What God Intended by These Journeys

When I first went to Cuba I was troubled by how little it seemed we were “doing”, at least in comparison with a lifetime experience of mission trips. While we talked about relationships and I enjoyed the experiences, it took me a couple of visits and prayerful insight to discover that these are really what I call “Hebrews 10 Opportunities”. What I mean by that is we are there to share our faith, our strength and weaknesses, and our gifts. But moreover, we are demonstrating our communion with the Cuban faithful and we are there to “spur one another” to bring the Word to those who are in need of it. I am convinced that our sharing in their challenges, joys, prayers and sorrows – and their sharing in ours – is what God intended by these journeys. This is the encouragement that God intended we show each other as Christians and has been a great blessing to me.

Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

-John P.

Midway through our trip we had travelled hundreds of miles on winding mountain roads which at times would have paid for the compliment of being called a road.  We had visited with and prayed with many families.  At the same time we were tired; I was tired.  This day had already felt long, it was raining all day, and we were tired and wet.  If there was a schedule on a trip like this, we were running two hours late.  We were all looking forward to getting back to the place where we were staying to get some rest and into a dry set of clothing.  We were piled into the van heading in that direction – at least that is what we thought we would be doing!  Our host, Pastor Sosa, wanted to make one final stop to visit a pastor.  He said it would only take five minutes.  That didn’t sound like much of a detour, but I’ve been on trips with this pastor and his idea of five minutes is the short hand moving from the three to the four.  Selfishly, we decided to test his five minutes by staying in the van and wait for him to return.  But once we pulled up and saw everyone standing on the front porch to greet us, we knew we must go in.

A young girl of the church had stopped by on her way home from school to get out of the rain.  She was very quiet and began directing the adults to the restroom.  She stood by the door because there really wasn’t much of a door as the bathroom was off the bedroom where a young boy was fast asleep.  Her self-appointed job was to give everyone privacy by letting us in one at a time.  After some time, Pastor Sosa noticed something was not right with this girl.  He has two teenage girls and he later told us he knows the difference between a teenager and something being off.  He rightly attributes this discernment to the Holy Spirit who opened his eyes to her hurt.  He began to speak to her – we will call her Maria.  While initially very nervous, she began to share with Pastor Sosa that she had recently witnessed her father being killed by her mother’s boyfriend with a machete.  Let that sink in for a moment, she saw her father killed with a machete.  As Pastor Sosa began translating her story my mind went numb and my heart immediately broke for this young girl.  I could not imagine what she saw, the amount of grief she was carrying, or even how she makes it through an hour much less a day.  How does anyone begin to recover from such a trauma?  Can someone as fragile as her ever recover?  What could I possibly say to encourage her?  How could I minister to her as she is telling her devastating story?  Realizing nobody in that room could fix this, we began to pray for her.  Before leaving this small house church, the team gathered around and prayed for her.  Not everyone knew exactly what was going on, but enough to know it was serious and the prayers flowed.  When we were done praying in English, she prayed in Spanish.  She demonstrated such strength to all of us and forged a memory for me I will never forget. 

This was an incredible life-changing moment in my life.  I know God wanted us to show up at exactly that time.  He wanted to use us to encourage her and use her to encourage us.  He wanted to use us to share in her pain.  Even though it was for a short time, God packed a life-altering experience into the five minute visit.   My whole perspective on these trips has changed and my purpose has become clearer than ever before.  It also showed me that I need to be open and aware of what God wants to reveal to me.  We can make our plans but it is God who directs our path.  I am so grateful that He opened my heart to hearing His voice and that I was reluctantly obedient to get out of the van, tired, wet, and eager for a five minute visit.  I will forever be changed by that moment in a house church sharing the love of Jesus to this young girl who has a faith that will continue to grow because she has a church family that has surrounded her with love and support.  She has grandparents that are caring for her and she has many people in the United States that continue to pray for her well-being.

-Renee S.

One of my takeaways from traveling to Cuba had to do with the Cubans’ practice of Santeria and how it is a big hindrance for them in accepting Jesus and living a life centered on Him.

Santeria encompasses sacrificial food, song, dance, costumes, spiritual deities, and the use of artifacts. It was imported from Africa, primarily with the enslaved Lucumi people who were brought from Nigeria in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We learned from our host that the practice is today very prevalent, and many people in Cuba mix Santeria with Roman Catholic practices. Our host told us that for many years he practiced Santeria, prayed to satanic demons, and witnessed horrors as well as supernatural occurrences related to Santeria. His bed once levitated off the ground! Fortunately, he later recognized the lie that Santeria is and accepted, Jesus.

When I thought of my life and the culture that I live in, Santeria, idol worship, praying to demons, etc. are not even a minor distraction or impediment to Christian life. Instead, the impediment that I deal with that the Cubans do not is materialism.

It doesn’t take long for a casual observer in Cuba to witness the poverty of the people – the queues at the bread stores, the lack of meat in their diet, the crumbling infrastructure and, even though they have access to physicians, the lack of medicines. All this and more is in stark contrast to the relative wealth and abundance that we enjoy in the U.S. Our wealth is a blessing, yes, but it is also our distraction. Our constant longing for “more” crowds out and distracts us from seeking God and serving Him.

It strikes me that Satan uses whatever lies he can to keep us from Jesus. To the Cubans he mangles and confuses worship, making himself its object. To us, he distorts prosperity to make it a religion in itself. Satan is, of course, like a “roaring lion, seeking to devour” every human being. He is the “father of lies.” The lies he tells Cubans are different from the lies he tells me but lies nonetheless. My prayer is that God would give us each discernment and wisdom so that we would know truth and His good and perfect will.

-Tom F.

Naïve – that’s the only word that describes my mindset when our group left the U.S. and headed to Cuba. I had heard stories about Cuba my entire life as my parents met in Havana in the late 1950s right before Fidel Castro came into power. They spoke of the beautiful hotels, the Latin music of the nightclubs, the exotic food, and the fabulous architecture. More recently, I had heard Canadian tourists speak of Cuba as the most beautiful island in the Caribbean. Also, I knew that the constitution declared Cuba an atheist state and then later, a secular state. I assumed that the people had continued to maintain the essential beliefs of the Christian church. I was wrong – and naïve — on all accounts. The Readers Digest version is this: Cuba has difficult living conditions, including water, sanitation, food, and health issues. In fact, one of our group members has traveled to many third world countries and related those experiences to this trip. With respect to spirituality, when the Roman Catholic Church collapsed, the church buildings were destroyed and the priesthood scattered.

The people were left to fend for themselves in terms of spiritual education, worship, discipleship, and growth. Fast forward five decades and the church of Cuba is not the church of Roman Catholicism, but the church of predominantly Protestant mission efforts.  And, despite harassment and significant life struggles, the church is thriving.

Explaining the presence, provision, and power of the Holy Spirit on the island is difficult. Feeling the presence, provision, and power of the Holy Spirit on the island is inevitable. My most special memories involve the church at Puerto Esperanza and a woman named Mari. During worship one evening, I felt drawn to an extremely thin woman who appeared to be about the same age. She stood out to me, not only because she was stunning, but because what she wore was so different than the other women. She had on a beautiful white blouse with a long black skirt and black high heels. Despite her outward elegance, her eyes were so sad, and the Lord placed it immediately on my heart to pray for her. When our eyes met, I smiled at her, and when she smiled back, I saw that she had no teeth. When the service was over, I tried to find her but could not. I left Cuba, wanting to know this woman and her story. The Lord just kept telling me to pray for her, and that’s what I did.

I was not able to return to Puerto Esperanza until three years later.  I was terribly disappointed when, during our first worship service, I could not find the woman for whom I had been praying. However, I met a man named Sergio sitting on a bench right outside the church, and he was cleaning fish. Sergio is a local fisherman who provides the church with fish for special meals. He was very excited to show me what we were having for dinner and to give me a tour of the new kitchen that was added to the church since my last visit. I use the term “kitchen” loosely as it is a four-walled shanty with gas burners for the boiling and frying of enormous vats of food.  In the sweltering heat of the burners, a woman was frying plantains when we entered and, although I don’t speak Spanish, I thought I understood Sergio to say that this was his wife, Mari.  When she turned around, and I looked into her eyes, I knew that this was the woman. She was heavier than before, and her hair was longer, and when she smiled, she had a mouthful of teeth. I stood in the kitchen and prayed, “Lord, I am so confused. My heart is telling me that Mari is the woman, but maybe I just want to see her so badly that I am superimposing my desires on this person.” I went to find our translator and, when Mari finished cooking, I asked her to sit with me for a while.

I told her about the powerful way in which God spoke to me about a woman in a white blouse and black skirt during a worship service a few years ago. I told her that God had laid it on my heart that this woman was suffering and needed prayer.  I told her that I could not get the image of her out of my mind, and I took that to mean that, until God told me otherwise, I was to continue to pray. As I shared my story, Mari began to cry. Yes, she was the woman. Yes, she had worn her best clothes that night because the Americans were going to be at the service. Yes, she was suffering then because her teenage daughter had just run off to Havana and was living in a way that broke Mari’s heart. Yes, she was so distraught that she was physically ill at the time. However, since I had seen Mari that first time, her daughter had removed herself from the environment in which she was living and had gone back to school to become a nurse. She had still not returned to the church, but Mari told me that she saw God answering her prayers. Also, God had answered another prayer: She had finally been fitted with dentures!

Several years later, when I returned a third time and went into Mari’s home, she had a picture of the two of us hanging on the wall as well as a display of the letters that I had written to her. She shared with me that her daughter had become a nurse and she still prayed what all Christian mothers pray, that our children will know and love the Lord Jesus Christ such that their lives bring Him glory and honor. We had a tough time telling each other goodbye, and I have not had the opportunity to see her for several years now; however, God brought us together, and I know that, in His timing, He will reunite us. If not in this world, then in the next. Atulado Ministries may mean “by your side,” and we may think that we are sent to find those who need us. After my first trip, I thought Mari needed me – and, in some ways, she did; however, I need Mari in my life as well.  I have experienced first-hand in Cuba with Atulado Ministries the incredible way in which the Lord masterminds His world. Mari and I share nothing in common other than a love of the Lord and a desire to further His kingdom in the worlds in which He has placed us. Her presence in my life is a source of great joy as she inspires me to pray, persevere, and remain faithful because I feel that is she can do it amid her circumstances than I have no excuse not to do the same in the midst of mine.  

-Allison B.

As I embarked on my first mission trip to Cuba, I didn’t think I’d come back multiple times. Not only have I been nine times, but I also plan to return on a future trip. Now, you may be wondering, “With so much work to be done in communities around the world, why Cuba?” There’re countless reasons most people would never guess.

The Book of Acts may best be described as a history of the founding and growth of the early church. The house churches in Cuba are how I visualize the early church. There’s something about the nostalgia of that time in history, and being a part of a similar movement in another country. Like back then, Cubans are a strong community of believers who rely on God for their every need. That’s why worship services are powerful. People walk away changed, no matter what their spiritual condition was beforehand. Being a part of this experience is a way for me to show my friends and others what The Book of Acts looks like today.

The fellowship that occurs among the volunteers is incredibly deep. It’s more than just eating together, worshiping together, and helping others. When your life is changed by the experience that you share, you form a bond that’s indescribable.

With very little outside help for Cubans, the support we provide makes a significant impact on their lives. I love seeing their joy when we provide basic conveniences, like tile floors or reading glasses. We take these simple things for granted in this country, and our support goes a long way for them.

Whether it’s the phone, laptop, or tablet, being tethered to your screen takes time away from the things that really matter. For me, the mission trip is the ultimate “God vacation.” It’s a time for me to disconnect from modern-day distractions and read the bible, worship, and pray for long periods. It fills my soul in ways that I need, and it’s impossible to do in this country. There’s always someone to get back to or something that needs to be done. Getting away allows me to use my time in more meaningful ways.

I love meeting pastors at their home, eating the fruit they’ve carefully prepared, sharing simple conversations, and praying together. I feel honored to support such Godly and high-impact leaders in doing God’s work.

For me, that’s what continues to draw me back to Cuba. Maybe you’re thinking about joining or supporting a mission trip. If so, you’ll never regret your decision. Everyone takes away something different from the experience. That’s why I enjoy sharing stories with those who’ve been on the trip with me. You meet new friends and create new memories, every time.

-Jay F.

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