“I really must learn some more Spanish”, was my first thought on arriving in Cuba as I got to the front of the queue at immigration clutching my visa and the letter from the Bible Commission inviting me to visit.
I had a feeling this bit might not be easy all the way from London when it became obvious that the ground crew at Heathrow had never dealt with a religious visa before. I was in London with a photocopy and the real visa was in Havana and Air France weren’t quite sure what to do with me. That’s the way it works. But what I hadn’t thought about was trying to explain what I was doing in Cuba in a different language. Fortunately, I made it through.
Havana turned out to be everything you expect it to be, full of grand old buildings crumbling away or making way for even grander modern ones. A riot of colour, latin jazz on every street corner, the scent of cigars hanging in the air around the cathedral, the sea splashing over the uniquely Cuban Malecón. Old American cars everywhere: some of them as old, or even older, than me and still running. The people warm and welcoming, with a laid-back, unhurried approach to life and an easy-going natural approach to helping one another out (‘Cuban Solidarity’). Certainly, Cuba seems to run on a different timescale to London and más or menos (Spanish for ‘more or less’) became our catchphrase for the trip for anything to do with timing or appointments.
One of the exciting things about working for a global organisation like ours is that you get to experience different cultures and different ways of expressing our faith. I’d recently returned from Sydney, Australia where the Anglican Church was reassuringly familiar. Now I found myself on a windy Sunday in Cuba on the narrow peninsula of Varadero with a different congregation, recognizing the tunes but not the words of the songs, understanding the pattern of the service but not quite sure what was going to happen next. Although journalists have been asking questions about religious freedom in Cuba, there is certainly a thriving congregation in Varadero and the Cuban Council of Churches has an impressive array of member churches, Christian organisations and projects.