At first, the juxtaposition of one of the most beautiful ocean causeways in the world (El Malecon) surrounded by crumbled buildings, is too much to take in. It is heartbreaking and awe-inspiring to see the past and present of the City of Havana before your very eyes. Havana is a city of mixed emotions; no middle ground here. It is at once a feast for the eyes and a punch in the gut. You cry remembering its past, cry seeing its present and cry imagining its future.
In Miami, we are experiencing the “horror” of a lack of availability of toilet paper. In Havana it is non-existent. Paper goods, in general, are an expensive and rare commodity. As is food. Each day starts with a quest to put food on the table, a quest that may take all day. The vast majority of folks in my age group, 50-65 years old are walking zombies. They have woken up to a terrible but real nightmare where they realize all they were told for a lifetime is a lie. Many have little purpose in life except to survive another day.
Enter the Emmaus experience, brought by the “enemy”, Cubans from Miami.
My wife and I were blessed to have led the first joint men and women Emmaus retreat in Havana. We were joined by an incredible group of Emmaus brothers and sisters from Miami. Many of whom had not returned to their homeland for 50 or more years. We were hosted at the archdiocese retreat house in Havana capable of serving 100 or so guests. The men and women were separated by floors allowing us to hold both retreats simultaneously. The first evening was one of reluctance by our island counterparts since in their own words: what are these Miami Cubans going to teach us?
There was one couple having spent a lifetime as leaders of the Santeria cult, very prevalent in Cuba. They were part of a family considered higher-ups in the Santeria leadership. Santeria uses fear and scare tactics to keep their followers involved. For a country that has little, those in this cult somehow find the money to pay for “spiritual” protection and so-called “solutions” to whatever problems they may have. It is virtually impossible, the higher up you are, to leave voluntarily. But leave they did! When this couple arrived Friday evening they did not even know what the sign of the cross was and knew not one Catholic prayer. After experiencing the Risen Christ, through the Emmaus experience of personal testimonies and the power of the Holy Spirit, this couple was totally transformed in the Spirit.
Their testimony of conversion is so powerful it convinced me to write my doctoral dissertation (still in its early stage) on the Emmaus experience in Cuba. The Monday after the retreat this couple destroyed all the African Santeria saints they had at home and gave up its meager but for them significant, income. Because of their leaving the cult they were thrown out of a home they shared with their family and now live in a homeless shelter; which by the way pales in comparison with the luxurious shelters in Miami.
This couple now takes a bus one hour each way to get to their Catholic church to serve and take CCD classes and take a two-hour bus trip each way to attend the weekly Emmaus team meetings. They will soon experience the Catholic sacraments for the first time!
Their example of conversion is just one of many in Cuba. As humble servants in this process, we are taken aback by the love and humility these new brothers and sisters in Christ show us. It is now routine for my wife and me to receive WhatsApp calls from many of them, the only way they can communicate with us. It is heartwarming and inspirational each and every time we speak to them!
In my next post, I will share our experience of the second Emmaus retreat in Havana and our wild and crazy 15-hour bus trip to Santiago to the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, where we held another Emmaus retreat.
This past weekend we were supposed to attend our 3rd Havana Emmaus retreat but it was canceled because of the Coronavirus. We had approximately 50 men and 50 men, the vast majority young adults, ready to go. We are not sure when we will be able to go back but in the meantime, we are bolstered in our faith knowing we have a brotherhood and sisterhood now rejoicing in the Lord because of their Emmaus experience!
Below are the team pictures of our first Emmaus retreat in Havana. We are beyond blessed for this experience! Jesus Christ has Risen!