Attorney Al Gerhardstein visited Cuba last month as part of a group from the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati.
The Cuban Revolution has been kind to the Cemeterio Colon in central Havana. Monuments and tombs are largely preserved. We walked with Jorge Vila, a Cincinnatian of Cuban ancestry. We found his family mausoleum. The windows are broken. The stone is blackened. The crucifix on the altar inside is tipped. No matter. It was a special moment for Jorge, who was visiting his grandpa’s grave and reflecting on the spiritual journey that returned him to Cuba.
Vila worked months to secure our religious visas and then paired 19 of us from Cincinnati with local Cubans in the Havana area who share our interest in the Unitarian-Universalist (UU) faith. At the same time U.S. senators were meeting with Cuban government officials, we were cycling the streets, dining at small restaurants, taking off in our old bus on regional adventures, and sharing a worship service.
My local partner was T. He loves music, painting, the martial arts and bats. Yes, bats. He insisted on showing some of them to me. He is 51. He does not drive. But he had a friend who has a neighbor who has a Lada – a Soviet era car – and agreed to drive us into the distant hills east of Havana to explore a “hot cave.” The wing beats from the thousands of bats sounded like a blowing rain. T experienced sheer delight as the bats swarmed past him. I ducked and turned my head away.
I learned much more from T through the week as I shared rum and Buckanero Beer. T passionately wants to preserve these caves. Nature, he explained, is central to his spiritual practice. He is grateful to be a scientist. But he is poor, paid only the equivalent of $9 every month. He wants the resources to travel to other countries and communicate with others who love nature and science. He wants us all to celebrate life, laugh often and find our own path to the divine.
I met very resilient, resourceful people in Cuba. T made caving gear from plastic bottles. A street vendor recharged disposable lighters. Our bicycles were pieced together from assorted parts. Garden hoses snake up the outside of buildings where plumbing is failing. Wiring is draped inside cavernous rooms in the old Havana buildings. Tarps keep apartments dry where roofs have sagged.
At the same time, even the most crowded balconies have plants that soften the cityscape.
Havana is a city of walkers who seek rides from personal vehicles that double as taxis. Many drive old American cars from the 1940s and ’50s. I saw horse carts on the country roads and oxen pulling plows. By contrast, in Havana there are hotels, the famous Tropicana, and museums that are contemporary in every way.
One church we visited was the Parroquia Nuestra Señora De Regla, the home and shrine to the Black Madonna. We attended an Afro-Cuban religious service. One of our partners invited me into his backyard spirit house, where symbolic items covered the walls and floor, making it easy for him to reach out to his ancestors. He reinterprets these traditions as a universal call to extend respect and dignity to each of us.
The Revolution continues to be celebrated on many billboards. Our Cuban partners are proud of their high literacy and universal health care. But they hope to see more food and dry goods on their empty store shelves. One person revered by those on both sides of the Revolution is José Marti, a populist who promoted racial equality and shared wealth. He was killed in battle by the Spanish in 1895. It was exciting to learn that Marti drew inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a famous American Unitarian. In fact, it was by following this link that the Cubans first discovered the UU faith. Also exciting was the marble memorial to Marti located right next to the Vila Mausoleum at Cemeterio Colon.
Today the Vila Mausoleum still needs physical repair. But grandson Jorge has his priorities clear: The spiritual and cultural repair he started by linking 19 Cincinnati UUs to many hopeful, welcoming Cuban UUs could not be more timely. Grandfather Vila and his cemetery neighbor, José Marti, are surely proud and smiling.
Al Gerhardstein, cincinnati.com
February 11, 2015