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Oregon UU church builds Cuban alliances

Portland-based Cuba AyUUda fosters Cuban-U.S. relations.
By Donald E. Skinner
2.28.11

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Cuba AyUUda

Members of the Cuba AyUUda group from First Unitarian Church of Portland, Ore., and their Cuban friends enjoy a picnic in a park in Havana in 2005.

There was no way to know 11 years ago that a chance conversation between Mark Slegers, minister of music at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Ore., and a Cuban music director, Digna Guerra, at the Oregon Bach Festival, would lead to something so enduring.

Because of that conversation, 50 singers from the First Unitarian choir program toured Havana in March of 2003. That trip, in which connections were made and friendships forged, has led to more than 25 trips to Cuba by Cuba AyUUda, a social justice action group from First Unitarian. A group of 10 people returned December 21.

What is remarkable is that all of these trips have been to a country that U.S. residents only have limited access to. The U.S. government imposed a partial embargo on Cuba in 1960 during the Cold War. The embargo was expanded in the 1990s, effectively limiting most contact by U.S. residents with Cuba.

There is, however, a religious exemption to the embargo. It is possible to obtain a “religious activities” license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to make trips that have a religious purpose. Thus Cuba AyUUda was born.

Carol Slegers, who is married to Mark, is the co-founder of the group and has led five of its trips. She noted that the purpose of that first trip was to use music to build bridges, but that the group quickly became involved with much more than music.

Cuba AyUUda groups—the name implies “mutual service to one another,” in Spanish—have helped with AIDS clinics, painted nursing homes, shared the work of construction and gardening, and made art and music with Cubans. They have also taken tons of medical and other supplies to Cuba over the years. A key project is one that the group took over from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee—providing cloth and other materials to a Cuban women’s group that makes baby clothes in an effort to encourage young mothers to seek prenatal care.

But those activities are secondary to the real purpose of the trips—to create friendships. “What Cuba AyUUda has that is most valuable is its network of friends in Cuba,” said Carol Slegers, now the group’s historian. “On these trips people make friends and introduce friends to others. I have become intimately involved with people’s lives there. I know when there are deaths in their families. And I’m a godmother to children there.”

There have been 25 Cuba AyUUda trips. Fourteen have involved groups of people. The rest have been by one or two people using the group’s license.

Woesha Hampson and her husband Tom traveled to Cuba in 2009 as part of Cuba AyUUda. They took with them dental, medical, and sewing supplies, including toothbrushes, dental tools, ibuprofen, and needles and thread. On one day they spent about five hours at the home of a doctor and his wife, a nurse, who were running an HIV/AIDS clinic as well as seeing other patients. “They served us Cuban coffee, and we talked about our families and our work,” she said. “They shared the difficulties of doing all that they were expected to do professionally and still survive on their small salaries. We did a lot of listening. That seemed to be the best way we could be of service.”

She said that she and Tom met with members of six different families on their trip, including locating Cuban family members of the Hampsons’ dental hygienist back in Portland. They also visited the Muraleando artists’ community in the suburbs of Havana, where they observed an art class for children, attended a salsa dance class, and met with some of the artists. Cuba AyUUda frequently carries art supplies to this group.

Slegers estimates that there are several hundred Cubans who have made meaningful connections with Cuba AyUUda travelers. The government does not allow gatherings of more than 10 to 12 people, so Cuba AyUUda meets with them a few at a time.

The requirement that Cuba AyUUda trips be focused on religious activity does not mean that First Unitarian members attempt to convert Cubans or go about holding worship services. Rather, members practice a more practical faith, said Slegers. “We define ‘religious activities’ as acting religiously all the time we are in Cuba according to the principles of our faith. Every time we interact with Cubans we are doing this. For example, if we share a meal, that’s communion.”

Hampson added, “It’s common for Cuba AyUUda groups to join in reflection at the end of a day with their Cuban support people. This often includes lighting a candle and perhaps offering a reading.”

There is a recent sign that the U.S. government may ease restrictions on Cuba. On January 14 President Obama issued a letter directing the secretaries of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security to take steps to reach out to the Cuban people.

Those steps appear to indicate that restrictions on religious groups and travel for educational purposes may be eased and that it will become easier to send limited amounts of money into Cuba. Slegers said that she hopes that with new policies, other UU congregations and even the Unitarian Universalist Association and UU Service Committee will consider engaging with Cuba.

Slegers said that there are certain guidelines that are helpful in creating cross-cultural relationships. Meet people as equals. See the holy in the other. Pay close attention to the presence of the sacred in the ordinary.

And don’t ask too many questions. “Cubans have said they like the fact we don’t quiz them about politics,” she said. “Or act like we’re interviewing them. Instead we orient our people to the concept of mutuality. We ask people to focus on making friends. We try to relate ordinary person to ordinary person.”

In turn, “Cubans say they recognize how hard it is for us to get there,” said Slegers. “They’re impressed we work that hard to get to see them. We show them that what they’ve been told of all Americans being greedy is wrong. That alone is positive.”

The insights go both ways. Cubans share environmentally sustainable practices they’ve had to develop to survive economic challenges. Slegers said the environment may be another area where Cuba AyUUda can connect with Cubans. “Because the country has not been overdeveloped there is a lot we can learn from the ecology.”

Travel goes both ways too. In March the group’s Cuban guide from its first tour in 2003, and her daughter, will visit Portland. “We’ve remained very close,” said Slegers.

Slegers believes the trips lead to more social action at home in Portland. “If you relate to people with fewer economic means you are more likely to come home and get involved with economically disadvantaged communities in your own town. It gives you a different perspective of your own privilege and what it means to be poor.”

Every trip to Cuba has its surprises, but one trip was more eventful than others. In December 2009 when a Cuba AyUUda group of 14 people arrived at the Havana airport it was refused entry to the country. Some members were detained overnight. The problem turned out to be that members needed a different type of visa than they’d previously been required to have. That incident occurred shortly after a man was arrested for illegally distributing satellite communications equipment in Cuba. That apparently caused the Cuban government to more closely scrutinize other visitors. One of the challenges of visiting Cuba, said Slegers, is that sometimes rules are enforced differently. “It’s something we have to consider each time we go.”

Linda Hunter has made three trips with Cuba AyUUda. As an African-American she said she was struck by one thing especially about Cuba. “Youth there seem to treat each other with more respect, camaraderie, humor, and support than I see here.” That gave her an idea and she came home and created a fellowship program that she hopes will entice local youth of color to go to Cuba with Cuba AyUUda. “There is so much youth-on-youth violence here and our youth seem so driven by marketing. I think that visiting Cuba could help them with self-identification and having pride in their ancestry and roots.”

Rick Fortner, director of music for All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., went to Cuba in December with the group. “It was such an eye-opening experience,” he said. “It’s the essential gospel of Jesus—love and care for your neighbor. The governments may not agree, but the people like each other.”

Jesus Magan is a freelance tour guide in Cuba and has guided many of the Cuba AyUUda trips. “We did not have relatives abroad until we met Cuba AyUUda,” he said in an email interview. “They represent for us relatives who care about us. We have been in a permanent struggle for existence here since the tightening of the economic embargo in the 1990s, and it is very rewarding to know that we are not alone. We are very thankful that Carol, Mark, and others from Portland started this fruitful channel of sincere friendship.”

Cuba AyUUda’s visibility within the congregation and Portland itself has grown as more and more people have joined the trips. “We have retreats now, with intense conversations after each trip,” said Slegers. “That has added depth to the organization. We’ve also attracted more young people.”

One of those young people, Meredith Michaud, organized a salsa party on behalf of Cuba AyUUda, an event that now happens annually and draws in people from outside the congregation. “The salsa parties bring in a very diverse crowd of Afro Cubans, Cuban Americans, Hispanics, young and older people together,” said Slegers. “We offer dance lessons and demonstrations. We’ve become a ‘with it’ group. This is one of the most diverse things happening in the congregation.” The salsa parties also raise money for Cuba AyUUda’s work.

Michaud has led two Cuba AyUUda trips. “There have been so many great moments for me,” she said. “My favorite may have been on my last trip, in December, when we visited the artists’ community. We decided to do a salsa dance lesson. All of these people from the whole community came and we had this enormous dance jam. People had an amazing time and we were drinking mango juice, and it was this wonderful spontaneous thing. I hope that we’re helping people to realize there’s this larger world out there and it’s important for all of us to think about the circumstances other people live under.”


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