November 12:

Who would have thought that a cemetery could be so interesting? The last thing that we did while visiting Santiago de Cuba was to tour el Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, which was founded in 1868 and is the second most important cemetery in Cuba after the Cementerio de Colón in Havana.

We were led by Fr. Gil and Fr. Halbert. Both men know their Cuban history extremely well. The cemetery is a sort of who’s who in Cuban history. Emilio Bacardi, who founded the Bacardi rum empire and Cuba’s first museum which in 1828, and his family are buried here. So is Carlos Manuel Céspedes, who launched the Cuban independence movement in 1868 and is considered the father of Cuban independence, and José Martí, Cuba’s most beloved figure.

Many of Martí’s simple messages are inscribed in stone leading up to his grave, including “A people who are divided against themselves will kill themselves” – something that we as a divided nation must take stock of as we endeavor to move away from our divisions and get to know people who see things differently than ourselves and strive to build common ground.

Martí wrote about wanting to be buried in his native Cuba in the sunlight and not the shadows for he led a very honest life and to be remembered with a white flower. So his large, octagonal tomb is guarded by sentries and was designed to throw sunlight on his tomb throughout each day and white and red flowers are placed by his grave.

There are also tombs for 20th century revolutionaries of the Movimiento 26 de Julio. There is also Cuba’s version of the tomb of the unknown soldier with a bronze wreath and eternal flame. Fidel Castro is also buried here under a large white stone that simple reads “Fidel.”

The cemetery is full of Neo-Classical, Modernist, and Rationalist tombs. In a country full of decaying buildings, where everything seems to be old and dirty and deeply weathered, this is beautiful exception and is worthy of any country in the world.

Interestingly, I came across two women stationed as guards or possibly cemetery docents. Both were reading the Bible in the shade – shade not only from the sun but shade from the tomb of the Communist dictator Fidel Castro, who was educated by Jesuit priests but had no qualms about jailing and killing his political opponents or anyone who opposed him. He disdained religion.

From el Cimenterio de Ifgenia we traveled back toward Holguín, stopping first for a lovely lunch. Afterwards, we bid adieu to Fr. Albert and his wife, Elena, and their oldest son, José, who makes no effort to disguise his disinterest in church. He’s the quintessential preacher’s kid. Elena had made a homemade flan to share with our gro for dessert. Being one of my favorite desserts, it won my heart over immediately.

I like Fr. Albert greatly. He studied in Rome and in Spain in order to become a Roman Catholic priest. After meeting his wife, he left the Catholic Church, married, and eventually made his way into the Episcopal Church. We are luckier for it.

Called the city of parks because of its many leafy squares with monuments to heroes of the Cuban movement for independence, Holguín is a modern city laid out in a grid and situated between two hills – Cerro de Mayabe and Loma de Cruz. The people of Holguín took an active part in the movement for independence under the leadership of Calixto Garcia, the famous general who liberated the city from the Spanish in 1872. The square that is named after him marks the center of the city and is dominated by his statue.

The highlight of returning to Holguín has included having dinner with members of Fr. Gil’s council. Of the 52 Episcopal congregations in Cuba, each of which has at least 20 confirmed members, only eight are official churches. The rest are houses of worship, many of which actually worship in houses. It is like stepping back into the first century where Christians worshipped secretly in one another’s homes. Such is the case in Cuba. For most of the years following the Cuban Revolution a Christian took great risks to attend church. Even today, there can be unknown government agents who attend church and report back to the government.

We had a lively worship this morning at the new building which the worship community of San Marcos is transforming into a church. Afterwards, we shared lunch together with our dear friends. For some of our team this is the third visit to our companion church in Cuba but the first since the pandemic. How good it is to deepen our friendship with these lovely Christians in Cuba, who dearly need our love and support. After each meal, we see our Cuban friends wrap every scrap of food off their plate and take it home for later use. That tells us everything about how desperate our friends have become and how grim their future appears to be. That’s why we’re here. We’re here not only to bring supplies, but to remind them by our presence that they are not alone.

With love and prayers from Cuba,

Marek