The Unexpected Gift of Joining a Mission Trip

When we decided to join a mission trip, we knew serving and helping others would be a big part of the experience. But we never knew how much we would get in return.

Wayne and I worked together for years, and I’d hear stories about his mission trips. Then, I started giving monthly to support the mission and received the newsletters. The newsletters helped me understand what happened on a mission trip and how he supported pastors and leaders in Cuba. So, when the e-mail arrived one day about a summer trip, I knew Cam, my 15-year-old son, and I needed to experience this together.

We live a typical sheltered suburban life, and I wanted Cam to experience how everyone may not live like us and how we can help others. Of course, I was nervous about visiting a communist country with my child, but I trusted Wayne and knew God would be with us. I felt this would be an opportunity to reconnect us spiritually because we had lost a family member the prior year and remove the many daily distractions. After talking to Wayne about the trip, it was confirmed. We were going, and I was thankful for my husband’s support every step of the way.

After joining a mission trip, I discovered that reading about the Cuban people, spirituality, love, and giving is different on paper or screen. It’s life-changing experienced first-hand. This was a journey with my son, my spirituality, and the people we met and traveled with. As a result, I could reconnect with God, find new and different ways to connect through God, let go, and give things over to God.

Sharing experiences with the Cuban people and their deep faith will have a lasting impact on me. One woman radiated with the Holy Spirit and had more riches than anyone I know with her faith in and love of God. I was reminded of the power of prayer and was deeply moved by the intensity of group prayers. You could feel God with us and move through the people praying and through the people that we were praying for. 

I left the US with a typical teenager who transformed into a caring, giving, and loving young man. One night Wayne went to see a pastor, and the power went out. Cam shifted into protector mode and insisted that we check on Renee, Wayne’s wife. I also noticed that he kept an eye on Betty, who was in the house with us. It touched my heart when Cam wanted to say a prayer at a women’s prayer group. Also, he introduced us in Spanish everywhere we went, even in front of a large congregation at church. Cam has gone from studying Spanish to wanting to learn Spanish as a second language.

The relationships that Cam built and seeing God through those relationships influenced his life. He admired Wayne for his dedication to service and appreciated the time spent talking and explaining Cuba to him. Raphael, who we met on the trip, challenged Cam to continue the missionary work and service that started in Cuba. Betty, who we also met, instantly became a friend and encouraged him with his Spanish. He was impressed and inspired by her accomplishments with English and her mission with children at such a young age. They also enjoyed discussing roller coasters, sharing English and Spanish words, and jumping in the waterfall.

If you’re considering joining a mission trip, it’s important to have flexibility and patience. From a small double bed and a disco ball on the first night to the expected but random power outages, we just rolled with anything that came along. If you want to take a picture or video of something, just do it. Keep a journal with you. Write down a sentence from each pastor and church to help remember later. Drop a pin on your phone to remember where you visited. Download a Spanish translator on your phone that doesn’t need the internet. Most importantly, allow yourself to take time to appreciate the true beauty and love of God that you experience without the distraction of work, electronics, family, or other problems. You must be flexible and open to new experiences. Have an open heart and be ready to give and receive from a deeper place.

Cam and I plan to join a future mission trip. We loved the people we met. We loved helping and giving to others, but we know we took way more than we gave. I did not feel I was volunteering since I got back so much more than I gave. The love, prayers, and continued friendships will last for years.

– Caroline F.

Have you ever met someone who can paint a striking resemblance of a photo on canvas? That’s Daniel. I met Daniel about nine years ago. Back then, I’d walk through small towns in Cuba, take a Polaroid picture of a family, and give them the photo on the spot. It was a hit because many people didn’t have a way to take family pictures. My Polaroid also kept a digital image, so I had a copy

One day, I took a photo of a mother that touched my heart. I wanted to do something special for the mother, so I asked a pastor if there was an artist in town. He introduced me to Daniel. He started painting as a child, inspired by his father, who worked as an artist. As most kids do, Daniel painted when and what he wanted. As a young teenager, his family supported him in taking drawing classes. Then, Daniel’s father took him to Tiburcio Lorenzo Professional Academy of Plastic Arts in Pinar del Río to study with another student at the academy. At 14 years old, he took the entrance exam to the academy. In Cuba, you can’t just decide what career you want to pursue. You must pass an exam and be granted your desired vocation.

Shortly after taking the test, God revealed to his mother that Daniel would enter the academy even though receiving the results took a long time. So, when the judges provided their decision on the exam, it wasn’t a surprise to the family that he was accepted. God was already there, working in their lives from the very beginning.

Because Daniel was a gifted artist, he was allowed to study at the academy until he finished high school. Then, he was accepted into the National Academy of Fine Arts San Alejandro in Havana. We met after he had completed his studies. Daniel painted a portrait of the mother with her daughter and delivered it to her home as a surprise. Can you imagine her face when she saw the portrait for the first time? It makes me smile just thinking about it.

Daniel exhibits his art in galleries in Cuba and participates in exhibitions, but many are usually in his workshop at his home. In addition, he teaches plastic arts at a school for children with disabilities. He wants to encourage and support children with and without artistic talent through a Christian art education program, thus providing Christian values to children and young people.

Daniel’s talents are undeniable because he captures people beautifully. He doesn’t even need a photo and can create a portrait without one. Unfortunately, getting art supplies is probably the most challenging part of being an artist in Cuba. To help, Atulado brings him paint, brushes, and even canvases so he can continue sharing his talents with the world.

– Wayne S.  

I used to carry an old digital Polaroid camera on my early trips to Cuba. The photos I took meant the world to people because many had never seen their picture before. One family I met while I had that Polaroid camera is Ernestina, Pepito, and their daughter, Yaima. Pepito works in the yucca fields daily, and Yaima works with special needs children. Yaima’s husband, Efran, works in a restaurant in another town about 45 minutes away. They have two daughters, Adriana and Angelica, who helped me develop a relationship with the family that will last for years.

On one trip, I noticed the two small girls at the house sitting on their front porch one afternoon. The family lives together in one home. So naturally, I approached them and started a conversation. I asked if I could take their picture. The girls had not seen a Polaroid camera and were giddy with excitement to see photos of themselves. It warmed everyone’s heart to watch their faces light up with big grins and eyes dance as they gazed at the pictures.

Kids love to play hide and seek. So, on a later mission trip, I visited the house and hid small things around the porch, like Barbie dolls. For the girls, finding these hidden gifts around the porch the next day became a game and was exciting.

After a few visits, we were invited inside for coffee. Then, we were invited for dinner. Now, we’ve been to dinner at their house three times. Flan is my favorite dessert, and Ernestina made a delicious flan in a pressure cooker on one visit. They don’t have ovens in Cuba, so making food in pressure cookers is typical.

We have visited the family for at least five years and have continued our fun game of hide and seek at every visit. We keep in touch with them often. Their friendship helped us see how warm and friendly people are, even in hard times. They always have a smile, welcome us into their home, and offer coffee and anything else to make our visit comfortable. We look forward to developing our friendship over the years.

If you walk, you can only go so far. Traveling by foot takes an incredible amount of time for pastors and leaders in Cuba that need to visit and care for their congregation. But with a bicycle, they can share the word of God with more people and positively impact more lives.

Several vehicles exist to take a person from one place to the next. The question becomes which option is best and at what cost. Today, a car is around $40k. It can carry many items at once, but you’re better off paying someone to haul those items for you at that cost. Eventually, electric motorcycles were allowed into the country and became another option that wasn’t nearly as expensive as a car. Then, the electric bicycle was introduced into the Cuban market and became a game changer. It allowed pastors to cover the same amount of ground for a fraction of the price. The electric motorcycle costs $2.5k, while the electric bike is around $900.

However, given every possible vehicle, a bicycle is the best way for people to travel around a primarily rural country. But when we first started providing transportation, a regular bicycle wasn’t easy to get into Cuba. However, recently restrictions have changed, creating shorter delivery times and the ability to buy bikes in larger quantities. Plus, at just $375, a bicycle is an attractive solution for transportation. It allows us to provide more pastors with a vehicle to spread God’s word further. As a result, we’ll send more bikes in the future. Of course, unless this changes.

For every bicycle a pastor receives, the reaction is similar – they jump for joy at the sight of their new transportation. It seems like a small thing, but it allows them more time for the ministry they love doing. 

For example, Pastor Orlando Torres from Bueycito, Granma Province, didn’t have any transportation to reach his ministry. It’s about 7 miles from his house, and the bicycle allowed him to go more often and make new disciples. When he received the bike, he had put all the parts together the next day and immediately set out to make visits. He’s there serving the Lord, and it’s a tremendous blessing for him to have a way to share the word of God.

– Wayne S.

Who would have known that an awkward conversation would turn into an opportunity to help a dream come true? But God knew. He opened a door for me to listen and for Atulado to support a vision that will touch the lives of others.

Many women in Cuba don’t have the feminine products they need. The cost and even access to feminine products make them a wish list item. So, women will cut up what precious clothing they own to manage their monthly cycle. We’ve started taking reusable sanitary pads on our mission trips to ease this burden.

On a recent trip, I gave Vilmaris a package of pads. Vilmaris is the wife of a Cuban pastor. In Cuba, this role serves alongside her husband as a church leader. She helps with the children’s ministry, has biblical training, and helps care for the congregation’s spiritual needs.

An instant smile shone on her face, and her eyes sparkled as she took the package. I know Vilmaris well, so I asked if the pads were useful or if she was just being polite with her gigantic smile. She said her cycle would begin soon, and she didn’t know what clothes to sacrifice next week. That situation is very stressful, but this gift is not only a beautiful bag but solves her problem.

After what most would consider an uncomfortable conversation, I asked about her needs. Vilmaris’ humble spirit struggled to reply, but she shared that her dream was to hold a women’s conference. She knew it would be expensive but felt God was calling her on this path. Touched by what she said, I asked about her plans and learned that she needed a small investment of $500 to get started.

Vilmaris’ dream entails bringing women and leaders in the church together for biblical teaching related to women, sharing their struggles, encouragement lessons, prayer, and developing deeper relationships. The women that attend will be more equipped spiritually, mentally rested, and recharged. When they return home, their husbands, children, friends, and family will hear what they learned. The message and good news will spread like wildfire to impact hundreds. So, Atulado came by her side to help launch her plans.

When she discovered that together we’d make her dream come true, Vilmaris touched her upper chest, put her head down, and teared up. With support, she’s empowered to make a difference for the women in her church, which moved her significantly.

The central theme of the first conference is Women of God Shines from Isaiah 60:1. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. Other topics include:

  • Shine as a friend and servant to the Lord
  • Shine as the mother of faith and faithful daughter
  • Shine as a wife and a leader
  • Shine amid these times

Atulado will provide attendees with resource bags filled with underwear, sanitary pads, washcloths, a touchless thermometer, medicine, toothbrushes, scrunchies, a devotional, a water filter, and other items.

What started as an awkward conversation turned into a dream come true. Helping Vilmaris and the fifty attendees will influence others far and wide, not only in Cuba but also for those who support the event.

– Wayne S.   

What if your phone rang, and you learned a guest was on the way? How would you feel? Most people would feel panicked as they scurry around, getting the house ready for guests.

When a pastor gets a call that we’re coming, the visit can happen within minutes. Of course, the pastor feels anxious to meet a stranger from America and unsure what the visit will hold. But his trust in Osmani provides some comfort, guides him to open his home, and gives the American stranger (me) a chance. Then, I ask crucial questions about their daily challenges to reveal the family’s actual needs and build trust. 

Once we arrived at this visit, his wife quietly offered us coffee. She was honored to make everyone feel welcomed. After some time, she joined the conversation as I inquired how the children were doing, whether they had a thermometer, how she got and prepared food, and other questions about her struggles and concerns.

We brought essential resources such as food, sanitary products, and a water filter that lifted many of the family’s concerns. For example, he spent eight hours a week getting water for his wife to boil. With a water filter, he has eight hours back in his week to care for his congregation. 

We talked about our families, shared our stories, and I learned more about their daily struggles. Then, I asked, “How can we pray for you?” So, we prayed for God to help with unanswered prayers. That prayer meant everything to him because we took time to nurture his spirit. And at that moment, he knew God sent us for a purpose. Unfortunately, many pastors in Cuba don’t receive visits from their leaders to pray for them. The burden is too great. I also prayed for his wife, and the prayer touched her.

The power of this prayer will support, encourage, and fuel his ministry for months. Praying is priceless. I’m already looking forward to my next visit to continue building our friendship and help fuel his life and ministry for years to come. 

– Wayne S.

children praying during pandemic

In the 80s, Russia started to support Cuba and times were relatively good. Then, when Russia fell, it was a disaster for Cuba. As a result, the government imposed a special period to ration items. For Cubans, the special period may have felt similar to the Great Depression for Americans. However, in America, children now only know about the Great Depression from stories their grandparents share or learn about it in school. The special period ended in the mid-90s as Venezuela and Brazil stepped in as global trade and economic partners.

Starting in 2008, things improved as US Treasury restrictions on Cuba loosened. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down tourism and crushing the economy. Quarantine and mask restrictions were strictly enforced, and the government vigilantly executed contact tracing procedures. Masks had to be worn in your car, even if you were alone, or you’d get fined an amount equal to three weeks’ pay. Sometimes entire cities were quarantined. The airport shut down, and no one came to Cuba. Finally, Cuba created three vaccines that they administered. Today, they have a vaccination rate of over 90%, and their strict procedures during the pandemic helped many people survive.

When tourism opened, Cubans were ready to get back to work and for life to move forward. Unfortunately, now with Russia invading Ukraine, the financial embargos against Russia will impact Cuba again as Russia represents an estimated 25% of their tourism industry. 

Older Millennials and younger Gen Xers know what’s coming because they remember the special period and sanctions so well. Also, after the protests in 2021, this generation feels there is no change in sight, and many want to leave Cuba. So, they’re journeying to Nicaragua or other places to start a long and dangerous journey to enter the United States. No VISA is needed to fly to Nicaragua and the border between Mexico and the US is the best place to claim asylum. So, they’re selling everything to get US dollars and begin their journey. As a result, thousands of people flee Cuba every week. 

Families become immediately separated as some husbands flee first, and many elderly, disabled, and small children who can’t travel stay in the care of other family members. Parents and older adult children are separated as this generation leaves, never to return. Family is key, and this generation would typically care for more senior family members.

Churches are closing their doors with fewer people left and no paster to lead the congregation. To protect themselves and their families, pastors that flee only tell one person within the denomination the night before they depart, giving no notice to the church. A generation of church leaders will be lost with so many pastors and church leaders leaving Cuba.

To support the churches and pastors that remain, Atulado is working to identify the financial needs of church leaders committed to leading the Church in Cuba. We will then create a short-term relief plan to relieve the stress of providing for their family. That way, they can minister to their congregation without worrying about food, shelter, and other essentials. For just $100 per month for each pastor, it can make a difference that impacts so many. 

I met Javiel and his family in October 2011 while on a mission trip to Cuba. He’s a pastor who loves and cares for his community and church. He appeared a little overwhelmed and nervous about meeting us for the first time because he was not accustomed to hosting Americans and wanted the best for us even though they had little to offer. The family lived in a wooden house which was about 500 square feet. They did not have a refrigerator, and the wooden planks serving as the walls have been there for more than 50 years and had many gaps between each board. But, on this first visit, his humble spirit shined as he ensured we were comfortable in his home.

Javiel and his family live for the Lord. Unfortunately, some neighbors found this devotion offensive, despised the church, and were cruel to Javiel and his family. During one visit, we prayed for his neighbors, and over time, their hearts softened. Now, his neighbors are quiet and more friendly than before. Most importantly, his neighbors aren’t against them anymore, and the two women talk often. Things aren’t perfect, and God is still at work in their story.

At visits, we break bread and share a meal the family prepares. When we are there on a Sunday, we attend the church service. And, of course, we pray for them as a family and bring essential resources like rechargeable flashlights, shoes, bicycle tires, clothing, feminine products, and medicine. Since then, we’ve made about twenty visits to see the family, and our relationship has grown.

At one early visit, I asked Javiel to tell me what they really needed. He answered something like whatever God puts on your heart as we have many needs. His is a humble heart, but I can’t search for this on Amazon. That is when I told him I would bring a snow shovel. (It’s a running joke I tell people because a snow shovel is the last thing anyone needs in Cuba!) After I explained what a snow shovel is, we shared a laugh, and he let me know what the family really needed. The time invested in cultivating genuine connections builds trust and allows us to help the families we serve effectively.

Through the years, Atulado has helped the family overcome challenges and equipped them to impact the lives of others. Look closely at the original photo on the left from 11 years ago and the recent photo on the right. Notice anything? The family is larger, and the house has changed. Yet, the heart of this family has not changed, but they are reaching more people for Christ. 

Atulado helped fund work to expand the house. Now the first floor consists of about 1,200 square feet. This all-concrete structure holds almost 80 people for church service. It’s built so that the family will eventually move to the second floor, and the first floor will become a permanent worship space. A staircase leads up to an unfinished second floor that’s a flat roof until it is time to complete the work.

Essential resources like microphones for church services, fans during the summer, ministry supplies for children’s worship, and food for outreach events help make worship possible. Also, an electric motorcycle helped Javiel overcome transportation hurdles and visit more congregation members.

Our relationship offers Javiel and his family a spiritual, personal, and financial safety net. They can reach out to us anytime, knowing they are not alone. A trustworthy place to share their burdens allows them to serve the Lord and nurture the faith of others freely.  

“Atulado is love, faith, fellowship, brotherhood, loyalty, and dedication for our family. Knowing that someone always supports us in prayer, thinks of our family, and understands our needs, fills me with joy.” – Javiel

– Wayne S.

May 3, 2022

Imagine getting paid in a currency you can’t use or having limitations on what you can buy. Unfortunately, many Cubans face this frustration daily. To experience what it’s like, put yourself in Ariel’s shoes and walk with me. 

Another long work week ends, and Ariel gets paid in your country’s national currency – the Cuban peso (CUP). He heads home with money in his pocket and needs to buy some food for the weekend. Ariel walks to the nearby store, and their shelves are empty. When the food arrives, he must wait six to eight hours to get one pack of chicken, hopefully. If Ariel has a friend on the inside, he gets a tip letting him know when the store’s delivery truck will arrive.

Disappointed and without any food to feed himself or his family, he starts walking home. On the way, Ariel passes a store with shelves full of food and essentials – even hard to find cooking oil. The locals know the store as the MLC store. The MLC store only accepts a digital card (MLC card) you can get at the bank. So, Ariel walks to the bank to get the MLC card. He gives them his CUP, but they will not accept the CUP for the MLC card. They only accept euros on this card.

The bank teller says, “Sorry, you cannot use the CUP for the MLC card, you need to use a euro.”

Ariel replies, “Well, my cousin in Miami gave me $100 US dollars. Can I use this to put money on the MLC card?”

The bank teller says, “No, sorry.”

So, Ariel asks, “Can I use the $100 US dollars or my CUP to buy euros?”

The teller replies, “No, I’m sorry, we do not accept US dollars. You can only use euros if you want to put money on the MLC card.” Ironically, MLC is Spanish for moneda libremente convertible, which means currency freely convertible.

Frustrated, Ariel asks, “Where can I get a euro with my CUP and US dollars?”

The teller responds, “I’m sorry again, I can’t help you.”

Still trying to find a way to get the MLC card, he asks, “Can my cousin send me euros from Miami? Wait, I know the answer. No, the embargo prevents bank transactions from the United States. Never mind.”

Defeated, Ariel leaves the bank to walk home. He worked hard all week and has money in his pocket, yet he can’t buy the only food available for purchase.

This story describes a typical situation for someone living in Cuba. But keep in mind things can change on a dime (nope, not a dime), but they can change very fast. It’s very complicated, and it took several conversations for me to understand it. But at the end of a mission trip a couple of months ago, the sign said it all at the airport.

The US dollar lets you exchange currency and get what you need on the black market. So, if you need to get something at the MLC store, you can exchange US dollars and get the MLC card. But unfortunately, the MLC card doesn’t track how much money is left on the card. So, you must keep track of the amount yourself, or you might lose the money you worked so hard for.

While the US dollar isn’t accepted for exchange at any bank, it’s still in demand on the black market and has a place in the economy. Unfortunately, any currency exchange on the black market instantly dilutes the value for the person making the exchange so the middleman can profit.

A year ago, the MLC stores were called dollar stores, and the exchange at the bank was 24 CUP for one dollar. Fifteen months ago, Cuba had two currencies. In the last 18 months, they removed a currency, eliminated the ability to exchange a dollar, and changed the dollar store to the MLC store, which only accepted a currency not easily accessible to the Cuban people. Each impacted the daily lives of every Cuban citizen. It’s caused long food lines waiting for deliveries to arrive. Long food lines prevent people from working the hours needed to make more money and keep putting food on the table for their families.

To help, Atulado brings essential resources and items that can’t be found in Cuba. For the most desperate situations, such as the homebound elderly, Atulado provides funds to the local church to be a safety net as these situations arise.

A couple of weeks ago, on a mission trip to Cuba, I went through the process of getting the MLC card. First, I had to buy euros before I left the US. There was a cost in the exchange rate, which was normal and reasonable. At the bank at the airport in Havana, I paid 1,000 euros for the MLC card with 995 on it, which isn’t bad. Then, to my surprise, I discovered the MLC card had dollars on it. Since the euro is more valuable than the dollar, I lost $75 to the bank in Cuba. 

-Wayne S.

Osmani Sosa

Meet Osmani Sosa. He’s the type of guy everyone wants to call a friend. His positive energy acts as a magnet, drawing others to him. People admire his relentless nature, passion, and love for the Lord. Then, there’s baseball. Many Cubans and baseball lovers know that in the mid to late 90s, he was one of the top pitchers in Cuba. But he left it all to answer God’s call on his life.

God gave him a vision to share the Gospel through baseball and sports. However, playing in the Cuban national league and internationally didn’t allow him to focus on his mission. So, he walked away from fame. Osmani went from being one the highest-paid in Cuba to having nothing while his wife was pregnant with their firstborn. And, if he had played baseball for his remaining five years, it would have financially secured his family for the long-term. It was a lot to give up, but worth it. This newfound freedom let him focus on the Gospel and the Gospel alone.

Keeping faith in clear view, Osmani and his family lived on food and other items people donated. He walked from city to city to find people to share the Gospel with through sports, sometimes sleeping in a box on the side of the road.

While it may have appeared to others he had nothing, he had the Gospel to share, and that is everything. God has always provided for the family exactly what’s needed, and about ten years into his ministry, he connected with Atulado. Over a Christmas holiday, Atulado’s founder searched for ministries in Cuba and found Osmani. Since then, Atulado has been by his side ever since.

Osmani serves as our trusted eyes in Cuba. He filters all the needs to find where an investment will most effectively help others. That may mean buying a small house or apartment where a pastor sleeps in a room with his family or providing a laptop for bible study. It may mean bringing medicine to someone in pain or providing basics like a flashlight. But, most importantly, it means serving as an answer to someone’s prayer.

– Wayne S.

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