This reflection was written by Director of United Church Studies Alyson Huntly for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community. You will find reflections from previous weeks here.
January 7, 2024, Havana Cuba
It is early morning but already the air is warming, rich with smells of bread and mango, dampness, and dense Cuban coffee. In the distance we hear the sweet singing of the nuns at morning Mass. We pull our chairs around the long wooden table at the Convento de Santa Brigida to begin our time of prayer and theological reflection. The building was built in the eighteenth century as the palatial home of Spanish Count, Montalvo. Now it is home to the order of St. Brigit. Much of the sister’s work revolves around care for the elderly, for youth, the sick and the poor, and their ministry of hospitality.
It has only been a few days, but already we are immersed in stories such as these, stories of Christian faith that is deeply immersed in the life of the Cuban people. After the Cuban revolution, when most of the church hierarchy and almost all priests fled Cuba, the nuns of St. Brigit remained. And others too, other orders of Catholic women caring for the poor, and a remnant Protestant Church, particularly Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican.
The church that remained in Cuba is the one we encounter during this study tour. It is a church that held on at great cost during the Soviet period, when to be Christian was to face harsh penalties. It is a church that eventually gained the respect of the Fidel Castro and Cuban government for its tenacity, its faithfulness, and its work with the poor. It is a church still working with the most vulnerable members of the society to empower, build capacity, and help communities meet their basic needs for food, health, fresh water, dignity, hope. It is a church that teaches me, each time I visit, more of what it means to be the church in our own context.
In our morning reflection at Convento de Santa Brigida, two phrases stand out for me. First, the phrase “explicitly Christian.” We remark on how unafraid the Christians we meet in Cuba are to claim that their faith is founded in love of Jesus and a desire to follow him. “Explicitly Christian” doesn’t seem arrogant or judgmental, and it engages in plurality and respects other faiths; it doesn’t demand conversion but simply shows up, sure of its foundations and deeply aware of God’s presence.
The other phrase that stands out is “life insists on itself.” This phrase comes from a lay man from Vancouver Island, remarking on the tenacious and pugnacious tropical plant life, the tiny plants that squeeze in between cracks in the sidewalk, the tense vines that engulf dead trees, the mangroves that flourish to protect the shoreline and shelter the fingerlings. Life insists on itself in Cuba and this is never so evident as it is in the Church where love and life insist on Christ’s resurrected presence, insisting that even in the most difficult of times (and many people are saying that 2023 may be the most difficult time Cuba is facing), God is still at work here, bringing live and love. Life that insists on itself.
I think we at Dio, we in the Canadian Church of 2024, have much to learn from this.