Cuba Trip Opens Eyes — And Ears

Every year, Saugatuck Congregational Church sponsors a youth mission trip.

Last year they went to Portland, Maine.

This year they headed to Cuba.

The 24 teenagers and 15 adults did not do as much “work” as usual. This was more “cultural immersion,” says youth group coordinator Dana Johnson.

They visited an orphanage, churches and families whose children have disabilities. They did plant coffee, pick and peel “thousands” of mangoes, and moved bags of sand at a construction site.

Peeling mangoes...

Peeling mangoes…

...and moving bags of sand.

…and moving bags of sand.

They also went to Varadero Beach, a favorite spot for Canadian and European tourists.

But mostly, they forged what they hope are lasting friendships.

The Saugatuck Church group rode around in an old school bus, emblazoned with “Pastors for Peace.”

The bus...

The bus…

...and a peek inside.

…and a peek inside.

Wherever they went, Cubans waved. “They’re so happy to see Americans,” Johnson says. “We felt like rock stars.”

One woman excitedly handed her baby to the female travelers. She could tell everyone that Americans held her child.

At a seminary in Matanzas, a pastor asked them to pray for him, and his country. “He was excited that the blockade has been lifted,” Johnson explains. “But he’s worried about the future. Capitalism can be precarious. He’s concerned that income inequality will widen.”

The teens and adults spent only a couple of hours in Havana. Mostly they were in Matanzas, and outlying villages. Though Matanzas is a big city, Johnson says it felt like something from “a different era.” Horses and buggies roamed the streets; farmers sold eggs and bread from bicycles.

A dusty road.

A dusty road.

Before the trip, Johnson says, the teenagers thought their task was to help people.

They realized quickly, though, the power of simply meeting other people, and hearing their stories.

“Our kids came away feeling that they’d been helped,” Johnson notes.

“When we debriefed each night, they talked about not judging people until you listened to them.”

Listening, and learning.

Listening, and learning.

The Cubans do not need help, she adds. “They just need their stories to be heard and validated. The kids got that. I think they came home more willing to hear other people’s stories.”

Sharing food, and stories.

Sharing food, and stories.

Rev. Alison Patton (2nd from right), with old and new friends.

Rev. Alison Patton (2nd from right), with old and new friends.

Saugatuck Congregational Church mission members kick up their heels in Cuba. (All photos/Mark Mathias)

Saugatuck Congregational Church mission members kick up their heels in Cuba. (All photos/Mark Mathias, Marion Yingling and Miggs Burroughs)





8 responses to “Cuba Trip Opens Eyes — And Ears

  1. Michael S Goodman

    Hardly your typical church mission youth service project!
    Of course this is Westport!

  2. Kim Mathias

    Epilogue: These teens are compassionate and hard-working wherever they are. To extend our service locally and strengthen the bond that was forged among the group, members of the Cuba mission trip (with some additional family members) prepared and served dinner to over 100 people at the United Church in Bridgeport last Thursday. The lessons from Cuba – or any mission trip – are being applied at home.

  3. The comment from the pastor about his fears that capitalism may cause “income inequality” to increase on what’s essentially a prison island is priceless.

    • Michael S Goodman

      Income inequality – Yes, Fidel is one of the world’s wealthiest men, while his people live in privation.

      Prison island – Cubans who leave Cuba fully understand that they will never be able to return.

  4. Rev. Alison Patton

    Thanks, Dan, for sharing some of the details of our story, and for highlighting the importance of learning from other cultures. One correction: Saugatuck Church is not planning an adult trip back to Cuba this spring. We do hope to keep learning from our time there, and from those with whom we connected.

  5. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    It’s very good that some Americans are visiting other countries and cultures.

  6. Sharon Paulsen

    I enjoyed this article and the photos!

    Thanks Dan!