The Cuba 20 Leadership Conference Part 2

Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed Part 1 about our trip to Cuba. A quick recap on part 1…The “Dream Team” flies to Miami, we take South Beach by storm, and the whole city of Miami doesn’t know what hit it after we arrived. We fly into Cuba where Jerrod smooth talks his way through security. I think that just about covers it all, however, if you would like to go into more detail and catch up, click here.

Part 2 starts with the Murr Brothers, A-Mo, Darrin, Mario, and myself finally through airport security and free (as free as you can be in Cuba), and meeting up with our contact (name removed because of security reasons!). Our contact is a big deal for the church in Cuba. He met us at the airport, and greeted us as if he had known the “Dream Team” forever. He was the first Cuban I officially met, and he embraced us in the traditional Cuban greeting, a handshake and a bear hug. He spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish, but with Mario’s wonderful translation, he began to tell us of all the exciting events about to happen in our lives.

(If you are wondering, my grasp on the Spanish language culminated after three years in Senora Newton’s Spanish classes at Hilldale High, where I could ask you your name, where the bathroom is, and what is in the library, much like the “One Semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song”)

It was our contact who first approached Jerrod in March and asked if he would be able to return to Cuba with a leadership team to host a conference for his youth leaders from all over the country. Our contact, as did most of the people at our conference, had a passionate vision of reaching out to the youth in Cuba. They believe the country of Cuba will forever be changed by the charisma and determination of this most important generation of Cubans.

Jerrod Murr
(Jerrod hanging out with some locals)

He explained to us that youth leaders from all over the country, from Guantanamo to Havana, were traveling in to hear what we had to say on leadership, on reaching youth, and to hear our keynotes in the evenings. I later found out that these youth leaders mostly traveled not by car or bus, but walked, rode bicycles or horses, or hitchhiked to our conference…what dedication!

This was our first chance to listen to Mario translate, and if all Cubans were like our contact, it was going to be a fun week! He would talk, very quickly I might add, for 4-5 minutes at a time, and then give Mario a chance to translate. Mario was the constant pro, however, and was able to remember everything he had heard. If we truly were a dream team, Mario was the Nick Collison of the trip…no question about it.

Jerrod Murr
(Mario translating for Jerrod)

Our Resort Hotel

We were chauffeured us to our first destination, our hotel. Along the way we were able to see many interesting and beautiful parts of Cuba. First of all, the traffic was much like the Cuban people, relaxed, in no hurry, and mostly stuck back in the 1950s. Because of the trade embargo with the US, Cuba couldn’t get new cars, so most of the cars in Cuba were U.S. made cars prior to 1959 when Fidel came into power. It was very neat to see the old ’57 Chevys and 1940s trucks driving all around us, and they were usually in impeccable shape!

If the car was not an old US car, it was a 1980s Russian model, you know, the small car that doesn’t look as if it could hold one person, much less a family. If you were not fortunate enough to have a car, which few people were, you either rode on horseback, by bicycle, or motorcycle with sidecar.

(Awesome old trucks)
(Old Russian Cars)

As we drove to the hotel, Mario would point out all the Revolution propaganda along the way. Billboards, sides of buildings and factories, and homemade signs along the way would say things such as, “Viva Cuba Libre” or “Viva La Revolucion.” There were many anti-American signs, several slamming former President Bush and the US government.

The most interesting thing to me on my first drive into Cuba was the fact that it seemed as to have been little or no progress over such a long period of time. It truly was as if someone had pressed a pause button or loop button in Cuba, and set it for 1959. The buildings that were kept up looked just what I thought they would look like in the 50s, and the buildings that were not kept up, which were most of the buildings, looked as if they had been abandoned 50 years ago.

The people rode around in old cars, horses were tied up to the side of the road as their owners used sickles to cut the grass and weeds, there was no fast food restaurants, no department stores, and no development. Large, old, beautiful buildings were overrun with decaying paint and cracked structures. This once vibrant and wealthy paradise had been squashed by the oppressive thumb of tyranny, and had scarcely progressed in over 50 years.

My first impression was one of sadness, as I saw through my modern and liberated eyes a wonderful country oppressed into submission. However, later I learned how little this oppressive state actually slowed down the people of Cuba, how the real progress in Cuba was within the churches, and how much I could learn from their laid-back simple lifestyles. My journey had just begun.

Our hotel was very nice, pretty much a resort, one of the buildings in Cuba which had been kept in great condition. It had open air lobbies and seating, beautiful views, comfortable rooms, and a gorgeous pool, which we frequented any chance we had a break!

Most importantly, it had air conditioning in our rooms, a luxury I take for granted in the US, as we sweated through our clothes at every other location in Cuba. (Jerrod has the unique ability to sweat not through his shirts, but through his pant legs…a pretty neat trick!) Our hotel also had a breakfast buffet, and if you know me, you know I love breakfast, and I got to expand my breakfast repertoire with some seafood, SPAM, and toast as hard as a brick.

(The pool)
(Our pool view)
(Our balcony view)
(Fresh fruit with every meal)

A Cuban Hero

After checking in at the hotel, we were taken to  one of the oldest churches in all of Cuba. This church is a staple in Christian lore within the country. This church was started by Pastor Benjamin, the most famous minister in Cuba. A man who was beaten for his faith. A man who was thrown in prison for his faith. A man who has overcome true adversity in his life to become a true warrior of God. His church has founded hundreds of churches in Cuba, and has been influential in changing the lives of thousands of men, women and children.

It is partially because of his work that churches can openly preach the gospel (with restrictions, of course) and build new churches (also with restrictions). It was here that I learned that within a stagnant country of poverty and communism, the Church is growing. On the back wall of the Hallelujah temple there were pictures of all the churches that have been recently built in Cuba. As a matter of fact, the only construction I saw in the entire country was on churches, and much of this can be attributed to Pastor Benjamin, who is truly a modern-day Paul.

After we toured the church, we were able to sit down with Pastor Benjamin’s wife as she made us a fresh glass of lemonade. She used a board to knock a few lemons out of her tree and then squeezed them into a glass mixed with some pure cane sugar. Darrin and A-Mo got their glasses first, and I was closely watching them to see what they thought of the tasty beverage. Both were nervous because they thought the fresh lemonade was also made with fresh Cuban water…which would spell disaster!

After sipping their glass and nodding with approval, Josh and I devoured our drinks, and I am pretty sure Josh could have drunk three or four gallons of the drink if allowed. This was my first encounter with the fresh fruit in Cuba, and I still crave the lemons, bananas, mangos and pineapple we had with every meal.

Our 20 Leadership Conference Location

Once Josh finished his lemonade, we toured where we were going to have the leadership conference. The location was part of a small complex hidden houses behind an intimidating full metal gate, which once opened showcased a small tropical paradise of fruit trees, an outdoor kitchen, gazebos and picnic tables.

(The outdoor stage area)

Participants of the leadership conference were in the backyard playing football (of the non-American variety), and kids were chasing each other and playing hopscotch. On the property was a church which was a narrow and hot building packed to the brim with pews and ceiling fans. The back of the church had a baptismal which doubled as a bed for visitors, a rudimentary bathroom with showers and stalls, and then a door which led to backyard and overflow seating for church. It truly was a beautiful place that represented the genuine lifestyle of Cuba and encompassed the personality of its people…relaxed, welcoming, and warm.

(A-Mo modeling at the church)
A-Mo and the outdoor kitchen)
(The grills were old truck rims)

Darrin the Baptist

We ate all of our meals at the host house, and they were masterfully crafted by a local family. The aroma of delicious rice and beans, tasty ham, fresh yucca and hand-picked fruit flooded the entire backyard and surrounded our hungry senses. We were invited to eat at a table especially made for us, with generous portions of food and drink, enough to feed a king (or a hungry American).

Just after we blessed the wonderfully made food, and started to pass around the Cuban delicatessen, Darrin gracefully knocked over the largest bottle of water I have ever seen, which he immediately followed by fumbling it around in his hands like a slippery noodle. All the while he was yelling, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!!” as the host held his head in horror. The rest of us were jumping out of our chairs as Darrin finally grabbed the bottle and accidentally held it upside down while he doused the rest of our food in water.

It was if it all happened in slow motion, the loud gloup, gloup, gloup of the water coming out of the jug echoed off of the stucco walls as it poured directly into the yucca and rice. When it was all finished and the bottle was safely out of Darrin’s hands, nearly one gallon of water had been spread over the beautiful dinner so laboriously made by the family. Water poured off all ends of the table and slowly crept down the floor and out the back door, thereby causing the host to give Darrin the nickname of Darrin the Baptist, which stuck with him the rest of the trip.

(Our meal…before Darrin poured that whole bottle of water into the food)

A Trip to the Temple

After the great dinner flood of 2011, the Dream Team, including Darrin the Baptist, traveled to a small Cuban town to visit a modern-day temple being built by a group of men and women who devoted their life’s work to build this church. In March, Jerrod, Josh, and A-Mo had went with a different group to help these men build this temple.

When we first pulled up, Jerrod and Josh were almost in tears to see the progress this group had made since they left almost three months before. The roof had been completed, steps and lights had been installed, walls had been finished and progress was moving quickly. The group in Minas did not know we were coming, and as Jerrod, Josh and A-Mo walked in and surprised the group as they worked, tears of joy came upon their faces.

These were men’s men, hard-working men who quit their jobs to build this church full-time. They quickly started showing us around to the new and beautiful parts of the church they were continuing to improve. This is when I first figured out the ingenuity of these people. They were not blessed with power tools or modern-day equipment, so the concrete was mixed by hand, then placed into buckets, and then poured into the beams and roof of the building. They did all the woodwork by hand, all the electricity was done by hand and with unusual materials. Their switch to turn on the fans and lights was a roll-on deodorant bottle, and when you twisted the lid the lights would come on…very smart stuff there!

(The Temple)
(The balcony of the Temple)
(They built all of this by hand…no power tools)
Jerrod Murr
(The Cuban crew)
(Turn the deodorant lid and the fans come on!)

After a tour, Josh, Jerrod and A-Mo had some stuff to specifically give the people of this small town. Jerrod brought a headband light for his favorite Cuban, A-Mo had drum sticks and guitar strings for the church (musical instruments were a high commodity), and Josh had hand sanitizer for the preacher (an inside joke) and fishing gear for a couple of the guys. They loved to fish, and fished with a stick and string. Josh also loves to fish, and went to the Bass Pro and brought telescoping rods, fishing wire, hooks, lures, and a scale! They loved their gifts and they loved our visit.

(The pastor and hand sanitizer)
(Josh passing out fishing gear)
(He was showing us how he tied a hook)

I became emotional inside the temple, and I didn’t know why. I now think it was because I knew then I was on holy ground. A place where people of faith sincerely are walking in God’s direction, giving up everything they had so they could serve their community. Very few people have this commitment and drive, and I learned very much from these men and women. I hope to someday go back, and I know the temple will be known all around Cuba as a holy ground.

First Day of the Leadership Conference

We then rode to a local church where we would kick off our leadership conference with a keynote from Jerrod. This church was the typical Cuban church, it sat about 300 Cubans, or about 200 Americans, it had no air conditioning, a small stage and crowded pews.

For those of you that think the Cuban church is more like evangelistic espionage, think again. This is definitely not an underground movement. Each church is armed with a P.A. system and a drum kit, and their salsa version of worship music flows out of the open windows and doors as loudly as possible into the quiet streets. This church was no different and when we arrived, there was already about 300 people ready for service.

By the time the service started almost 450 people were there…they packed the pews, stood in the aisles and balcony, and huddled patiently outside of the building waiting for someone to leave so they could stand in their stead. We were told this particular church had a regular Sunday attendance between 3,000 and 4,000 people, and they held up to 10 services each morning so everyone could attend.

(The place was packed)
(The band played from this balcony/stage)

Our opening service started with a rousing drama from the church youth group, followed by the greatest salsa worship music I had ever heard, and a passionate and relevant lesson from Jerrod, faithfully translated by Mario. One of my favorite things about the evening services were the children who flocked to the front and basically sat on the stage. Two in particular took to us immediately and wanted to draw pictures of us, take photos with us, and didn’t care one bit that we didn’t speak the same language.

Jerrod Murr

Jerrod Murr

It was at these services where I felt truly ashamed by my sedentary and lackluster lifestyle. These people had so little, had suffered so much, and lived a life of pure excitement and passion for God. I will never forget their countenance and conviction while worshiping, where their true love shown right through their outermost shell. It was if you could see God’s love through them, as they were a walking testimony to His faith and love, His glory. They inspired me to be a better person, to live life to the fullest and follow my passion, just like them.

Ryan Eller

This ends part 2 of my trip to Cuba…Part 3 will focus primarily on our leadership conference, what it entailed and the sessions involved. I will also throw in a story or two on how we introduced the new “teeter totter” craze in Cuba, introduce our translators, tell you how one night changed my life forever.

Seeing as how long I have already rambled, I am forced to also write a Part 4 detailing our quick escape from Cuba and our journey home. Check back tomorrow for more updates!

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