Mi Vida Cubana

I’m going to interrupt my blogging hiatus briefly to write two posts. The first one was on the anniversary of my ordination and the second will be some reflections on Cuba. 

I got back from Cuba on Friday. There is so much that I can say about the trip. I could talk about the amazing food. I could talk about the beautiful people, beautiful inside and out (!!!). I could talk about the treacherous hike our group undertook to see one of the most beautiful waterfalls I can ever imagine seeing.  I could talk about the warm Caribbean sea and the beautiful beaches…

There’s lots of places I could go, but in some ways, this is really a follow up to my earlier post. In some very real ways, this trip was reaffirming of my call and a reawakening of my faith.

I have to say first and foremost, it was an honor to go as a part of Ashland Presbyterian Church’s group. It has been so long since I have felt a part of a church community, and though I haven’t been attending long, it was good to belong to a group and feel like I was representing for the folks at home. I haven’t had that feeling in a very long time.

Early in the trip, we met with the session of Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada in Cabaiguan. It was fascinating to learn the church’s history. To be Christian in Cuba during the communist revolution was comparable to being Communist in the states during the McCarthy era. You were banned from certain jobs. You were looked down upon as being weak because you believed in a higher power (instead of the higher power of reason and strength in the party). They were tough times for the church, times of real persecution. We in the states no nothing about what it means to be genuinely persecuted for our faith. Despite that hardship the church endured. When the Soviet Union collapsed and ended much of the supply chain for Cuba’s economy, the state became more amenable to the church, particularly those that adhered to liberation theology. The party saw the church as a useful instrument in eliminating human suffering.

You can see that in the primary ministries of the church today. They have a water filtration system that provides potable water for people in the town. The weekend we were there, they celebrated providing  a half a million liters of water to their neighbors in a special worship service. They also provide a laundry service to the community. In a place where water is at a premium, the church has become a fountain of living water.

Justice and service to the community is at the heart of the churches spoken and lived theology. I sat in on an adult Sunday School class where Isaiah 42 was being discussed. I didn’t pick up much, but what I did pick up was enough to flesh out the congregation’s lived theology: Jesus, God’s servant, came to serve the world with justice and truth and that was the role that the church was there to play as well. Everything from the way they hosted us to the way they loved their neighbors in tangible ways showed that this was a congregation that had service at its heart.

When I began pursuing my call to ministry, this is what I imagined the church could be, a place where the body of Christ directly interacted with the tangible needs of the people in the surrounding community. Sadly, in the churches that I have served, this is so often far from the reality of what the church really is. More often we wrestle with the articulation of our theology than we do with a  struggle to embody it. We settle for talking the talk instead of walking the walk. We operate from places of scarcity instead of utilizing what we have to be a blessing to our communities.

While a lived theology of justice would be enough of a gift to receive from our hermanas y hermanos in Cuba, their is another value that they fully embody that may be of even greater significance to me and to the church: joy! Pastor Marlon mentioned at one point that part of the Cuban culture was to find joy even in the midst of harsh circumstances. “We may not have the best bread, but what bread we have we eat with grateful hearts”. I asked why. He said it was because they get so much sun, and while I think there might actually be something to that, I also think that it speaks to truest nature of the church. What has been passed down through the generations is an ability to find joy in the midst of oppression. When the church is disconnected from the power brokers of the society, it is freed to find joy in the things that really matter: community, relationship, laughter, dancing, food, family, friends… the real stuff of life. The early church thrived in the shadow of the Roman empire. Would it be unfair to say that every time the church is wedded to the powerful it becomes less joyful?

I’ve written a great deal about my depression. It’s ubiquitous presence in my life is something that I am learning to manage. Yet in Cuba, living at a Cuban pace of life (which includes siestas!), eating fresh food and being in the sun, being around a people who make joy a priority, it was hard to feel the effects of depression. I was grounded in my body and in the present moment. Surely some of that was simply because I was somewhere new, and maybe more because I was disconnected from social media, but I also think it had to do with being around people who were living life in such an authentic way. It’s easy for this American to romanticize life in another country, but when observing a way of life that seems so much more real than my own, it’s hard not to fantasize that I could have a depression-free existence somewhere else.

But I don’t live somewhere else, and I think a part of my call is to create space for people to slow the fuck down and live life at a sane pace. I think part of my call is remind people to laugh and to dance, even if they dance as poorly as I do. I think part of my call is to remind people to eat good food and maybe even to grow that food themselves. I don’t think it’s my call to make better consumers, but maybe it’s my call to help people to be better creators. I think it’s a part of my call to create and nurture community. I think it’s a part of my call to meet the real felt needs of the people in my community. And I think it’s a part of my call to live a life of joy, so sometimes that will mean going the extra mile to cultivate joy within myself. I’m grateful for this trip… this pilgrimage. I didn’t think that was what it was going to be…

My ordainaversary…

I’m going to interrupt my blogging hiatus briefly to write two posts. The first one will be on the anniversary of my ordination and the second will be some reflections on Cuba. 

Today is the seventh anniversary of my ordination. This isn’t something typically commemorated, but most of my friends seem to remember their date. The last couple of years, as I’ve been away from the church, I haven’t felt much like recognizing this day, but for this year feels different. I think it is a milestone worth recognizing.

I was ordained to the position of temporary supply pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh, PA. It was an amazing service. My mentor Saleem preached. My friend Matt gave a charge. My friends and family were there. I served communion for the first time. It was incredibly meaningful. We had a reception at the Urban Mountain Gathering Place atop the church that had a great view of the city. Because it was my ordination, there was good beer. It was during the reception that we told some people closest to us for the first time that we were expecting. The whole day was covered in joy.

My process had been long and challenging. My liaison to my presbytery was non-responsive. The committee on preparation for ministry seemed annoyed that I went to San Francisco Theological Seminary instead of the “perfectly good Presbyterian seminary right here in Pittsburgh”. Can’t tell you how many times I heard that phrase. I questioned a great deal about whether or not I would go through with the ordination process. I considered dropping out of the MDiv program, finishing an MA and going into the academy. I considered switching denominations. It was stubbornness more than anything that kept me going. I wasn’t, at that point, going to let any tell me that I couldn’t live out this calling that had been there since my youth and that I was working so hard to bring to fruition.

Yes, being a pastor is something that I always wanted. It was the first thing I ever wanted to be. Church has always been one of the places where I have felt most comfortable, where my gifts have been affirmed, and where I felt like I wasn’t just an oddball. I have, from a young age, felt competent in church. I’ve had very little experience just going to church. I’ve always found ways to be really involved. Throughout middle and high school I lead a puppet ministry at church near my house. I’m not very good at just sitting in a pew. Church has always felt like a place to be involved and where I had something unique (not better, just unique) to bring to the table.

I reflected on these things as the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Cabaiguan, Cuba shared his story of call. There were some major differences in our story, but some real similarities. I was struck again by how important our own personal “call narratives” can be.

I haven’t been allowed to serve in a church since February of 2014. I broke a trust of the church that had massive repercussions. As frustrating as this process has been I ultimately became Presbyterian because of the accountability for pastors that was built into our system. I would be two-faced if I praised our accountability in theory and shunned it in my personal life. I am hopeful that my disciplinary period will be over soon.

Despite everything that has happened, I still feel called. Maybe that call has morphed and changed. I thought I would serve the church in one capacity, it may end up being a very different capacity. I still feel very drawn to serving God and serving God’s church to the extent that Her church serves the world. So today, I don’t celebrate a particular event that happened at a little church in Pittsburgh, despite how joyful that event was. Today, I celebrate a call that has been upon my life for as long as I can remember. Yes, I have fought that call at almost every juncture in my life, but that call is persistent and it has shaped me. So I celebrate my call to serve. May I be of use to God’s church as God’s church is in service to the world. Amen.