BY MELISSA LATERZA -
The Boca Grande United Methodist Church launched their first youth mission trip to Cuba on July 23rd. This nine-day trip took Sharon McKenzie, who works for Barrier Island Parks Society, her daughter Alexandra and Pastor Brightly’s nephew, Andrey Bobrovski, to Holguin Norte located in the east of Cuba.
Edgewater United Methodist Church in Port Charlotte added to the group with two adults and four youth, for a total of six youth, ages ranging from 14 to 19.
“Our mission was to bring over this first youth group, to give them a better understanding of what it’s like to live in a third-world country, to build relationships with youth in Cuba, and to grow their faith,” explained McKenzie.
McKenzie joined forces with the United Methodist Church’s Florida Cuba Task Force, a group devoted to uniting Cuban and Floridian churches, back in 2000.
Accompanied by Pastor Brian Brightly and Jean Woods, she had her first taste of Cuba almost twelve years ago.
“I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit,” said McKenzie. “In Baquanos, the parsonage was a simple, small wooden home where the outside could be seen from the inside because of spaces between the exterior wood slats,” she described. “There was no shower, no toilet seat and a bucket was used to flush. We nearly froze that year because a cold front had come in, and of course they had no heat. We slept in our clothes and wrapped ourselves in sheets, blankets and towels we had brought with us.”
Despite the relentless cold and poverty, McKenzie endured the rough conditions for a higher purpose.
“We interviewed the pastors and tried to find out what their needs were,” she explained. “When we returned, Jean and I created a presentation and went to all the churches in our district to convince them to become a sister church to a church in Cuba. Jean has been very passionate about Cuba for many years, so she really helped to motivate our church to move forward with it and Pastor Brian was very supportive with it as well.”
Thanks to the persistence and determination of McKenzie and Woods, the Boca Grande United Methodist Church adopted two Cuban churches located in Preston and Mayarí in the Holguin Norte District.
McKenzie and other pastors from the church have traveled back to Cuba several times, each time bringing gifts, money and medicine.
McKenzie is now the Cuba Coordinator for the Boca Grande United Methodist Church, a position that makes her responsible for maintaining their Cuban relationships and ensuring that the sister churches have the best support possible.
With the youth group added to their mission, McKenzie has started something that may soon reach more Methodist Churches in Florida.
“This was a test to see how well the youth caravan would do,” she explained. “The church headquarters wants to send over more youth from our churches all over the state.
“We flew into Havana on purpose,” McKenzie went on. “So that the youth could see how well the tourist areas were taken care of while the rest was crumbling down around them. They also got to experience a little history and stay in the Methodist Church dormitories for visitors.”
The following day McKenzie and her group traveled four hours to Camp Canaan, located in the center of Cuba near Santa Clara. Both the visiting Methodist Churches and the Cuban Methodist members contribute money to support Camp Canaan every year.
“We were the only Americans there,” McKenzie said. “We brought gifts for the pastors and their families, like sneakers, since shoes are really expensive in Cuba. We also brought jeans, shirts, ink cartridges, books and money to help with church renovations.”
Many Cubans traveled anywhere from five to 12 hours in dump trucks or cattle cars converted into trucks with no seat belts or air-conditioning. Despite these circumstances, 800 Cuban youth came to the religious retreat with smiles on their faces and jokes to be told.
“The Cuban people are wonderful,” McKenzie said. “They have nothing in their pockets and are probably wearing their only set of clothes, yet they are smiling and they love to joke around. It’s amazing to see them live in such poverty, never knowing where their food is coming from the next day or how they’re going to take care of their families and still they are so joyful, loving and compassionate.”
The camp consisted of morning and evening worship, During the day they had free time where the youth played and socialized.
Cuban worship varies greatly from Florida’s churches, according to McKenzie, with music being the greatest difference.
“Their music is a very passionate, contemporary style of music that the youth love,” said McKenzie. “They speak really loudly and there’s lots of dancing. It is about as opposite as you can get from our church services, which I would say are very tranquil.
“The Cuban service starts out with the two songs that involve praise and dancing, followed by a theatrical reenactment of Bible stories, where girls dance in angelic, long white satin dresses holding ribbons or tambourines,” McKenzie described. “The pastor comes on and talks for an hour or so, then they might have another leader come in and do a service as well. And of course there’s more dancing. The youth love it because they’re moving around and it’s fun. I think in some ways our churches can learn from the Cuban style of worship.”
Camp Canaan’s dining halls could only hold 150 people at a time, so everyone took turns eating. They ate eggs, fresh yogurt or mangos for breakfast and rice, beans, chicken, cucumbers and avocados for lunch and dinner. After they ate everyone would get together to play games.
McKenzie brought over a nice surprise for the Cuban youth.
“We brought Christian bracelets and gave them out at the camp and at the sister churches,” she said. “We were swarmed like bees on honey. They were so humble and grateful. You could see it in their faces. These kids never get anything like that. Their response was amazing.”
While the camp was fun for the youth there were still issues that could lead to danger. McKenzie’s group spent hours searching for drinkable bottled water, but even when they found it, remembering to drink enough in the relentless heat was still a challenge.
“It was so hot that sweat would pour down your back,” explained McKenzie. “We had to remind our youth to drink a lot of water. One of our girls got sick from dehydration for a couple of days at the camp. People prayed and watched over her. They cared. It was amazing to see. You would think someone being sick wouldn’t be a special moment, but it was for her, to feel that love. In a few days she was better.”
After addresses and emails were exchanged, the youth group set out to visit their sister churches, but not without one last dance.
“We left at 3 a.m. because of the traffic and the heat,” said McKenzie. “The van we traveled in had no air conditioning and we had a ten hour journey ahead of us. At camp, the worship service ran until midnight to two in the morning. The youth still got to dance, but we had to leave early.”
McKenzie and her group arrived in Mayarí at noon, just in time for lunch with the pastor’s family, where they could enjoy a little air conditioning.
“The air conditioning was nice, but limited to the bedrooms,” she said.
Even that was an improvement. The first time McKenzie visited Mayarí’s pastor, black mold infested the ceilings, and there was no air-conditioning. All of the ceilings have since been removed and replaced by plastic slatted ceilings in the bedrooms and restroom, but the rest of the house is open to the rafters with only fans to protect from the heat.
Several members of the American youth group were very shy at first. That changed when they watched the Cuban youth lead a service at Camp Canaan.
“They realized that they weren’t very different them their Cuban friends,” explained McKenzie. “Seeing the young Cubans hold a service made them realize they could, too. Our six youth actually held a church service for 250 people in Mayarí, which was pretty amazing. It gave them great confidence, to be a part of such passionate worship.”
While the Cubans’ worship is contemporary, the churches that surround them are not.
“The church in Mayarí has no roof, and the outside of the walls have been taken down,” McKenzie described. “The church is over 100 years old and it’s never had anything done to it, so it desperately needs work. They need a new kitchen because the roof is caving it. They estimate they need $3,500 for the kitchen and $20,000 for the temple. I don’t know where we’re going to get the money but we’re going to try and help them raise it. It’s a church that has served people for hundreds of years, so it would be sad for it not to be restored.
“The parsonage in Preston, the other church we support, is a very small duplex with a kitchen outside, an outhouse and small rooms divided by curtains,” she said. “Our church has purchased the other half of a duplex so they now have inside restrooms with curtains and more space, but the pastor’s house still has no A/C. None of the churches have air-conditioning.”
The church funds a Sunday luncheon every week. A meal is provided for everyone on that day.
“For most people that’s the only meal of the day and the only time they have meat all week,” said McKenzie. “Rations have been cut back a lot. They can’t buy rice and beans because, even if they had the money, there’s a real shortage of food and medicine in Cuba.”
According to McKenzie, the problem is that there aren’t any banks or jobs, much less money.
“No one is paying anyone,” she said. “The government pays their employees, but no one else does. The government just launched a program on Sundays to entice children away from the church. They aren’t pro-church, but they don’t have a choice because there are so many Christians in the country.”
Meanwhile, the Methodist Church funds salaries for the pastors.
“They each receive $20 dollars a month from our mission fund,” McKenzie explained. “There are ten other churches in Holguin whose pastors are basically working for free. Our pastors actually give a little bit of their $20 to the other pastors so they can live. Thirty-six hundred dollars would be enough to feed ten more pastors and their families.
“The pastors are doing much more than preaching,” said McKenzie. “They are helping their people to live, and to live as freely as possible. They also act as conduits for medical supplies. Our pastor from Mayarí is a medical doctor. He could be working in a hospital, but he felt called by God to preach.”
With McKenzie’s experience and passion, she opened the eyes of six American youths.
The church headquarters wants to send over more youth groups from churches all over the state, and plans on sending McKenzie with them in the future.
The youth group in Boca Grande will be sharing their experience at the church soon. In November, they will share pictures and talk more.
Everyone who went on the trip came back with a renewed perspective on life.
“I think most of the youth will tell you that they were just amazed at how much the Cuban youth were so much like them and how passionate they were about their faith,” said McKenzie. “On mission trips you never know what people are going to walk away with. We took money and supplies to support our sister churches, but we were the ones who walked away with gifts.”
Boca Grande United Methodist Church is accepting donations to help support their sister churches in Cuba.
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