Mission:Cuba – A Personal Report by Doug Morton

by Ontario Central East
Categories: Divisional News

Mission: Cuba 2 – My Experience
By Doug Morton (Erin Mills Corps)

When you think of Cuba what comes to mind?  The glorious beaches of Varadero?  The cars from the 40’s and 50’s in pristine condition?  Maybe this little story will have you thinking otherwise.

You don’t have to be involved in policing for very long or at any position, sworn or civilian to quickly develop an appreciation for The Salvation Army and all that they do for the community.  I cannot begin to count the number of times during my 30 years with the London Police Service and now as a paralegal in the Criminal Courts I came into contact with someone in need who was assisted by the good men and women of The Salvation Army.

You may know the story of Captains Ron and Judi Wickens.  If you don’t, ask.  It’s the story of a fine officer, one I am proud to call my brother, who followed his training, did the right thing and regardless of being exonerated he and his family lived through very difficult times.  In 2001 they answered a higher calling and became Officers in The Salvation Army.  Through a series of coincidence (God’s plans for us) I found them in my back yard when I moved to Mississauga.  It’s been almost two years I have been attending their Corps, Erin Mills in Mississauga.

In October 2009 I saw this poster about Mission Cuba 2.  The Salvation Army was looking for volunteers to help on their second mission to Cuba.  I looked into it, applied and was accepted.  We were going to rebuild a Corps/Quarters in Baragua, Cuba.  I thought how hard would this be?  Close up shop for two weeks, fly to Cuba in April, catch some sun and forget about the rat race I left behind and relax!!!!!  What more could a fellow ask for?

Prior to leaving for Cuba I was cautioned the Mission Trip would change my life forever.  I was a bit of a sceptic because all I was going to do was help rebuild a small Corps/Quarters.  Invest a little sweat equity, hammer up some walls, throw on some siding, I was there to work!  How hard was this going to be?  After all in my policing career I had pretty much seen and experienced it all.  I was trained to cope and get the work done.  You know, it is funny how life can sneak up on you and bite you from behind…

Our team of seven (was reduced to six after the first week) was assigned to Baragua, Cuba.  The town of Baragua is almost in the centre of Cuba.  It’s the Cuban version of Winnipeg, mosquitoes, instead of being cold, very hot and they don’t have an NHL team either!  We were a seven hour bus ride from Havana.  Baragua is a small town of approximately 5,000.  As far as I could tell, no one ever had the opportunity to venture too far out of Baragua.  Baragua gained prominence in the 1860’s when the Americans built a sugar refinery which employed the town plus migrant workers.  Up until the Revolution, Baragua was quite the enterprising town with the sugar refinery chugging away.  Today, the refinery operates at approximately 10% of its potential.    In order to have the work force necessary to operate the sugar refinery migrant workers were brought in from Jamaica and the Bahamas.  Up until the Cuban Revolution, the migrant workers and their families were educated in English, French and Spanish.  For close to 90 years Baragua was an English speaking community.  I was shocked to find people in their late 60’s and older speaking English with no accent.

We arrived in Havana on Friday, April 16, 2010.  We settled into the luxury of the Martin Luther King Centre.  Team Havana would be staying there for the duration of their project.  Team Baragua would stay one night, head off to Baragua and return for the last four days of the Mission Trip.

Being new to The Salvation Army I had no idea what “Devotions” were.  Devotions were scheduled every night with a volunteer from each team taking their turn to lead.  Our fist devotions were done quietly as we were in Cuba on religious visas and were warned we could not pray out of doors.  Captain John Murray took the team to a statue of Christ.  The statue over looks Havana Harbour and the old city of Havana.  It was a gift from the French in 1936.

During the devotion John read a verse where Christ told his disciples to become His hands and feet on the earth.  John explained how he felt our mission was to take up Christ’s instructions and become His hands and feet in Cuba.  John’s short message was a premonition of things to come.

The following day, Saturday, April 17, 2010 Team Baragua loaded up the bus and headed for Baragua.

We started to work on Monday, April 19, 2010.  The old Corps which stood for 113 years had been torn down and a 720 square foot concrete pad was waiting for us.  We had until the afternoon of Wednesday, April 21 to finish building.  It was very much like Extreme Makeover – Cuban Edition.

Our team consisted of Paul and Rob (experienced carpenters/builders), Delicia (an administrative assistant), Nestor (originally from Columbia and an accountant), Dave – (Lt. Colonel with the Army), Brenda (a Captain with the Salvation Army and our fearless leader) and me (a paralegal and retired police officer) with my limited building experiences.

You can see by the pictures we got the job done in time.

Very soon into the mission I discovered something special was going on.

On the first Monday morning Brenda called for us to look toward the sun.  I had never seen this before.  We experienced a “sunbow” which is a circular rainbow around the sun.  In our case it was a double sunbow.  I could not explain what this was, but I felt in my heart and soul this was something more than special, this was a sign!  It was not until I arrived home I was able to research it.  Sunbows are reported occurring about once every two to three years.  I found out our First Nations brothers and sisters believe the sunbow is a sign from The Creator.  It is believed a sunbow is a sign of protection and positive change.  In the case of our little project in Baragua that is exactly what happened.

Our first week in Baragua was the second week of a school break.  We were the local attraction, so kids were always around.  Little Yoanki (Joanne-key) was always around as he lived right next door to the Corps.  He is seven years old.  He has undergone three brain surgeries, none of which he was to survive.  He has another one scheduled for this summer and the doctors have the same prediction.  This time last year he was recovering from his most recent surgery and could not speak.  He made up for it this year.  At the age of two he was found abandoned on the streets of Baragua by the older lady in the picture.  She is 84 years old.  She took him home, adopted him and raises him as her son.  It was touching to see the love between the two of them

I soon found out there are only two meals a day.  Breakfast which may be a piece of bread (depending on the bread ration), some milk and tea or coffee.  Bananas and coconuts grow wild and are enjoyed daily.  The next meal is supper which depending on your ration coupons is generally rice and beans and maybe, just maybe a bit of chicken or pork.  Most people in Baragua keep chickens for their eggs to supplement their diet.

It was difficult to stop and eat lunch with the kids watching.  Often Team Baragua members ended up sharing their lunch with the kids.  Yoanki took quite the attraction toward chocolate Jell-O pudding.

During a three day stretch of 100 degrees Fahrenheit days, some kind soul brought us ice-cream.  I will never forget the experience of sharing mine with two young boys.  They gently and gracefully shared the spoon with each other taking a turn, taking half a spoonful until it was gone.  I found out they never had ice-cream until that day.

My heart was being torn to pieces.  These children never begged or asked for anything and when it was shared with them they displayed a God given grace.  The nibbling on my backside was starting to intensify.

I believe it was after devotions on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 we were talking about how well things were going.  When it was my time to speak I wanted Team Baragua to know that it felt like I had known them most of my life and we had been working together as a team for years.  The Lord was looking over us and out for us.  Team Baragua was able to keep its focus and cohesiveness because we were His hands and feet on the ground.  The sunbow was more than an atmospheric anomaly.

Our second Sunday in Baragua was a day that caused me to reflect and recommit myself to Christ.  During the church service I was astonished to see a special collection being taken.  It was for the development of Missions in Nicaragua.  The Salvation Army has recently been allowed to re-establish itself in Nicaragua.  The good people of Baragua, who have nothing, ask for nothing, were freely giving toward a cause they strongly believed in.  You could feel the Spirit moving through the congregation.

On the day before I threw out a large box that a saw came in.  The lady across from our project asked if she could have it.  Hey, it’s just a box!!!  Well it was a treasure to her.  This same Sunday after the church service I saw her seven year old daughter skipping along the sidewalk in front of our project.  I will never forget what I saw next.  She was pulling what I thought was a toy along the street.  It turned out to be a piece of styrofoam from the box and she had tied a string to it.  That was her toy for the day and she was happy to have it!

That was it for me.  I found myself in my room Sunday reduced to tears.  I felt like God was asking me to empty the Atlantic Ocean with a tea cup.  My 30 years of “police coping” were completely useless to me that Sunday.  I was completely overwhelmed by the pride and grace of a people who having nothing close to what we have here in Canada, yet appear to be far happier and grounded than I could claim to be.  I, who was coming to do good deeds in Baragua was learning a lesson in humility.  The nibbling was starting to hurt!

It was Sunday, April 25, 2010 when God’s Spirit washed over me or I finally took notice of it.  I knew I had to answer His call.  I spoke in private with Brenda and asked her for her assistance.  I was baptised by emersion in 1984 at First Lobo Baptist Church outside of London, Ontario.  I now know I did it for all the wrong reasons.  I felt I had to make a public declaration while in Baragua.  With Brenda’s guidance and support I lead devotions on Tuesday, April 27, 2010.  After the devotions, surrounded by my new family, Team Baragua and again with Brenda’s leadership I was reborn and accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour.

I was completely overwhelmed by the good people of Baragua.  They stood proud, possess a strong sense of community, they are generous in body and spirit and they ask for nothing in return.  You cannot help but feeling from them their hope for better times ahead.  The new Corps was the first new anything built in Baragua since the Revolution.  That’s close to fifty years!

On Thursday, April 29, 2010, the day the new Corps/Quarters were dedicated you could feel the energy from everyone.  They were so grateful for the new Corps building.  Even a blind man could see the hope in their eyes.  This little Corps became the focus of the entire town.  It became their ‘Beacon of Hope’.

Yes, life did come up and bite me from behind.  I experienced a true awakening.  My friends have noticed a change in me.  Suddenly not having the form on the yellow piece of paper is not that important!  I would have stayed there longer if they let me.  I have signed up for next year.  Mission Cuba III – are you up to it?  If you ever have the opportunity to go on a Mission Trip – DO IT!!!!  It will be a positive change in your life that will last forever.

I am grateful for having been selected to participate in Mission Cuba 2.  A couple of weeks after my return John 15, verse 16 was read out at our service:  “You did not choose me, but I chose you…”  It is a privilege to be chosen.  With that comes an awesome responsibility to live up to.

I can sum up my experience by saying I left Cuba a richer man than when I arrived and my family is much, much larger.  Our family in Baragua have a new beacon of hope and that’s what it’s all about:  “Giving Hope Today.”  This, without a doubt has been the most rewarding experience of my life.