In a small town in Cuba, letters and pictures drawn by children at St. Paul’s Church in Nantucket hang on a wall. They are the result of a partnership between two Diocese of Massachusetts parishes, St. Paul’s Church in Nantucket and St. Luke’s Church in Fall River, and Iglesia San Juan Evangelista (St. John the Evangelist Church) in Vertientes, Cuba--a welcome change for many in Cuba after years of isolation.
This is an exciting time for the Episcopal Church of Cuba. At General Convention this summer, the House of Bishops and House of Deputies voted unanimously to readmit the Episcopal Church of Cuba as a diocese of the Episcopal Church after it had been ousted by the House of Bishops in 1966 due to the geopolitics of the time.
A group of four from the Diocese of Massachusetts returned on Nov. 13 from an eight-day mission trip to Cuba: Lucy Bixby and Vicky Goss from St. Paul’s, Nantucket; Marta Rivera from St. Peter's Church in Cambridge; and the Rev. John Beach, interim priest at St. Thomas's Church in Taunton. (Another committed partner, the Rev. Jim Hornsby from St. Luke’s, Fall River, was unable to go.) The Massachusetts Episcopalians have taken trips to Cuba to build relationships with the community there as well as bring supplies and help with projects; they are currently raising money to help construct a new church building.
The Rev. Holly Hartman, missioner for global partnerships, first got involved in this partnership when St. Paul’s contacted her office about a grant and asked to have someone from diocesan staff accompany them on a trip in March to bring a water purification system to be installed.
Hartman explained that in addition to projects like the water purification system, the goal of this partnership and others like it is to deepen relationships with people.
The Rev. John Beach, who originally got this relationship going, similarly said, “They could do this without us. I want to avoid this impression that we’re going down and ‘saving’ them.”
Beach was serving as a chaplain at Florida State University in the mid-90's when he first went to Cuba at the height of the embargo when you could only go if you were sponsored by a religious institution. He started traveling to Cuba with a group that regularly went from the Diocese of Florida and immediately noticed among they people they encountered "an infectious love."
"They gather together and dance frequently. I was struck that during the coffee hour everybody salsas," he said. "It was delightful to see these little kids and grandmothers and everybody just dancing together." When he later found himself in the Diocese of Massachusetts serving at St. Paul’s in Nantucket, he inspired others to get involved, including Lucy Bixby who first went to Cuba in 2016 and has just returned from her fourth trip in the past two years.
Bixby has developed a love for the Cuban people she has met. “They’re so loving and generous in ways that are just really remarkable.” Bixby stressed that these trips for her are all about being with other people and discovering what you have in common. “I felt very clearly, ‘This is a land where I can help. This is something I can do.’ And it’s worked out. The doors have opened and the path has been clear. This has been an incredible part of my life,” Bixby said.
Bixby has played an important role in organizing these trips and this partnership, an example being her work for the trip in March 2018: In order to purchase and bring down the parts for a water purification system, Bixby had to research water systems, how they function and what they cost. Having never written a grant in her life, she wrote a matching grant proposal to the diocesan Global Mission Committee and St. Paul’s was awarded a $10,000 grant, while another $10,000 in matching dollars was raised from members of St. Paul’s as well as three other churches in the diocese.
Vicky Goss, a parishioner from St. Paul’s, got involved when she heard fellow parishioner Bixby make an announcement at church about an upcoming trip. Goss has now been to Cuba twice and believes that the purpose of this partnership is to share Christ’s love in every way possible.
“I feel that this community understands completely the sharing of Christ’s love. Their financial resources are almost nonexistent but their outpouring of love to everyone around them is very clear and very visible, so that was the connection we wanted to share. Our church wanted to create a companionship with their church and, while they can’t give us anything back in material terms, they can give us back a great deal in learning how to give and learning how to make the most of what you have,” Goss said.
On the last day of the recent November trip, the group was invited to participate in the Sunday service at the Episcopal Diocese of Cuba’s Holy Trinity Cathedral in Havana. Lucy Bixby carried the American flag next to the Cuban flag during the procession for the first time since 1966. Bixby also did a reading in Spanish. She described the service as amazing, saying, “There was a 22-member chorus from D.C. performing sacred music during the service, and at the end, their sextet burst into wild, jazzy samba and there was joyful dancing in the aisles!”
The Rev. John Beach was invited to preach at the service and towards the end of his sermon spoke of the love that he has felt both for and from the Cuban people: “Wherever acts of kindness are demonstrated, and they occur in the most unlikely of places, the healing presence of God is found. Cuba has experienced isolation from much of the rest of world because of the cruelty of U.S. sanctions…It has been in this place, and at this altar that we experience that love which casts out all fear.”
Parishes interested in mission partnerships in Cuba are invited to contact the Rev. Holly Hartman at email@example.com.
--Bridget K. Wood