How Canadian generosity makes a Cuban difference!

Cubability: Friends of Cuba 

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An International Youth Group

How do we build bridges of trust and friendship between countries, shape the leaders of tomorrow, inspire young people to pathways of justice and love …and do it all in 21 days?

A tall order and an improbable dream, you might say. But given Chris Levan's experience in sending young people to Cuba, there is no question that it is possible to accomplish all of these goals…at least initially.

In the summer of 2012 we are going to form an international youth group made up of equal numbers of youth from Canada and Cuba. They will spent the three weeks together, living in each others homes as they travel between Cuba and Canada. For 7 months they will follow the same curriculum of study, do language and cultural sensitivity training and gather resources for this unique adventure.

Through the close co-operation of the Evangelical Seminary of Matanzas, the First Baptist Church of Matanzas and College Street United Church in Toronto, Orestes Roca, Wanda Hernandez, Chris Levan, the leaders from Cuba and Canada, will coordinate a program that matches participants’ gifts with the programs goals.  

Besides community building activities, the group will participate in social service, hands-on construction, and delivering educational programs. A Canadian youth will live with a Cuba family and vice versa.  In the evening they will learn new artistic skills and on weekends it’s out to a campsite for outdoor sports.

World peace begins with a single step, with the courage to extend a hand in friendship. This program proposes to take that first step for a dozen young people…who knows where it will take us.

Pastoral Care for Cuatro Esquinas

“Cuatro Esquinas.” It means “Four Corners” and it is just that, a little cross roads in central Cuba. A trolly track runs down the main street, connecting two distant towns.  Horses are more common than cars as a means of travel. There are no industries here, no large plantations, like the sugar cane farms to the north.  You won’t find a corner store or a feed mill.  The closest bank is miles away and the nearest airport is three hours northeast.  In Cuatro Esquinas there’s brush land, subsistence living, a large population of seniors and …here’s the punch line …a wildly active Anglican church.

This congregation has no building…at least as we might imagine. They worship in a converted house; the sanctuary becoming a living room in when it’s not in use as church hall.  Focusing their identity on service, these Anglicans have committed themselves to feeding seniors a good breakfast every morning, quite an undertaking since many are without family (the younger generations have gone off to make their fortunes). To support this ministry the church has a sewing circle that makes handicrafts, a grist mill for producing sesame seed oil.  They serve BBQ pork dinners to touring groups like ours and they have started their own pig farm.  The pigs they sell to the state and to the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas.   It’s a thriving, engaged and growing community of faith.

Did I mention they laugh…a lot.

The pastor and the force behind this ministry  is Carlos Alberto …You see him everywhere: carving pork, praying with a child, feeding the pigs, knocking on the doors of parishioners. 

What began as two congregations, one in Cuatro Esquinas and the other in the near by village of Los Arabos, has blossomed into three more “mission” communities and the work load is bearing down on Carlos. On a visit there two years ago Carlos told us he was overwhelmed by the work …  “couldn’t keep up with the demands…social and spiritual needs of the people who came to his front door.

It was in response to his stated needs that Cubability campaigned to pay the salary and housing allowance of a second pastor for the church in Cuatro Esquinas.  In Canada that is a daunting undertaking, but some well placed Canadian generosity makes a huge difference in Cuba.  It costs approximately $1100 Canadian to pay for a year’s stipend and accommodation for this second Anglican priest and so we were able to meet a commitment of funding the position for three years.

Training for Tomorrow’s Problems

The Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas is looking ahead to a time when the social needs of Cuba grow beyond the capacity of the state to address.  Yes, Cuba pays for health care and education. It has a higher literacy rate than Canada and considers affordable (often free) housing as a human right. Nevertheless, it is a poor country that has many social challenges as the infrastructure of its cities ages and breaks down. Likewise with the emigration of young people, many seniors are left without adequate family support.  Moreover, while every Cuban is guaranteed a minimum supply of cheap food, it is sometimes inadequate to the need.

In response to these social conditions, the seminary  joined with the Martin Luther King Center to sponsor a diaconal training program…teaching ministry students how to intervene in community development, project management and micro-economic enterprises.  It’s a tall order, but churches are more and more being drawn into community development and they are asking for their leaders to have training adequate to these new demands. 

Through the generosity of Canadians this new program  began presenting its first seminars in January of 2013.

Upcoming projects for 2015

Music  is a very important part of Cuban culture. From the familiar traditional Cuban folk and popular songs through Jazz to the Classical repertoire, which can be heard in such choirs as the Coro de Matanzas, a chamber choir  that could rank among the word's best, the Cubans are a musical people. However the years of isolation have made it very difficult to obtain musical instruments.  Resources are scarce. For instance, the faculy of music in Matanzas has no concert hall for its students. The Kairos Centre at the Primera Iglesia Bautista in Matanzas wanted to offer the church space for concerts and  received a generous donation to purchase a piano so that performances could be staged in the church sanctuary, but no such instrument was  obtainable in Cuba. With the help of Friends of Cuba a suitable instument was located and purchased in Toronto and shipped to Cuba.  Various fund raising events and generous donations allowed a container to be financed and subsequently a second container was sent. A container is quite large and could accommodate a large number of musical instruments  in addition to a baby grand piano. The second container was ultimately shipped with five pianos, a couple of organs and fifty four boxes of used musical instruments including guitars, violins horns and woodwinds, tuning tools, strings and reids.

A repeat of this highly successful project is planned for 2018

Update: October 2013

The first container arrived with its contents in perfect condition and the instruments and tuning tools were received with excitement, enthusiasm and gratitude.  A letter from Wanda, the director of the Kairos Centre at the Primera Iglesia Bautista in Matanzas  tells the story:

Dear Brother Chris :

How are you and Ellen ?
We are very well and with a great joy in my heart. It's been an amazing , wonderful and miraculous event of the container arriving in the city of Matanzas . Families crying for having the possibility that their child may have an instrument so expensive and one that they NEVER would have imagined that they would be given free, or had even if they were able to pay for it . Even the accessories for instruments, such as (secillas) things , have benefited many students , teachers and professional artists who did not have an instrument with which to offer their music. People do not know how to thank you , cannot find the words to thank you.
We learned more about music and the details of each instrument as never in our lives before.  Among the instruments that came, there were a few that they did not have in Matanzas Concert Band or Symphony Orchestra . Another instrument is to be sent to a Concert Band in Havana, where they did not have this instrument. We are delivering to these groups. Their directors  did not know what to say. How can you donate these things as valuable and not charge anything or seek any recognition ? that's what they've asked. We are doing everything to report that somehow people who have participated in this crazy project know in detail how good this has been, albeit with a simple reed used for  a clarinet. We are also making a small video with the voices of these people , talking about their experiences with music. I will translate and I'll send a copy  for you to share there.
Chris , it was very appropriate to do this project with musical instruments, It has been the dream of many young people who have not had the possibility to achieve their dreams. Now having your instruments,  this will make these persons feel a connection with Canadians who have shared with them some of what you have. I was excited because it was a crazy and ambitious project , but now it is a reality  and even essential for those guys.
Will you be coming to Cuba in October ? What date ? We want to start the concert hall in the sanctuary and we want you to be here for the occasion.Tell us with time to prepare.... .
Greetings from Orestes also ,

On the1st of March 2014 a packed house concert was held at the Primera Iglesia Bautista in Matanzas. Performances on the musical instruments that had been received were given by musicians ranging from young children to accomplished artists and each of the 25 or more performers received thunderous applause. Particularly touching was a rendition of O Canada by a young girl on the french horn. The concert ended with performances by Canadian mezzo soprano Ellen Vesterdal and flautist Jamie Thompson  All in all the whole project was considered a resounding success and consideration is being given to  repeating it in the near future. 

Watch the movie

A movie of the visit to Matanzas and the concert (approx 19 minutes) can be viewed at