Eliecer Valdez Suárez is a pastor and a missionary with the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba (BICCC), but just last year, he was working as a gravedigger. COVID-19 was taking a heavy toll on both Cuban families and Cuban tourism industry, and the already difficult conditions on the island had become even worse. Valdez had many graves to dig. But when a shipment of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) relief kits and canned meat arrived in Cuba, he stopped digging and started driving containers across the island nation.
“This help arrived in a moment where we didn’t have anything to eat, when we were fighting COVID-19 face-to-face in the streets,” he told a group of MCC staff during a visit to Cuba in February 2023. “It arrived like manna from heaven.”
Working with the church is a key part of MCC’s relief work in Cuba. In response to the pandemic in 2021, MCC has worked with the BICCC to distribute 3,615 relief kits and 41,280 kilograms (91,006 pounds) of canned meat to communities throughout Cuba during the pandemic and accompanying economic crisis. MCC has plans to send more kits in the coming year as conditions in Cuba show little sign of improving.
A nation in crisis
Since MCC started working in Cuba in the early 1980s, the country has gone through many difficult periods, most notably after Cuba’s main trading partner, the Soviet Union, collapsed in the 1990s. A long-standing and particularly harsh set of U.S. sanctions against the country means Cuba has few options for international trade and partnerships. A rapid expansion of its tourism industry and support from Venezuela generated a period of strong growth. But it wouldn’t last.
First, Venezuela’s near-total economic collapse, which was followed by a devastating combination of COVID-19 travel restrictions, tightening sanctions and a mid-pandemic currency reform that have created the worst economic crisis in decades. Many Cubans, especially those who don’t have access to outside sources of currency, haven’t eaten meat or eggs in months and struggle to find basics like cooking oil, soap, toilet paper and towels. The combination of external and internal limitations have made it challenging to import the everyday items Cubans need to survive, while cash is increasingly hard to come by for Cuban citizens and government alike.
With an entire nation in crisis and a unique set of challenges to providing humanitarian relief, where does an organization like MCC begin to help?
Bringing relief to communities
The BICCC is made up of about 5,000 members in congregations all over the country, many in small house churches. Not all Cuban churches are legally recognized, but the Brethren in Christ church is, allowing it to import containers and other items with relative ease. This makes the church an ideal partner for receiving and distributing humanitarian relief.
In addition, local churches know their communities better than any external group. They know which families are struggling and what conflict might be caused if items are distributed in a way that is perceived as biased or unfair.
Since an initial project that provided funds to rebuild houses after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, MCC has supported the BICCC churches as they grow their capacity to respond to emergencies. This has included the creation of local emergency assessment committees and the basics of managing a relief distribution — assessing needs, tracking participants, documenting expenses and collecting participant feedback.
The relief distributed through the BICCC goes not just to pastors and church members, but also to neighbors who aren’t part of the church, which has gained them the respect of the communities and even of local government.
Valdez remembers the reactions as a truck loaded with relief kits and canned meat pulled into communities throughout his province in 2021.
“The pastors were smiling from ear to ear because they saw that the heavens had opened,” he said. “[The cans of meat] weren’t just those little cans that you would think were tuna! But the buckets too, the towels, all of the personal hygiene products inside — they came at a moment of tremendous crisis, where there was nothing in our country for us to buy.”
Disaster response in Pinar del Río
Another MCC partner, the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has also worked through churches in the province of Pinar del Río to send relief kits and roofing materials after Hurricane Ian hit the area in September 2022.
Pastor Imer Cordobés Pérez of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pinar del Río remembers the day Hurricane Ian struck the region. The house he lived in with another pastor was sturdy, but even so, he heard the door blown off its hinges and the furniture moving around inside. When the eye of the hurricane passed over, providing a temporary calm over Pinar del Río, he could hear his neighbors screaming. “I was afraid many people had died,” he said.
After the hurricane passed, the damage was unmistakable. Homes had been destroyed and the already difficult economic conditions meant there were no resources available to reconstruct them. MCC partnered with CCRD and Kerk in Actie, a social organization of the Dutch Protestant Church, to send relief kits and roofing materials to the people whose houses had been damaged or destroyed, in addition to providing psychosocial support to those traumatized by the events of that night.
CCRD is not based in Pinar del Río, so Pérez’s church managed the logistics of the distribution. The church’s emergency committee identified those most in need of assistance and organized a commission to the distribute the relief kits when they arrived in Cuba. Relief kits went to whomever in the community needed them most, whether they were part of the Adventist church or not.
“[When the buckets arrived], all of the kids were happy, there was laughter in the houses,” said Dania Penalva Rodriguez, the coordinator of the emergency committee. “I remember someone said ‘Wow, shampoo! This is so expensive!’ Sometimes you might wonder how important this kind of stuff really is, but then you see how happy someone is when they receive something like shampoo.”
Bringing the church together through theological training
MCC staff met Valdez and other church leaders at the BIC training center in the small town of Palmira as they prepared to graduate from a theological training diploma.
During the curriculum, which is funded by MCC and accredited by SEMILLA Latin American Anabaptist Seminary based in Guatemala City, BICCC leaders learned about the Bible, the history of the church and Anabaptist perspectives on ministry, leadership, and community.
Over the years, the BICCC has grown significantly, often absorbing members and congregations from other denominations. As a result, there has not been a common understanding of what Anabaptism means.
“This is the first Anabaptist seminary in Cuba — and this finally shows us the theological foundation of who we have known we are,” said Julio Santana, national secretary of the BICCC. “We have acted like Anabaptists but now we know who we are and what family we are part of. We are finding our roots.”
Those roots are encouraging and strengthening church leaders as they continue to respond to economic and climate crises in their country. As the graduates prepared to return to their homes from Palmira, MCC staff spoke to Elizabeth Vásquez Delgado and Ramón Castillo Borges, a pastor couple from the outskirts of Havana. Vásquez reflected on the impact distributing relief kits and canned meat has had on the spiritual life of her community.
“We’ve seen people getting involved, just like in the days of the early church, when they shared bread together and every day the Lord added something new,” she said. “And this has been a privilege.”
By Annalee Giesbrecht
Mennonite Central Committee is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace. MCC is committed to relationships with their local partners and churches. As an Anabaptist organization, they strive to make peace a part of everything they do.