Pastor finds thriving faith in Cuba
Technological exile, it seems, isn’t so bad after all.
That was one unexpected discovery among many for Marion Presbyterian Church pastor Jeremiah Lange when he traveled to Cuba recently as part of a Presbyterian exploration team.
The two-week excursion was the longest time he was ever separated from his wife, Dani, and their children, Sadie and Keenan, Lange said. As he and 17 team members left Miami for Havana on Oct. 10, he was secure knowing that they’d be in easy reach through cell phones and social media.
“I got down there and my phone did not connect at all,” Lange said.
While he managed to send out a text message here and there, Lange said the communication snafu proved to be advantageous.
“It was nice to be able to focus on the people and the culture and environment,” he said.
The purpose of the 12-day whirlwind tour of 23 churches, Lange said, was to establish connections with Cuban Presbyterians that could lead to future supportive relationships with churches in the U.S., including Marion.
In conversations with lay people and church officials, Lange learned that relationships were valued more that monetary donations.
“They want relationships with Christians outside the island so they know that they’re not alone,” he said.
Presbyterians established a presence in Cuba in the early 1900s, focusing on education and health care as part of their mission. Churches of all denominations suffered after thousands fled the island after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Lange said, but despite a shortage of ministers, laypersons kept small congregations alive.
Today’s Cuban Presbyterian churches still depend on and thrive through lay leadership.
“The people of the church were the ones doing the work of the church day in, day out,” Lange said. “For some of the people in our group, this was eye-opening. There’s a sense in America we’re going to hire a pastor, hire staff, and those are our professional Christians.
“One church has a senior in high school who was basically leading the worship service. She’s 17 years old, and she was guiding the whole service.”
In many churches, Lange found members are actively engaging with their communities every day.
One such church in a town of 50,000 built six concrete cisterns to provide purified water to its neighborhood.
“The infrastructure in Cuba is so bad, in that town they can’t run those pumps for more than two hours a day,” Lange said. “The church has hundreds of people from this town who come for water every day. It’s like here at the food bank, you get in line and wait your turn.”
Getting food in Cuba is still problematic, Lange said. People receive ration cards from the government, but often find state stores have little to buy.
“Cuba grows great coffee, but Cubans can’t get it with their ration cards,” Lange said. “They can’t get sugar sometimes, and Cuba is known for sugar.”
Lange described conditions in one of the state-run stores he visited. About the size of Carlson’s Grocery in Marion, the store was mostly empty space, with shelves along one wall for grains, a counter on the opposite side for meat, a counter in front, and two tanks of drinking water.
“That was probably one of the most jarring things for me to see,” Lange said. “It’s just kind of how it is. That’s a sense we got throughout Cuba. They all seem to just have an understanding that we’re all in this together and we’re all just surviving.”
The value Cubans place on education made an impression on Lange, who also is a USD 408 board member.
“It’s viewed as a privilege in the eyes of the home, in the eyes of the child, in the eyes of the government, to have a good education,” he said. “That’s different than in America. At least here with the privilege of education, you have the potential to put yourself where you want to be. That was important for me to learn.”
The trip is over, but the work is just beginning. Lange will help to recommend which Cuban Presbytery would be a good potential partner for the Presbytery of Southern Kansas, and will begin discussions in the Marion church about the possibility of creating a partnership with a Cuban congregation.
“If we do, what does that look like for us and what does it look like for the church in Cuba?” Lange said. “It’s not just a covenant on paper.”
Lange intended to take a few days settling back into life in Marion.
“When your’e two weeks away from all the hats you wear, you wonder, ‘How did I wear all these hats to begin with and how do I get them back on my head?’” he said.