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Since 1732, the Redemptorists — a congregation of missionary priests and brothers — have followed in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the Word and serving the poor and most abandoned.
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A mission to Cuba

By Father Ruskin Piedra, C.Ss.R.

The most recent mission (November 15 through 22, 2013) started very well insofar as there were no problems entering or leaving the United States or Cuba. This time the team left from Florida (my cousin, William, and co-misionera Rosario Bergouignan) and from Toronto, Canada (Neil Bernstein, a Jewish immigration lawyer, and myself).

We all met in Playa Matanzas before continuing to San José in Martí, where we started the mission. As cousin William came from Havana by car, we agreed to meet at a petrol station named Oro Negro on Hagüey Street, a block from our cousin Haydee’s house, where we all were. When William reached Oro Negro in Hagüey, he called to say he was waiting for us. We arrived at Oro Negro but did not see the cousin. What followed was an odyssey, but in short, the cousin was at Oro Negro not on Hagüey Street but at the Oro Negro in the city of Hagüey, more than one hour away. Well, finally everything was resolved, and we came together.

After a delightful lunch and before going to Martí, the cousins took us to the back of the house, where they had built a theater with padded seats, a big screen, and all the equipment to show 3D movies for children. My cousin and her husband had asked for and received permission to do so. They had taken a trip to Canada to get the equipment, a heavy investment of money.

The 3D films were quite successful with the children for a week. Then government officials arrived and withdrew permission without explanation, so the theater was empty. But the cousins are not giving up, waiting for better times.

Another detail: Two sister cousins studied accounting for six years. Seeing that they were not making enough to live on, they were forced to look for a job that gave them enough. They ended up working in the tourist hotels in the sale of tourist articles. What a shame—but it is the reality they live with.

We arrived at San José, Martí, and were greeted by the new pastor, Father Rolando Lauzurique, who had been transferred from Cardenas to Martí. Father Ramon, who had been in Martí, had been moved to Cardenas.

The story in brief: A group of women called the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) stage peaceful demonstrations to raise awareness about the horrendous conditions in prisons where their husbands and other family members are being held as political prisoners.

While the Damas were holding a demonstration in the church at Cardenas, police came and beat them in such a way that one of them died later in the hospital. This was the reason for the change of pastors: Padre Rolando suffers from heart trouble, and what happened affected him strongly.

It seems that demonstrations are gaining momentum throughout the island and are a threat to the authorities. But we are given to understand that the number of Damas continues to grow and that other people join them in their peaceful protests. We can only pray that the authorities will allow them their human right to gather peacefully and try to improve conditions in the prisons.

The schedule of the mission this year was the same as in others:

Morning: Visits to the sick and bedridden and anointing of the sick who have some idea of the sacraments; distribute food and products for personal hygiene, cooking, and washing.

Afternoon: Confessions and spiritual direction.

Evening: Rosary and Mass, with preaching focused on the main theme for the day.

We noticed that this year there were more parishioners at the mission than in previous years. The people show a hunger for God, a hunger to learn more about the faith. Young people attending help a lot in the liturgy and catechesis, thanks to the efforts of the priests and the Spanish Dominicans at San José. Their dedication and tireless work for the poor, who lack instruction in the faith, is inspiring. Because of their dedication, one young man, Nestor Morales, entered the seminary in Havana.

In our visits to the sick, it was obvious that their numbers are increasing, and it is impossible to visit them all. We strive to give the anointing to the needy and leave a bag with foodstuffs that we bring.

It seemed to us that every year there is less and less food. On a visit to my friend Adriano, a black man who was in charge of the church choir for years in secret, we noticed his hands trembled. I thought he might have had Alzheimer’s disease until his daughter told me quietly that his hands trembled on account of hunger. It hurts to see how abandoned the elderly are in rural areas.

A positive note: Through donations in the United States, we managed to get a soup kitchen going for the elderly in what was the sacristy of the Church of San Francisco, in Itabo. This small church belongs to San José in Martí. Now at least the elderly have food two or three times a week and enough for them to take home and make two or three more meals during the week.

Another positive note: The government is facilitating visas for citizens to travel abroad. The reasons are not known, but it seems that it is a means of alleviating material needs so that people can get abroad what is so scarce in Cuba. One wonders whether the authorities do not also wish to ameliorate the deep discontent among the island’s poor and hungry.

Finally Cubans see some progress on the economic and religious level—but at a turtle’s pace. There is still no internet except for a very select group. Only a radical change will bring a decent level of life to the island. The Lord grant it be soon.