In the early 1990’s New England Yearly Meeting and Cuba Yearly Meeting established el Puente de Amor (the Bridge of Love), a sister relationship based on religious intervisitation between the two groups. Since then Puente has changed and nurtured Friends in both places by encouraging us to reach beyond linguistic, cultural, and political barriers to discover our spiritual bonds as fellow Quakers.

Several years later Monadnock Meeting was further paired in a sister relationship with Gibara, a monthly meeting in Cuba. Whenever NEYM is able to sponsor Cuban visitors from Gibara, we look forward to welcoming them into our Meeting family. Monadnock has sent two groups – in 2000 and in 2007 – and individuals from our meeting have had other opportunities to travel there as well. In 2009, six months after the devastation of Hurricane Ike, Margaret Hawthorn visited Gibara to personally convey Monadnock’s prayers and concerns for the people we have come to know and care about.

Gibara Travelers Report to Monadnock Friends
January 18, 2008

Thank you so much for your support in the preparation for our trip, and for holding us in prayer during our travels. We all felt held in the love of our home meeting as we visited with our brothers and sisters in Gibara. We would like to share the following reflections.

I felt a deep love and compassion among people. We were really accepted into their lives. There’s a deep network of support they have for one another, and to be accepted into that was really healing for me.

I appreciated the opportunity to both work and play together with our Cuban family, and the moments of deep discussion about our spiritual lives.

This was a precious experience to rekindle friendships I’d made in 2001, to see how the children have grown, to worship and sing with Cuban Friends again, and to experience the difference in their meeting from when I had been there before. At the same time, it was strengthening our home community in NH.

I appreciated our daily check-ins and support we had for each other and the deepening of our relationships as part of the bigger journey. The age diversity in our group was wonderful.

I appreciated the Gibara Young Friends who were so eager to show us things and take us places in the evening and plan things out for us. I also appreciated the presence of the younger children.

Because I didn’t speak the language, I was even more aware of the warmth in learning to share with people in other ways than spoken language.

I really appreciated the music. I enjoyed singing multiple times a day, for almost every event – also the vocal prayer and the cultural expectation that any member of the church would stand and give testimony or pray.

There was great joy among the children as they made and played with the shooting stars [a Sunday morning craft project], and among five women who received clothing and other gifts to distribute as Three Kings Day presents for members of the church.

I really liked the time of year that we went. Neat time to be there right after Christmas, and it was a really good way to start the New Year.

Advance preparation within the group was very helpful, especially discussing ahead of time our individual vulnerabilities.

Unstructured social time in people’s homes – playing games, telling jokes, sharing more about our lives - was a good way to move to a deeper level.

When I was in Gibara with FUM three years ago, members of Gibara pulled me aside and asked when Monadnock was going to send a group again. This felt like the fulfillment of commitment.

Gibara Travel Report to Monadnock Friends
April 16-23, 2009 After seeing photos and hearing reports of Hurricane Ike’s devastation, I arrived in Cuba prepared to find much of Gibara in rubble. ¡Qué sopresa! Amazing clean-up and reconstruction had taken place in the time since Ike made landfall there last September. Individuals continue with major and minor renovations, much of the seawall is down, and in a few places the road along the sea is washed out, but the town feels vital.

Studying the ceiling of Gibara Friends Church, I couldn’t tell which part had blown off until I was shown. The other buildings – dormitory, dining hall and its new upstairs addition, and pastors’ house – were in good shape. Velasco Friends, thirty or forty miles away, fared worse. They lost the entire roof of their church.

The storm still looms huge in people’s minds. Conversations quickly turned to el ciclone – stories of where people rode out the storm, how much damage their homes sustained, how intense the wind had been, and so on, usually mentioning a miraculous piece: “In Cuba no one died, ¡Gracias a Diós!” Wind, more than flooding, caused the most damage, leaving spotty destruction almost like a tornado. In the same block, one building was leveled while another had stood pretty well.

Several church members still have much work to do on their homes. One person has rebuilt his home entirely. Another crowds with her brother and her aging parents into one half of their house while they dig out the other side. Still another showed me where his dining room used to be (now a concrete slab under open sky). He has moved his bed into the kitchen while he works to shore up walls of his bedroom. “Poco a poco,” he said. * * * * * * * * * * * *

We didn’t play dominoes this time. My main focus for this trip was to convey in person Monadnock’s love and concern after the storm. However, the timing was such that my visit piggy-backed with a USFW (United Society of Friends Women) trip to attend the Cuban Friends Women’s annual gathering in April. This gave me two hats to wear – sister meeting and USFW. The USFW group met several times and emailed frequently to develop group cohesiveness before the trip. Although that effort went well, I missed the strong feeling of meeting-to-meeting community-building that we experienced a year ago between Monadnock and Gibara, in which playing games and working side by side had been key ingredients.

That said, there were definite high points around the sister relationship. With the wonderful flair for drama that I associate particularly with Gibara Friends, the bandannas became bandito masks, Gypsy scarves, and neck kerchiefs. Folks pored over the book of photos, reminiscing about last year’s visit. I loved when people asked about Monadnock members who have been there before, because it reinforced that the relationship is lasting. Besides wanting to hear about everyone from the most recent trip, some people still remembered and asked about the Colbys and Jennifer Roy, who were there eight years ago.

The work of our meeting’s Gibara Committee is important to nurture the relationship between visits – especially letter writing. Ideally, I would like to see Monadnock send a group every two to three years. Both continuity (repeat visitors) and mixing it up with new faces enrich the relationship.

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At the Women’s Gathering, two large events in the life of Cuba Yearly Meeting were observed. Maulio Ajo, an elderly gentleman who served both as clerk of CYM and pastor at Holguín and one or two other meetings over many years, died a few days before we arrived. Maulio had been one of a handful of leaders who chose to stay after the Revolution and helped hold the Cuban Friends Church together through some of its most difficult years. Also, Ramón Gonzáles and Rosario Concepción, who are now among the older generation of pastors, celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. All of their children (including two who live in Havana) and grandchildren were present for the celebration.

The NEYM USFW group was asked to bring a craft project for the Women’s Gathering. We took an assortment of possibilities – makings for sachets, eyeglass cases, little purses, etc, and origami paper for those who didn’t want to sew. As is often the case when I am at the center of a craft project in Cuba, chaos reigned while fifty or more women got set up with felt, embroidery thread, sequins, bits of ribbon, or origami paper. Many of them were skilled seamstresses, so it was mostly a matter of providing the materials and watching creativity flower.

A few days later we walked with Rosario to Pueblo Nuevo, a village on the outskirts of Gibara. Rosario leads adult and children’s services in a tiny mission building in Pueblo Nuevo, and does a lot of house ministry around the village. After we visited several women in their homes, we made plans to come back and repeat the sewing project, since a number of them hadn’t been at the gathering in Gibara.

The second sewing project was more sedate, with four North Americans, eight Cuban women, and one baby in a circle in the living room of one of Pueblo Nuevo’s elders. We chatted, sang songs, and took turns holding the baby as we sewed. Then one of the Pueblo Nuevo women suggested, “Let’s talk about our spiritual challenges.”

After that the conversation went deep, as often happens when women sew together. Listening to our hosts share, I thought about aspects of Cuban Friends’ spirituality that have drawn me back there so many times. In cultures living close to the bone, interdependence, sharing from the bottom of the pot as well as the top, and ongoing intercessory prayer are woven more integrally into everyday life. As a North American Friend who can afford good nutrition, some travel, and other luxuries, how well do I incorporate these spiritual aspects into my own life?

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I am grateful to Monadnock Friends for helping make this trip possible. I was clear after last fall’s hurricane that we needed to send someone, even if only one person could go, and even if it was very soon on the heels of our last visit. I was not clear I was that person, but I am fortunate to have been the one able to go.

My thanks, also, to NEYM’s USFW group for tucking me into their group. In addition to making it possible for someone from Monadnock to go to Cuba this year, this gave me an opportunity to become better acquainted with NEYM’s USFW, and build or deepen friendships at home. Finally, much appreciation for the Puente de Amor Committee, whose faithful labor of love (translation: hours and hours of hard work) allows this travel ministry to happen.

Margaret Hawthorn
May 17, 2009