Me, in the air in Cuba

This actually comes from an assignment for one of my current classes…

Joel Flew in Cuba

Mid-way through the first month of 2016, I was able to travel with a group of United Methodist seminary students to Cuba, to experience and explore the Iglesia Metodista En Cuba. I had come from a fundamentalist, charismatic/pentecostal type background and as most people who know me know, I was not receptive to such activities given years of abuse in that system. However, here I was, traveling to a place closed off to many Americans, to experience something I had thus far threatened to end in those around me.
The above picture was taken on our seventh night in country. It was at the Habana Central Iglesia Metodista, the home church of the district superintendent (Habana District) as well the church we first worshiped at upon landing. The first night, I barely clapped my hands while the Cubans around me celebrated in what I have affectionately called a moshpit. There was running, singing, laughing, dancing — and I mean dancing — as ell as this thing that some of the men did, which is to throw others into the air, catching them. I had forsaken such extemporaneous demonstrations given that my previous experience was of expected involvement, almost an enslavement to some legalistic notion of control and force. Yet in Cuba, what I began to see was not expectations, but absolute freedom in celebration, of joy and enthusiasm. After having preached on a Sunday morning, just a few days before this night —and in truth, I nearly selected that picture — my sense of commitment to this celebratory freedom had become manifest.

When we returned to Habana Central Iglesia Metodista for our final worship experience, it promised to be a rather huge night. Not only were the Americans there, but so too was the episcopal leader of the Iglesia Metodista En Cuba. Once we walked in, one young man in particular noticed me and motioned into the air — I spoke Spanish like he spoke English, and there was this unwritten rule between us that we would not torture the other’s tongue — to which I motioned the “avoid at all cost” hand signal that does not seem to have a Cuban counterpart. Sometime during the worship part of the service, I casually surrendered my effort to remain grounded, and motioned my acceptance — a nod of the head which implies, “why, yes, I dare you.” The young man gather a few of his friends together to get ready to throw me — the largest of the American party — into the air. They accomplished this feat, three consecutive times.

Here, in the midst of music I didn’t understand, of words I didn’t understand, and of demonstrations I promised to avoid, I was being thrown into the air. I could smell the sweat necessary to an active celebration of freedom in God. I could feel numerous hands and arms strengthening as they sought to launch me — perhaps with more thrust than needed to move a metal ship off this planet — and I could feel the nervous apprehension surrounding me. But, it was just me that was nervous. The Cuban Methodists had no fear because in that moment, they were absolutely free and all powerful. Perhaps something symbolic can be seen here: Cuban Methodists, giving strength and flight to the American — one side in complete freedom while the other side surrendered. All of this made it into my mind then and in the days hence.

It is a place I have since returned to since landing in Miami and making my way back to West Virginia. But even now, iimmediately, I am taken back to the three seconds I flew in the air above Cuba, not by the power of a machine, but by the sheer strength in brotherhood of my fellow Wesleyans, albeit of the Cuban side. While exuberant gladness abounded, dysphoria existed as well. While I was joyful, my longstanding grief resounded, recalling what I had experienced before while growing up. But that anxiety evaporated as many of those old open wounds closed. My fears and doubts, my hurt and angry tears hiding behind my stoic eyes, left me as I left the ground. I would assume they are still there, in the air somewhere above Cuba, because when I landed, there was something new about me. Something healed.

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5 Replies to “Me, in the air in Cuba”

  1. While I never got much past the runway at Gitmo in Cuba, a more extensive and varied exposure to the Caribbean revealed, as you pointed out, an exuberance and spontaneity typically absent in the United States. One reason may be, especially in traditional environments, houses lack sealed glass windows and whirring air conditioner motors.

  2. How I would love to experience freedom in worship like this. My daughter is in a pentecostal congregation but it is almost a “must” or a requirement of their worship not a freedom. Wonderful description.

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