Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Castro, Cuba, Caridad and Elian

By now, the world has heard the news of Fidel Castro’s resignation. Castro has been in power since before I was born. What I write here today in this blog may seem totally disconnected, but I offer it anyway.

I mean, I long ago realized that all of us and all things are connected. Somehow, we just seem to miss the mark. It seems that we are often unable to connect the dots that connect us all And so today, I’d like to share how I, in my own way, am connected to what is happening in Cuba today.

First of all, let me say that since my high school years I have had a desire to visit Cuba. . .the people, the grassroots community. . Since my high school days I have had the desire to really meet and get to know the people and their culture. I don’t mean the politics and powers. My desire has been to visit and get to know the children of God who live on the island of Cuba.

I’m not sure what fueled that desire. I only know that it began burning in me as a teenager. I began my adult life. . .living, working, raising children, etc., etc. . .and that desire to visit Cuba never subsided. On the contrary, it only grew as the years went by.

Eventually, I began to work in a rather larger Detroit parish. As soon as I started. . .within the first two weeks. . .I was contacted by Raquel and her husband. The Cuban community of the Archdiocese of Detroit gather each year to celebrate the feast of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity). This celebration would take place about one month after my coming to this parish.

And so, I met with Raquel and Mingo. She began to tell me the story of Our Lady of Charity. (Perhaps I’ll write the story out in another blog entry.) She also handed me a cassette tape and some music. "I know it might be hard for you to learn all of this in time," she stated, " but if you only have time to learn one song, then learn this one." Intrigued, I asked why this particular song was more important than the others.

It was a hymn in Honor of Our Lady of Charity. How she replied brings me to tears, even today. She said that the text to this particular hymn was one she sang as a child in Cuba. But then they were told they were not permitted to sing it anymore.

In that instant I realized what it means to be free to worship. I, for one, cannot imagine celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12th each year without singing some of my favorite Guadalupe hymns.

I cannot imagine Christmas, Easter, or any other religious feast without being able to freely choose what songs I sing.

Needless to say, I learned the song she requested of me. In fact, I learned all of them. Spanish translations of The Lourdes Melody and O Sanctissima would not have sufficed and I knew that. While these are beautiful Marian hymns, they are only substitutes for those Marian hymns to Our Lady of Charity that this particular community was not permitted to sing.

These folks had a very decisive vision of what they wanted in these celebrations. This inspired me. For the fact of the matter is, that while in the United States we are free to worship there are many who approach the liturgy lukewarm, if they approach it at all.

I continued to meet with Raquel and others from the Cuban community over the years that I served in this parish. And I realized that they, at least those that I met and worked with, had twice experienced a diaspora: Once when they came to the United States and another within the church itself. The stories they shared make me shake me head and wonder how, at times, the church itself, manages to be unable to connect the dots.

And so, all of this really only served to increase my desire to one day visit Cuba.

And then one day there was a very handsome young man from Cuba who tugged at my heart strings. This young man’s name is Elian Gonzalez.

I’m certain you are familiar with his story. . .how his mother left Cuba with him and a few others. But Elian’s mother died during the journey. Elian was found floating on the waters by some fishermen and brought to shore.

The great debate was that he was not a refugee because he didn’t freely step on shore, he was carried to shore. Also, his father had legal custody of the child when his mother left Cuba with him.

And yet, I could not enter the debate. I could only be filled with love for this amazing little boy.
His mother and others died. That was reason enough for me to care. That was reason enough.

I understood the sense of desperation that caused his mother to risk her very life to bring her son to the United States. And so I prayed for her soul, may she rest in peace, and I pray for her son.

I understood the sense of loss his father felt knowing that his son was taken from him by his ex-wife. And so I prayed for him, too.

The political struggle came to a climax when Elian was taken from his Florida family so that he could be returned to family in Cuba. Elian was taken at gunpoint during the wee hours of the morning, Holy Saturday morning.

At that moment, I began to pray for Elian. While the world focused on legalities and who had custody, I decided to detach myself from all of the politics and issues and just pray.

It was Holy Saturday morning. How could I not pray? Since then there is not a Holy Week gone by that I do not pray earnestly for this young man. And as the church moves toward Divine Mercy Sunday, my novena is always filled with prayers for Elian.

The famous photo of Elian being taken by away by an INS agent shot around the world at the speed of internet. This photo eventually won the photographer a Pulitzer prize. But, I must admit, I often wonder and worry about what that photo won for Elian.

And perhaps the reason that Elian has so touched my heart is that he is the same age as my son. Every time I see or think of that photo I think, "What if this were my son?"

And, so I began to pray for him as much as I do for my own children.

My son doesn’t do a thing without my saying a prayer for him and one for Elian. When my son began Middle school, I wondered about Elian’s school and said a prayer for him. When my son plays football and basketball, I wonder about Elian’s sports activities and I pray for him. When my son won the spelling bee, I wondered about and prayed for Elian’s academic success.

When my son made his Confirmation I thanked God for that freedom to worship, for that freedom to celebrate the sacrament, and I prayed for Elian.

When my son forgets to take out the garbage or needs to reminded to change the kitty litter. . . I think about and pray for Elian.

And I will say prayer for Elian when my son starts driver’s ed, when my son goes to prom, when my son graduates. . .But I will also pray for him during all of those little moments that parents treasure.

When my son asks me questions about the presidential elections, about 911, about immigration. . .I say a prayer of thanksgiving that my son is growing up and he is listening and aware. I say another prayer for Elian as he is growing up, too.

Elian Gonzalez was just six-years-old when the world met him. Today he is 14. That was about the age I was when the desire to visit Cuba first entered my thoughts. If for no other reason, I would hope that those reading this blog would say a prayer for Elian because he is a teenager, a teenager whose mother is deceased. That should be reason enough to say a prayer.

I do not know what Castro’s resignation will mean for Cuba, for Raul Castro, for Cuba / U.S. relations, for the people of Cuba, for Elian. But I offer prayers for all of the above. "Our Father. . .your will be done."

I realize that I may never be able to visit Cuba. But you know, after all of these years, it really doesn’t matter anymore. Cuba has visited my heart. And I am ever grateful that I have been able to connect the dots. I hope and pray that others will be able to do the same.

Our Lady of Charity, Patroness of Cuba; Pray for us.

St. Monica, Patroness of Christian mothers; Pray for us.

St. Alban, Patron of Refugees; Pray for Us.

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About the picture: This is an image of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Patroness of Cuba with the three "Juans" she appeared to.

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