Thinking Out Loud

February 20, 2017

Two Worlds: The Cuba Caste System

poverty-in-veradero

Perhaps it’s not a caste system the way we normally use the phrase, but there was something eerie about the way two worlds seem to coexist in Cuba: The tourists and those who work in tourism.

In one resort at Varadero, a tunnel is used to get workers from the street into the basement level of the hotel. There were no doubt staff entrances at all of the 40-or-so resorts on the peninsula, but it was the tunnel that caught our eye.

Workers arrive by bus, not the air-conditioned ones known to the tourists, or even the double-decker versions, but older, hotter, more crowded ones.

For the non-tourists, there is also a different currency. We paid for things in CUCs, the convertible, tourist version of the Cuban Peso. Residents pay in CUPs. One Cuban Convertible Peso equals 24.728383 Cuban Pesos. Some stores accept the one, some accept the other, some accept both.

So we find ourselves in a country where there are two sets of currencies, two sets of buses, two types of taxicabs, etc…

…Another lifetime ago, I worked for a musician who played a number of Jewish venues including the banquet halls of major hotels as well as synagogues. It was customary to unload and load equipment through a service elevator or even through a kitchen. I am personally acquainted with what it means to be part of the service staff in a place where, on the other side of the wall, wealthy people are enjoying unlimited food, drink and entertainment.

There was something about this trip however where it reflected differently. I was, for seven short days, one of the rich tourists. As noted in yesterday’s article, for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. As noted the day before, there is something unsettling at the fragility of the curtain which separated our tour guide from we tourists.

I say that not because I’m not wanting to associate with the waiters and chambermaids, but rather because I don’t want them to be invisible; don’t want them to have to be quietly ushered in through a tunnel…

…Last week in the Canadian parliament, a member stood up and mentioned in passing that before his government career he was a bus driver. And guess what reaction that got?

The members of the opposition party laughed at him.

I want to emulate the Nazarene who “humbled himself, taking on the role of a servant.” I want to be able to come alongside the waiter who is carrying too many plates, or grab the other corner of the bed-sheet while the maid makes up the room.

But the world doesn’t like it when those barriers are not firmly set in place.


Thanks for your indulgence during these 3 articles. There’s one more which will come a few days later, as I want to share our impressions in a tourist environment that is devoid of Americans and consider the potential of an influx of US tourists on Cuba.

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February 19, 2017

Third World Exposure

havana-back-streetsI have been privileged to work in a variety of areas of ministry: For a local church, for a Christian book distributor, for a Christian music distributor, for a Christian book publisher, for two Christian camp ministries, for a Christian television ministry, for an international Bible distributor, as a teacher in a Christian school, for a local Christian newspaper, for two nationally distributed Christian magazines, for a Christian arts organization… well, you get the idea.

Always missing from my resumé was what I termed “third world missions exposure.” Essentially, I am a missions trip that never happened. I became aware of this at one of the camps I worked for:

The mission agency people knew very little about Christian camping or even youth ministry in general…but their third world exposure meant they had good organizational skills, an ability to adapt, and a variety of gifts. Overall, I think the kids who attended that year got their money’s worth from this diversity, even if things at the senior staff level were a constant tug of war…Parachuting people from other ministry disciplines into unfamiliar contexts is not always a great idea. I felt that within their own missions-and-development tribe, there were probably reasons to respect some of these people, not to mention their willingness to take on the camp challenge at the last minute.

As I mentioned yesterday, we finally had an opportunity to go to Cuba last week. Our first time on an airplane in 28 years. We debated whether as a nation, Cuba can be considered “third world.” My wife suggested “second world.” Political science is not my long-suit, but given Cuba’s ties to the former Soviet Union, it might fit the definition. These days however, the term describes economic status, not political alignment. Cuba is not undeveloped; their education system alone ought to be the envy of many western countries.

veradero-back-streets

Regardless, it was definitely my first direct exposure to poverty on a scale I never envisioned. Further, I never imagined how much it would affect me, seeing this now, at this stage of life. Would it have shaped my life differently to have this experience much younger? Perhaps, but in ways I will never know.

Posting a number of pictures to Facebook, my wife wrote:

When we got home, we calculated that for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. Even the tour he hosted would be a months’ work.

I think knowing that helps me to appreciate the experience and to enjoy it more, while recognizing my privileged place and being humbled by it.

We are forever changed.

havana-downtown

 

 

February 18, 2017

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:44 am

cardenas

It wasn’t exactly breaking the fourth wall as is usually defined, but it was a moment in our trip to Cuba where the wall between the lives of the villagers and the rich tourists on the air-conditioned bus was momentarily shattered.

Sitting on the bus weaving through a number of towns and villages was exactly what we wanted to see. “Today,” the tour guide intoned, “You will see the real Cuba.” It took me awhile to think about the implications of this: In other words, what you’re seeing in the tourist resorts is not the real Cuba. Actually both tour guides on both days used “the real Cuba” phrase.

Our guide the second day was more than willing to talk about every aspect of village life. What things costs. How the free university education system works. The age to vote. The parliamentary system. Asking us questions about how similar things transpire back home. Sitting at the front of the bus each time so that we had access to the tour guides was strategic on my part. It meant being able to engage in conversation and ask questions throughout the entire 9 hours (the village tour) or 11 hours (Havana).

In a very strange way, the tour guide was, in my mind at least, slowly becoming one of us. Speaking perfect English (in the first case) or both English and French (in the second case.) It was easy to forget that the well-dressed young man sitting one row in front of me holding a microphone was actually a member of the culture in one of the towns where stopped.

That is until…

I was looking around and not fully paying attention when he picked up the microphone and said, “My house is two blocks that way. You can all come for dinner; we’re having rice and eggs.”

It took a minute for that to sink in. I quietly whispered to my wife, “Did he just say…”

In that moment I was totally wrecked…

…When we got back to the hotel I told this story a few times to some other people we had met from Canada. But I couldn’t do it without breaking up.

It’s one thing to sit on a tour bus — the analogy we used a few times was of people traveling to Pennsylvania to look at the Amish — but it’s a whole other thing when you’ve spent several hours getting to know personally one of the people who is part of the tableau spreading out before you.

It wasn’t a particularly attractive neighborhood.* Not one you or I would choose. And for dinner that night, back at the resort, we would be eating far more than rice and eggs.

I’ll write more tomorrow about the impact the poverty had on me.


*We didn’t take a lot of pictures in that particular town. The one at the top is borrowed from a tourism site. It’s a contemporary image, not something out of a movie recreation. The image below is one we took in Havana. We’re 99% sure that’s someone’s home. She was talking on the phone up to a 30 seconds before we took the picture.

habana

February 6, 2017

What it Means to be a “Christian Country”

Canadian and U.S. dollar coins

Greg Boyd’s book The Myth of a Christian Nation notwithstanding, many people believe that the nation whose currency proclaims ‘In God We Trust’ is indeed “a Christian Nation.”

Canada has no such illusions. Religious pluralism is normative across most provinces. We refer to ourselves as “a cultural mosaic.”

However this past week we saw an interesting inversion of national stereotypes. In a front page article Saturday in Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, The Star, Robert Benzie writes:

Ontario is flinging open its operating-room doors to provide health care for foreign children whose life-saving surgeries stateside have been cancelled due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

In the wake of Trump’s temporary immigration ban against citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which has affected thousands of families, Health Minister Eric Hoskins offered a prescription to help.

“This is a particular subset of children who require life-saving surgery, so, absent that surgery, they will certainly die,” Hoskins told reporters Friday afternoon at Queen’s Park…

…“What we’re saying is that Canada is a country that has always looked to ways that it could reach out and support vulnerable people around the world.”

Hoskins, a former aid worker in the Middle East and Africa and co-founder of War Child Canada, a non-governmental organization that helps kids from war zones, said Toronto’s world-renowned Hospital for Sick Children is on the case.

“SickKids has been approached by a number of hospitals in the United States with regard to a number of cases,” he said, noting most are for “highly specialized cardiac care” for infants as young as 4 months old…

…continue reading the full article at TheStar.com

Obviously this is a developing story and the United States is making concessions in many cases, but in the meantime, the Canadian province is acting consistent with the federal government’s posture of an open door as indicated in the Prime Minister’s tweets:

This at the same time as a prominent Christian author, familiar to readers here, Ann Voskamp shows up in Washington, DC:

Back to the children needing charity, it does appear that the not-so-Christian nation is espousing Jesus-like charity, while the Christian nation is simply sending a confusing message to the rest of the world as to its commitment to compassion.

January 24, 2017

Hot Button Issues

Filed under: Christianity, current events — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:10 am

In 1990, the name George Barna was less familiar to us than it is today. That year he published the landmark book, The Frog in the Kettle, which was a sort of Future Shock for Christians. Yesterday I came across a publication which had been given permission to excerpt some of the data from the book and found this comparison, under the header “Causes that Stimulate Action” rather interesting.

the-frog-in-the-kettleIn the 1960s

  • Racial equality
  • Women’s liberation
  • Industrial pollution
  • Rent control
  • World peace
  • Police brutality
  • Urban development
  • Cold war
  • Government regulation
  • Poverty
  • International imperialism
  • Cancer
  • Birth control
  • Sexual immorality

Then, 30 years later:

In the 1990s

  • Environmental protection
  • Substance abuse
  • Neighborhood crime
  • Global economic stability
  • Nuclear disarmament
  • Foreign investment
  • Corporate ethics
  • Abortion
  • Garbage
  • Heath care costs
  • AIDS
  • Poverty
  • Illiteracy
  • Public transportation
  • Information management
  • Water conservation
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Medical ethics
  • Elder care

Now we’re just three years away from a future header, “In the 2020s.” Would our list in three years be as different from the ’90s as the ’90s was different from the ’60s? How many of our concerns then will reflect the great technical revolution that has taken place since the ’90s in general and the Internet in particular? (Though there is a concern regarding artificial intelligence.)

And what would return from previous lists? I look at police brutality in that ’60s list and it seems like we’re still dealing with that. The word pollution in the first list resurfaces as water conservation and garbage in the second list. Cold war as a phrase is replaced by nuclear disarmament.

The criterion, causes that stimulate action is also interesting. Maybe in 2020 it will be causes that stimulate hashtags. I wonder if action now looks a little different than action then.

Any suggestions as to what might be on a 2020 list, if George Barna decides to revisit this?

November 19, 2015

Where Do We Go Post-Paris?

Filed under: Christianity, current events, issues, social justice — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:19 am

a guest post by Rick Webster*

To read this at source, click on the original title below:

Paris. Now What?

A few days ago there was a murderous rampage by members of the terrorist group ISIS on the streets of Paris. In light of such horrific events, and in their wake of the emotional trauma and fear, I’m left wondering what the Christian faith has to offer at times like these. Distance removes most of us from the victims, and takes us out of orbit to their pain. Few of the people reading this, if any, will have a role in directly comforting the victims, their families and loved ones. But you don’t need to be a Christian to comfort the afflicted. You just need to be a decent human being. So what does Christ-like faith have to offer the world at at time like this? Three thoughts come to mind:

  1. Transformative Justice. The work of the prophets is to call the nations of Israel and Judah to justice. Life in the ancient world was lived under the tremendous burdens of empire. Taxation was oppressive and political and economic systems were designed to keep the poor trapped in horrific poverty while the wealthy reaped the benefits of exploitation. There was no middle class in the ancient world; there were only the incredibly wealthy and the victims who supported their wealthy lifestyle. The Christian faith, at its core, calls for a radical reevaluation of how we live. To live with justice as per the ethos of the prophets and of Jesus Christ is to radically change the way we interact with others, bringing freedom from oppression, corruption and crushing poverty – the very conditions which radical fundamentalism needs to thrive.
  2. The Incarnation. One of the foundations  of Christian faith is the belief that Jesus is divine, and that he took on human form. Jesus being clothed in humanity is known as “The Incarnation.” The reason why our efforts in the middle east (and elsewhere) have failed so spectacularly, and continue to fail, and will continue to fail, is because we operate from the basis of empire to conquered people, and our work in the world suffers from colonialism and ethnocentrism. We operate from the perspective that if failing nation states are going be successful, they’re going to be like us, thus perpetuating the evils of our world. If we are to truly follow the way of Christ we are to become embedded in the culture of those we care about. If we are to follow the way of Christ we become a part of the social, cultural, political and economic lives of our friends. We can only effect positive change in the world, particularly in the middle east, from within the body of the ‘other’.
  3. Self-sacrificial Service. If we are to take the words of Matthew’s Gospel at face value, then we cannot help but acknowledge that Jesus “…came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Clearly, Jesus operated from a position of powerlessness, but the objective of his philosophy was to be a ransom – a rescue or redemption – for others. The Christian faith, as lived by it’s most noble practitioners, brings rescue or redemption to those enslaved, oppressed and to those denied hope. It takes a particular depth of faith to live with justice when we realize that we are the oppressor. The authentic voice of faith does not ask “How can I make you like me?” but rather, “How can I help you reach your full potential?”

I’m not naive enough to realize that we can live in a world without armies, and that our history will not continue to be blood-soaked and violent. But the Christian faith, contrary to popular belief and popular practice, is a radical, revolutionary call to live with justice and mercy, and offers the world compassion, redemption and hope. What Christian faith offers the world is the hope that this world, here and now, can be a better place and a vision for how we might get there.


*Rick Webster is the pastor of Third Space Church in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada and the author of Introducing Jesus: A Heart to Heart Encounter with the Most Influential Person in History.

 

September 15, 2015

Imagine 100 Jets Crash Killing 26,000…and the Next Day it Happens Again

World Vision president Richard Stearns in the book, The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World (Thomas Nelson, ECPA Christian Book of the Year, 2009)

Whenever a major jetliner crashes anywhere in the world, it inevitably sets off a worldwide media frenzy covering every aspect of the tragedy.  I want you to imagine for a moment that you woke up this morning to the following headline:  “One Hundred Jetliners Crash, Killing 26,500.”  Think of the pandemonium this would create across the world as heads of state, parliaments and congresses convened to grapple with the nature and causes of this tragedy.  Think about the avalanche of media coverage that it would ignite around the globe as reporters shared the shocking news and tried to communicate its implications for the world.  Air travel would no doubt grind to a halt as governments shut down airlines and panicked air travelers cancelled their trips.  The National Transportation Safety Board and perhaps the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement  agencies and their international equivalents would mobilize investigations and dedicate whatever manpower was required to understand what happened and to prevent it from happening again.

Now imagine that the very next day, one hundred more planes crashed – and one hundred more the next, and the next, and the next.  It is unimaginable that something this terrible could ever happen.

But it did – and it does.

It happened today, and it happened yesterday.  It will happen again tomorrow.  But there was no media coverage.  No heads of state, parliaments or congresses stopped what they were doing to address the crisis and no investigations were launched.  Yet more than 26,500 children died yesterday of preventable causes related to their poverty, and it will happen again today and tomorrow and the day after that.  Almost 10 million children will be dead in the course of a year.  So why does the crash of a single plane dominate the front pages of newspapers across the world while the equivalent of one hundred planes filled with children crashing daily never reaches our ears?  And even though we now have the awareness, the access,  and the ability to stop it, why have we chosen not to?  Perhaps one reason is that these kids who are dying are not our kid; they’re somebody else’s.

pp 106-107

January 15, 2011

Winning the Life Lottery

The very fact you’re reading this on a computer places you among the wealthiest of the seven billion or so people who inhabit the planet.  While the evening news brings reports of devastation in Haiti or political uprising in Tunisia, most of you are enjoyed a much less stressful week.

I frequently visit The Ad Collector, a blog which features the best of advertising campaigns from around the world, with a special focus on adverts for non-profits and public service organizations.  A month ago they featured a Swedish series of billboard-type display ads  under the caption, The Lottery of Life which juxtaposed life in Sierra Leone, Darfur, Palestine and The Phillipines with life in Sweden, with the aim of getting people to visit a website sponsored by Save The Children. (If you have high-speed internet, enter your name and spin the wheel to see how things might have worked out differently.)

But is it just a spin of the wheel that you ended up in the UK, or the US, or Canada, or New Zealand, or some other less troubled place? I’m not a huge fan of this poem by Roy Lesson, founder of Dayspring cards — I can’t believe I’m actually posting it —  because they tend to plaster it all over so many pieces of merchandise they create, including seasonal variants, but if you believe in the sovereignty of God, your geographic placement has to be more than just the random spinning of a giant wheel…

Just think,
you’re here not by chance,
but by God’s choosing.
His hand formed you
and made you the person you are.
He compares you to no one else.
You are one of a kind.
You lack nothing
that His grace can’t give you.
He has allowed you to be here
at this time in history
to fulfill His special purpose
for this generation.

-Roy Lessin

Notice I did not say, “if you had been born somewhere else;” because some would argue that then you would not be you. Nonetheless, you are a product of your environment generally, and its geography in particular. This ought to fill you with much gratitude to God, especially in light of these pictures which remind you of the conditions in all the other places around the world.   Conditions that exist right here, right now, even as you sip your beverage in a comfortable chair reading these lines…

So what is our response?

Photo captions: Hold your mouse over each picture for the caption; or, respectively the pictures are Sierra Leone, Darfur, Palestine and The Philippines.

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