Sister Care strengthens women leaders in Cuba

Two years after Sister Care seminars were first presented in Cuba, Carolyn Heggen, psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care director for Mennonite Women USA, returned to Havana, this time to bring the level 2 Enrichment materials and training for women who had attended a previous seminar. It was inspiring to hear that since 2015, these 28 women had taught over 600 others.

Keener and Heggen also traveled to Palmira in central Cuba (in a ’58 VW van) to teach Sister Care level 1 to an Anabaptist group of 36 Brethren in Christ (BIC) women who had not participated in 2015. This connection was facilitated by Jack and Irene Suderman, Ontario, and Bonnie Klassen, MCC Area Director for South America, Cuba, and Mexico.

One of the participants in Palmira, Deyli Milían Pérez, a pastor from Caibarien Villa Clara on the northern coast of Cuba, shared her story with Keener as Klassen translated.

Pérez said, “I had a difficult childhood with a step-father who sexually abused me. I married at 17, but my husband began drinking and so we divorced. Later he became a Christian and we remarried, but he spent 9 years in jail as a result of false accusations in a neighborhood incident before he became a Christian. When he was in jail the BIC church supported us even more than our families did. They gave us Bible resources and my husband became a spiritual leader in prison. At the same time people kept asking me to teach them about faith and the Bible. I realized that people were drawn to me and to my ability to also be a spiritual leader. When my husband was released from prison we became co-pastors of the church that had helped us so much. Today this church has grown and now has 14 house churches.”

During the Sister Care seminar, Pérez was particularly touched by Heggen’s teaching about healing from sexual abuse. Pérez said: “It was very helpful when Carolyn reminded us that when God heals us we can see ourselves as much more than just victims of sexual abuse and we can use our own painful experience to help others heal. I appreciated that we were taught a new way of praying without words to imagine an inner sanctuary where I can feel that Jesus is right there with me and I am safe and loved.”

Many women commented at the two seminars that they rarely have the time and encouragement to think about their own life story and they were glad to learn that God can use both their sad and happy experiences to deepen their ability to care compassionately for others.

The challenges in Cuba have not lessened since 2015. Women often spoke about the problem of families being separated as many have migrated to the USA. This creates lifelong challenges and grief. People continue to struggle to obtain basic necessities. The Cuban government’s monthly food allocation for each person is not sufficient and wages are low. Even when there are funds, the U.S. embargo has blocked availability for many needed imports. One woman said, “We often have to go to 2 or 3 stores to find one that has toilet paper and sometimes none of them have any.” A pastor who attended the Havana workshop saved portions of the food she was served at the retreat center to take home for her children. She said that unless people have relatives in the USA to send them money, it is very difficult to survive.

In both Havana and Palmira women celebrated at the end of the seminars with spontaneous dance and music. Heggen said: “I learn much from Cuban women about courage, tenacity, and faithfulness. They give me an increased appreciation for our global family of faith.”

The Havana event was sponsored by the Cuban Council of Churches with leadership from Midiam Lobaina. Sudermans and Klassen organized the Palmira BIC event. The Schowalter Foundation, MCC, and individual donors funded MW USA’s expenses and the lodging, food, and travel costs for participants in both Havana and Palmira.

Parts of this article were originally published by Mennonite World Review on February 14, 2018.

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