So we took refuge by eating lunch in a little restaurant, sitting at a table by big windows open to the sea.  Then we showered and dressed in our North American travel clothes, checked out of our hotel and went for a long walk, down to the little mall and then beyond, exploring the other resorts in the area and squeezing out every last drop of the beautiful evening.  We ate our last dinner in Cuba and then boarded the shuttle bus to the airport.  We cleared customs easily and then sat for 3 hours in the plain little airport until our plane left.

We arrived in Toronto at 2:30 a.m. and then waited an hour for our hotel shuttle bus in the freezing cold -15 weather.  We were exhausted by the time we fell into bed at 4 a.m.  We were also sunburned.  My shoulders stung when they hit the rough sheets.  How weird it was to be sunburned in such a cold, snowy setting.  Despite the discomfort, we promptly fell asleep...until the alarm went off a short three hours later and we dragged our bodies out of bed and back onto the shuttle bus.  The best part of the Toronto airport?  Real coffee!  We boarded the plane to Chicago, and then after an 1-1/2 delay, headed home to Portland.

It's always a little sad to leave someplace beautiful and exciting, but it's also incredibly lovely to come home.  The sun was peeking through the clouds when we arrived, and I was excited to see that the daffodils were in bloom.  My kitty was happy to see me...and so were my kids, even though they are quite independent and self-sufficient now.  We spent the evening reading the mail, unpacking, doing piles and piles of laundry, checking 10 days' worth of email and Facebook messages, and finally making a big bowl of popcorn and watching Downton Abbey...and then, the best part of coming home...slipping between the cool, clean sheets of my own bed with my own pillow and falling asleep to the sound of gentle rain and the wind in the trees.

For pictures, check out my Facebook page!


  1. Great story Karyn. I ate my dinner, and had popcorn, reading your blog. You certainly kept me interested. Thank you. Sasa

  2. Really enjoy reading this well written account of your trip Karyn!