By: Marcia Sweeting-Somersall
The idea of visiting Cuba has been on my "bucket list" for five decades. Unfortunately, for political and legal reasons it has been an impossibility for me. So when US policy on church groups traveling to Cuba changed, and when I read that Bishop Leopold Frade was making a mission trip - his final one - to Cuba, I had to get on board.
I was blessed to have had the opportunity to join 42 others in a pilgrimage journey to Cuba. We visited three different provinces of Cuba: Havana, Mayabeque and Mantanzas. The architecture was spectacular and beautiful, albeit decayed, and reminiscent of New Orleans.
Cuba reminded me in some degree of the island of Key West, only 90 miles away. It brought back memories of growing up in Key West in the early sixties. The free roaming dogs in Cuba reminded me of Key West's dogs of the early 60s roaming free around the street just like our chickens and roosters are doing today. We have similar tropical fruits in common. However, the sugar cane is grown more plentifully in Cuba. The cemetery is above ground like in Key West. The Cockfight and domino playing in the street are still prevalent in Cuba; whereas, cockfights were prevalent for a time growing up, but it is illegal in Key West, now. Cars that were made in the 1950s could be seen everywhere that we went. One evening, coming out of the Melia Cohiba Hotel, the group was surprised to see 14 convertibles, all from the 50s, lined up in front of the hotel waiting to take us to the Paladar Jardin de los Milagros restaurant. The smell of the engine was very strong. At another privately owned restaurant, Paladar Los Guijones, we met the Ambassador to the USA. At this same hotel, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Executive Producer of “Finding Your Roots” was met him getting on the elevator. He was very friendly and pleasant. On a different outing we met the Ambassador of Nassau, Bahamas.
The most integral purpose of the mission to Cuba was to bring gifts and financial help and support to Episcopal churches and their communities. We were greeted with warm, friendly smiles and hugs, from the lay people and Clergy of the various Episcopal churches that we visited after getting off the bus. We learned about Emilio Planas, an Afro-Cuban born in 1868 and spent his early childhood in Key West. He was the first black person to be ordained in the Anglican/Episcopal priesthood in Cuba and he founded the Episcopal Churches since Afro-Cubans were not welcomed in the Roman Catholic churches in Cuba in the 1800s. Segregation was prevalent between the Caucasian Cubans and Afro-Cubans. Father Planas retired 3 months prior to his death in 1937. –At the Episcopal Cathedral, we watched some parishioners lined up with bags of vegetables and fruits of their labor in lieu of money for their offering. The crops that they grow were placed in the basket at the altar. They did not have much, but they gave what they can afford.
The very last night that we were in Cuba, after dinner at Cafe del Oriente in Old Havana, we had a cultural night at a fabulous club where we saw an excellent show with beautiful costumes and very talented Cuban dances and singers. It reminded me of the fictional Ricky Ricardo from the tv. show "I Love Lucy" when he performed at the “Tropicana” in Cuba; a venue which is still in existence.
I can truly say that I am blessed and thankful to God to be able to fulfill yet another dream on my bucket list.