From January 22–29, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Willie Baptist, and Shailly Gupta Barnes from the Kairos Center joined the Popular Education Project‘s delegation to an educational and cultural exchange with the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba. Organized by Pastor Claudia de la Cruz, from the Bronx, NY and co-founder of Da Urban Butterflies, the MLK Center has a long-established relationship with Pastors for Peace. In Cuba, it has developed a network of popular educators and religious leaders that reaches hundreds of communities across the country. This photo essay captures some of the delegation’s reflections from the trip.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, Havana, was founded in 1947, in the Marianao district of Havana as part of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the Cuban Revolution unfolded in 1959, 70 percent of the country’s church leaders fled. Those church leaders who remained relied increasingly on lay leadership and pastors from different denominations to meet the Cuban people’s religious and spiritual needs. In 1971, some of these pastors and religious figures met at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to develop a new theological basis for their work that was coming out of their communities’ experiences and deep religious beliefs.
The religiosity of the Cuban people is not well known in the United States, even though it is clearly a part of every day life. My then five-month old son, Michael Ishaan, joined us on the trip and he received blessings everywhere we went. “Que Dios lo bendiga” was the phrase I heard most often during the week.
Rev. Raul Suarez was one of the religious leaders who joined this early ecumenical movement. He was the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1971-2005 and founded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, which is next door to the church, in 1987. Two of the key texts that Rev. Suarez has turned to in his work are Rev. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham” and his 1967 sermon, “Beyond Vietnam.”
Over the past 30 years, the MLK Center has established a network of religious leaders grounded in liberation theology as well as a network of popular educators across the country. It has developed strong regional relationships, especially with Latin American social movements, alongside its work in facilitating peace processes in El Salvador, Colombia and Haiti. It has also been an important liaison in U.S.-Cuba relations through its educational and cultural exchange programs.
Part of our time at the MLK Center was towards developing a deeper appreciation for popular education pedagogy and methodology. The Popular Education Project is a collective of popular educators and organizers who have decades of experience in leadership development and movement-building. PEP is a key partner in building a New Poor People’s Campaign. Over the next several months, PEP will be working towards developing the educational, curricular and communications components of the NPPC. It is also participating in the Standing Commission of the National Truth Commission for the NPPC.
There was also a cultural component to the exchange program. For this part of the trip, we visited with the Escuela Latino Americana de Medicina, a national medical school that offers free medical training to students from all around the world.
In 1959, Cuba faced a severe shortage of trained medical professionals when half of its 3000 doctors left the country. Since that time, the country has developed a medical program that enabled Cuba to train and send brigades of doctors around the world, and especially to places where there are doctor shortages, such as in Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. When the Ebola outbreak hit parts of West Africa, the Cuban government asked for 400 volunteer doctors to provide medical services to impacted communities. More than 2,000 doctors answered this call.
The Escuela Latino Americana de Medicina was established in 1998 to extend Cuba’s medical training program to people coming from other countries. Since that time, it has graduated more than 27,000 medical doctors from the Americas (North, South and Central), the Caribbean, Oceanic countries, Europe, Asia and Africa.
This commitment to healthcare was an especially moving part of the exchange. Healthcare remains out of reach for millions of people in the United States – whether it is due to how costly it is, closures of rural hospitals and dwindling service provision, or politics being used to deny poor people health insurance. To see what was possible in the poor country – and to hear of its commitment to health crises all around the world – put in stark contrast how the wealth of the United States has not been put to the service of its people, let alone those around the world.
Another highlight of this exchange was our visit to the Afro-Caribbean Women’s Group, also in Marianao. This was an intergenerational group of women who offered their services and time to making toys for children, including to send to children in Haiti, providing health services and classes for seniors, and continuing to advance racial and gender equity in Cuba. Among some of the classes they gave to seniors were ballet and sex ed, because, as one woman told us, “the eyes do not get old.”
One 70-year old woman at the meeting described herself as an epidemiologist, popular educator and lifelong revolutionary. She had had the opportunity to visit Chicago a couple of years ago and was dismayed at both the conditions facing youth in the city as well as, as she perceived, their general disengagement from social and political action. She very clearly saw on her trip that poverty and inequality were at the core of the challenges youth and communities were experiencing in Chicago. Upon hearing of efforts to build a New Poor People’s Campaign that could bring the poor and dispossessed together around their common needs and demands, she and others in the group expressed great support and appreciation. They had not often met with delegations from the United States who revealed the reality of what is unfolding in our country, including what efforts are emerging to change those conditions.
What was most moving about this group was that they were caring for children as well as seniors, providing for their recreational, social and emotional needs. And this work of theirs was understood as part of the ongoing project of social transformation. That is, while Cuba has achieved a 99 percent literacy rate and universal healthcare, there are still social conditions that demand attention in Cuba and there are many groups around the country that are organizing and educating around those conditions.
It is this deep commitment to people – and our very human needs – that has developed into a widespread responsibility to building a society where all human life is truly valued. As indicated in the response around Ebola, this is not limited to Cuba. Rather, it is an accountability to anywhere where human dignity is being threatened, because, as Rev. Dr. King wrote in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Indeed, the people are the revolution. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.