Thursday, March 25, 2010

Church Mission To Cuba Offers Emotional Aid

Church Mission To Cuba Offers Emotional Aid
The Rev. Tom Schacher makes first heart-changing trip
By Carissa Katz

(03/25/2010) "It is good, when you are on mission, to allow yourself
to go beyond where you came from and what life was, to immerse yourself
in where you are and what life is," the Rev. Tom Schacher of the East
Barbara D'Andrea
Members of the congregation of the Guines Presbyterian Church in Cuba
greeted the Rev. Tom Schacher after worship services there earlier this
Hampton Presbyterian Church wrote on a blog during a recent church
mission to Cuba.

Although members of his and other local Presbyterian churches have
been going on missions to Cuba for nearly 20 years, this trip, from
March 3 to March 13, was Mr. Schacher's first visit to the island.
"Missions are always life-changing and heart-changing, and this was no
exception," he said last week at his office in East Hampton.

Six people joined Mr. Schacher on the mission in Cuba, where the
Presbytery of Long Island has a 20-year relationship with the Presbytery
of Havana. Local church mission groups have established a partnership
with the Presbyterian church in Guines, a small city in the countryside
southeast of Havana.

"We don't go down to Guines and build something or paint a church,"
Mr. Schacher said. "We go to strengthen relations and build up
connections between us and the church and the people in Guines."

The mission provides "not financial aid as much as emotional aid,"
said Barbara D'Andrea of Wainscott, who has been traveling to Cuba with
the church since 1994 and coordinates the missions to Guines.

Her husband, Dennis, who describes himself as her assistant, has
been traveling with her for about 10 years, but his first experience on
the island goes back much further than that. From 1968 to '72 he was
stationed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where he served as an acting
chart master.

Last week he recalled how he had studied the detailed charts that
included strategic locations for potential bombings on the island. "Now
I'm meeting all these people 20 years later," he said, and he is
thankful that "the cold war never became a hot war." At the time, the
people of Cuba "were an abstraction on a chart," he said, "now they're
human beings."

In the pastor's mind, that sort of realization is one of the most
important parts of mission work.

Also on this month's trip were John White of the Presbyterian
church in Bridgehampton, Rob Stuart, a retired Amagansett pastor, Ron
Fleming of Amagansett, and Emily Hawsey of Smithtown.

During mission trips, people have attended weddings, baptisms, and
funerals, as well as many of the church's anniversary celebrations,
which are "in February, but it's a floating date because they do it when
I'm there," Ms. D'Andrea said.

"The thing I feel most is, they trust us," she said. "When we were
first going, people were very guarded. It took them many years to open
up and share."

In returning again and again, she and those who join her show the
people of Guines that their commitment is ongoing. And that's important
because a single 10-day trip might not make much impact, but the
cumulative effect of many return trips does.

"We provide a lifeline as things get tough in Cuba," Ms. D'Andrea
said. For friends in Guines, it means a great deal "just knowing someone
is praying for them and working for them."

In dire times, "the churches gave hope to people," Mr. Schacher
said. Although the government frowned on churches after the Cuban
Revolution, it did not close them. However, it did require that a church
open its doors every Sunday. For a long time, he explained, that meant
that lay people kept the church alive, even as congregations dwindled to
just a dozen or so people.

When the economic crisis in Cuba deepened in the early 1990s,
people began to return to the church. Now, close to 150 people attend
services in Guines on Sundays.

"There wasn't much hope in Cuban society, in the government. People
had no hope for change, no hope for their lives. If people are going to
find hope, they're going to find it through the church," Mr. Schacher said.

They turn to the church for spiritual sustenance as well as
material needs unmet elsewhere in Cuban society. When they cannot find
work, for example, or medicine they look to the church. The local
mission groups help to provide some of those things, taking medical
supplies, medicine, computer equipment, and money to the Guines church.

"These are very practical things that you and I can get hold of
very easily," Mr. Schacher said.

Mr. White, who lives in Sagaponack, has been going to Cuba with the
mission groups since 1998. Ms. D'Andrea, he said, is the "heavy lifter"
who handles all the logistical details of getting the group from New
York to Havana. In terms of documentation, the group needs a license
from the United States Department of the Treasury, a visa, and a special
Cuban religious visa. The application process takes several months.

"We have to do everything long term," Ms. D'Andrea said. It can be
difficult to get people to commit to joining the mission so far in
advance. Plus, they pay for the trip out of their own pockets, which can
be expensive.

Yet people continue to return, even as they sometimes feel
frustrated by these obstacles. "We get to see old friends that we've now
known for a long time, kids who've grown up and are now small-business
people. There's a continuity after 15, 20 years of doing this, and you
develop strong attachments that you just can't break, no matter how
inconvenient it is. It's worth all the hassle."

Although it is even harder for their Cuban friends to travel here,
last year, two ministers from the Guines church were able to visit the
South Fork. Over the years a number of lay people have also visited with
special permission.

Mr. Schacher hopes to organize a youth mission to Cuba in July. He
has done missions in Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, and Moscow. "In all
my travels around the world, I had not encountered a people of such
warmth and hospitality and genuine love," he said of the people in Cuba.

He gave the Sunday sermon in Guines on March 7. After worship, he
wrote, "I stood in the back and shook hands with some. I say some
because most gave us kisses and hugs."

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