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Old Idioms, New Meanings

A Letter from David Cortes and Josey Saez, serving in Cuba

November 2018

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“The dishwashing detergent is lost.” In Cuba, one would say, “El detergente de lavar platos está perdido.” That means that you will not find dishwashing detergent in the store these days. As we enter our fourth year as mission co-workers in Cuba, we realize how easy it is sometimes to forget that we are strangers living in a foreign land. We still remember many embarrassing instances when we called household items a different name from what residents called them. Yes, we have spoken Spanish since childhood, and day-to-day conversations are very easy. But there are regional nuances in the way people in Cuba talk to each other that provide learning experiences for people like us.

This is a phenomenon that happens in any country. Even in the mainland United States, there are regional accents and idiom differences that need to be “translated” or interpreted for people from other parts of the country. In Cuba, there are many words and phrases that Cubans have developed to talk to each other that require some thinking if you are not from the island. Phrases like “está perdido” (it is lost) and “es complicado” (it is complicated) and words like “resolver” (to resolve) are used in Cuba to communicate particular Cuban ideas, and only after listening carefully did we come to get some of their underlying messages. It is not enough to know the dictionary translation of a word such as “máquina” (machine) to get the particular Cuban nuance of “máquina” as one of those old cars that people in Cuba use as a taxi. You may use “máquina” as machine, but the first idea that will come to mind when someone in Cuba says “máquina” is that of an old, fragile and unpredictable reconstructed car that will take you from one place to another.

A Cuban “máquina”.

Day after day, our partnership in mission ministry teaches us that mission is a two-way street. We need to listen and learn as much from the people as they will learn from us. As we learn to listen not only to what people say, but also to what they mean, we engage in a ministry of partnership in which we also realize the many ways God is present, active and blessing the people in Cuba. Although we knew that as Presbyterian mission co-workers we were not bringing Christ to Cuba, it is another experience to witness and realize how the Holy Spirit is supporting and guiding our brothers and sisters in Cuba to engage in God’s mission for the Church and the community. During these last three years, we have come to know about the sacrifices and dedication of hundreds of brothers and sisters in local churches serving the Lord and helping the community fight the root causes of poverty, creating opportunities for reconciliation and peace by breaking the circles of violence, and empowering the Church to witness to their faith even in difficult times and with very few resources.

In our work at the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas, we have the privilege of engaging and talking with Cuban church leaders from different denominations. They also experience the grace of God as they work day after day in the ministry of the Church. The Presbyterian candidates at the seminary are some of these leaders from whom we have learned a lot about ministry and God’s work in Cuba. Currently, we have seven residential students at the seminary preparing for ministry in the Reformed-Presbyterian Church in Cuba. They are examples of the dedication, commitment and resiliency that characterize the life of the local churches we have encountered during our time in Cuba.

Third-year students Fernando López Machado and Adriana Guerrero Enríquez are long-time leaders of the Church whose calls to ministry are grounded in their childhood learnings and the examples of pastors who nourished their faith. Both are already thinking about their fourth-year thesis projects and their future ministries in the Church. A common passion of their call to ministry is the desire to serve the Church and their communities as agents of mutual reconciliation, pastoral care and ministry to the spiritual needs of their congregations. From both of them we learn about resiliency, faithfulness and hope of a brighter future for the whole Church. Their energy and evident leadership gifts are refreshing and encouraging for all.

There are three candidates in their second year of seminary, Anays Noda Linares, Pedro Luis Laza González and Jorge Luis Díaz Rivera. They also come with a history of church leadership and service. They express a deep sense of call to ministry, a clear commitment to the Church, and the desire to see a better future for their communities. They show a variety of talents, such as expressing God’s presence through music, interest in children, and ministry with youth. We believe that the future of the Church in Cuba is full of possibilities, especially with the dedicated examples of these students who devote their lives to the ministry of the Gospel of our Lord. These three candidates are full of energy and commitment. They are living examples teaching us that no matter how limited we may see ourselves, God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit are there, sustaining, guiding and empowering us to be witnesses of the Gospel and agents of reconciliation.

Top row, from left: Jorge Díaz, Fernando López, Anier González, Pedro Laza. Lower row, from left: Susana Arévalo, Anays Noda, Adriana Guerrero.

First-year students Susana Arévalo Barceló and Anier B. González Rodríguez are experienced church leaders as well. They have families of their own and already serve as witnesses to dedication and ministry in very challenging circumstances. Coming to seminary and pursuing theological education for ministry necessitate pondering where their futures will lead them. They both sense their calls to ministry as expressions of God’s grace that summoned them from their previous work to a ministry of hope, justice, praise and community transformation.

Words are inadequate to express how much God surprises us by calling so many different people with so many different gifts to the ministry of the church. Learning humility is easy when we look at the faces and smiles of these students. We are reminded that our own sense of call is one among others, that our gifts and theirs are not in competition, and that together we are partners who worship the Lord and serve the people for the glory of God.

It is important to remember that these candidates are more than just full-time academic students; all have church leadership responsibilities every weekend. They all have pastoral tasks in different churches or missions from Friday evening to Sunday morning. Just finding transportation to get to their ministry sites is very difficult. They are usually assigned to a ministry site for six months. This provides them with a wide variety of training-in-ministry experiences as well as opportunities to test their skills in unexpected circumstances.

Week after week, we are amazed and motivated while listening to students describe their field experiences and share the good news of what the Lord is doing in the local communities. These are ministry experiences that deserve to be shared. Our prayers need to be of the same intensity that these students have for their call to ministry. It is a way of doing mission in which we become both learners and teachers. Our experiences with the Church in Cuba and the seminary in Matanzas have been a reaffirmation that we are not the ones “bringing Christ” or “bringing the Gospel” to Cuba. On the contrary, it is a two-way mission ministry in which we listen and learn different ways to tell the story of the Gospel. It is a real partnership through which we as members and leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are blessed by our partners in Cuba and are a blessing to the Church in Cuba and the seminary in Matanzas.

We invite you to continue praying for us as your mission co-workers in Cuba and to continue praying for these candidates and the other leaders of the Church in Cuba. As we reach our fourth year of ministry in Cuba, and as we discern together the shape of our ministry here and wherever the Lord calls us to serve, please support this ministry of partnership as the Lord leads you.

David and Josey

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