After supper Jesus took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them and said, “Drink this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant, which was shed for you … whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
It was almost tempting to change that last line of communion to “wherever you drink it.” I was celebrating communion on the stern of the Celestyal Crystal, a cruise ship that was sailing just off the coast of Cuba. It was Sunday morning and I was traveling with a group of journalists to immerse myself in the Authentic Cuban Experience, when I was asked by some members of my group to celebrate the Eucharist. With a makeshift altar, borrowed wine and bread saved from breakfast, we celebrated communion. Just off the port lay Cuba, a country that as recently as 1992, had atheism as a part of its constitution.
The trip was coordinated by Educational Opportunities of Florida and Celestyal Cruises of Greece, www.celestyalcruises.com/en/cuba-cruises. For those who want to explore Cuba, cruise ships provide the best means of travel, as the country is not yet ready for the influx of tourists; your floating hotel provides a comfortable base from which to explore.
And for those who want to make a religious pilgrimage to Cuba, Educational Opportunities, www.eo.travelwithus.com, guides you through the bureaucracy that is still the Cuban government, to meet with Christians who have kept the faith despite 50 years of oppression. Churches in America feel oppressed if soccer practice is held on Sunday morning. Cubans have much to teach us about following Jesus when doing so makes life difficult rather than just inconvenient.
“I want to see Cuba before it changes” is an oft-heard expression. We say it without fully comprehending our own words. What don’t we want to change? The colorful 1950s cars that have endlessly been reworked in order to them keep running?
One guide described such cars as American-made only on the outside; I found that to be true while riding in a Chrysler with an engine in the trunk. Is it fear of a McDonald’s popping up next to one of Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite haunts?
As the average Cuban makes only $30-$40 a month, the locals won’t be able to afford a Big Mac anytime soon. Perhaps one uneasy sign of change is the proliferation of T-shirts for sale in places that until recently sold only rum and cigars. T-shirts might be the “canary in the coal mine,” a sign of impending commercialization to come.
Before uttering the words, “I want to see Cuba before it changes,” think of the Cuban exiles. Marlene Oliver of Celestyal Cruises was our PR person. She is the daughter of Cuban exiles who made the difficult trip to come to this country to escape Castro.
While we were in Havana, Marlene asked if we could stop by a dilapidated apartment building that had been her father’s home.
The phrase “You can’t go home again” is achingly true for the exiles.
Watching Marlene and her sister try to find a way into their father’s home called to mind the words of Psalms 137:1, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion.” It’s the cry of the exile wanting to come home.
The Cuban people are warm and friendly and each has a story to tell. There was our guide in Cienfuegos who, with a big grin, introduced himself as Vladimir. “Russian name, Cuban heart,” he said, reminding us of the close ties between Russia and Cuba. Then there was Isora, who called us “my children” as she ushered us through Havana. It was Isora who would sigh and respond to difficult questions about day-to-day survival with the words, “It’s complicated.”
Change is coming to Cuba. It just might not be the kind of change envisioned by the Castro regime. One of the most striking moments in Cuba was seeing the 60-foot Christ of Havana statue overlooking the harbor. Directly across from the Christ is the Havana home once belonging to Che Guevara. His name is outlined on the house in neon lights and reminded me of a supper club.
Che’s house is now a museum. Castro is dead. While the effects of the revolution are still very evident, they are beginning to wane.
Two thousand years ago, at the Last Supper, Jesus proclaimed the words of a New Covenant that continue to endure. Christ over Havana endures. Look at the face of this Christ. And then remember that the revolution that Jesus ushered in that proclaimed the rule of God, the kingdom of Heaven on Earth and love for the world is the one that will last long after the Ches and Castros of this world are gone.
The Rev. Cynthia Taylor is the pastor of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Martinez.