by Mennonite Women USA
Shortly before presenting the first of two Sister Care seminars in Cuba, Carolyn Heggen, psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care Director for Mennonite Women USA, visited an art museum in Old Havana. They talked briefly to the two dignified women in charge; as they left, one women asked, “Do you have any soap?” Heggen, having been in Cuba before and knowing how scarce and precious soap is, did have two small bars of soap and gave them to the women.
On this lush and beautiful island country, the needs of the people for basic necessities form a stark contrast to Cuba’s outstanding educational system which provides free education for all. Four lane highways with modern busses and Chinese cars travel beside restored 40’s and 50’s Fords, Buicks, and Chevys, all on the same road also traveled by horse-drawn wagons and carts.
The Sister Care seminars held in Camaguey and Havana November 23-28 were hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches. Ninety women participated from 17 denominations including Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Quaker churches.
Heggen and Keener began each seminar by asking women to work in small groups to compile a list of the challenges faced by women in Cuba. Many noted economic difficulties; while each adult receives a monthly financial and food allotment, the amounts do not last for a month. Equally difficult is the scarcity of needed items; Cubans think of the USA blockade often because it affects their daily lives. One woman said, “When I can’t find something in the store, I say, ‘It’s because of the blockade.’”
Families are often separated due to migration.
Many young persons have emigrated to the USA; there are as many Cubans living in Miami as in Havana. This creates lifelong separation and grief for families.
Midiam Lobaina, our host from the Council of Churches, summed up the needs of women in Cuba, by saying: “There are many scarcities in Cuba, but the most serious is the scarcity of hope.”
Billboards attempt to combat this lack of hope saying: “We are a work in progress,” “For this liberty we have to give our all,” and “In sacrifice there is unity.” It has been over 50 years since the revolution, and for many, economic hope is fading. The government has moved from being an atheist state to accepting churches. Dr. Ana Esmende Delisle Grinan, who attended the seminar in Camaguey, said the government is now beginning to ask churches for help with problems of addictions, HIV, caring for the elderly, and restoring moral values.
Cuba is the 13th country where Sister Care seminars have been shared.
The seminars provide tools for personal healing so women can become healers for others. Responses to the seminar included:
“I feel better equipped knowing how to work on my own life story and how to help others.”
“I’ve learned to see the beauty in my pain and to see how God can heal us and use our tears.”
“I leave here with new hope and ideas for how to help my community and the sisters in my church.”
Heggen said: “While Cubans have been raised to see the US government as the cause of their shortages and problems and to see Americans as their enemies, I was touched by the warm response of the Cuban women to us and our presentations. I learned much from them about courage and perseverance in difficult situations and have an increased appreciation for our global faith community.”
The invitation to share Sister Care seminars in Cuba came through Elizabeth Soto Albrecht’s friendship with Raquel Suarez, daughter of Raul Suarez, founder of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana. Suarez advised that the Cuban Council of Churches host the events. Albrecht planned to co-teach, but cancelled due to illness in her family.
Funding for Mennonite Women USA’s expenses was provided by individual donors and the Mennonite Church USA Sexual Abuse Care and Prevention Fund. Heggen’s book, Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes
and Churches was given to the Council of Churches. Many women shared personal stories of dealing with sexual abuse and sexual violence.
Due to economic issues in Cuba, funding was also needed to pay for lodging, food, and travel for the participants in Camaguey and Havana. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Latin American Women Theologians (MTAL) provided these funds.
Keener said, “Although no Mennonites or Brethren in Christ women attended the seminars, they were invited, and important connections were begun with MCC and MTAL. We’ve also responded to a request from a Cuban church leader requesting Anabaptist peace literature. This has been an extraordinary opportunity to connect with the worldwide church.”