News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  31 January 2018 •  No. 150

Processional. “I’m an ordinary man / from the place where the palms grow / and before I die I want / to sing out the verses of my soul.” —English translation of the first verse of “Guantanamera,” Playing for Change, performed by 75 Cubans from around the world collaborate on this historic recording of the Cuban unofficial national hymn.  The song’s lyrics, by Cuban singer-songwriter, Joseíto Fernandez, were adapted from José Martí’s “Versos Sencillos  poem. Pete Seeger made the song popular in the US after the Cuban missile crisis in an attempt to affirm US-Cuban cultural ties in the face of growing diplomatic hostility.

More background to the song’s repeated mention of guajira Guantanamera. “Another interesting part of the song’s story is the etymology of the word guajira. In the War of Independence, when the US came in at the 11th hour to ‘save the day,’ US soldiers saw some of the peasant militiamen on horseback, without uniform, rustic looking, and the soldiers greeted them, ‘Look at the war heroes.’ The Cuba ears, not accustomed to English, heard ‘war heroes’ as guajiros and thought they were being complimented, so the word stuck. Guajira is the feminine form, and the word now is used to identify country people, peasant people, much like we would say ‘bumpkin’ or ‘redneck.’” —Stan Dotson

Above: Overhead photo of the island of Cuba, Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook

Special issue

Invocation. “Soon the time will come / when suffering will be erased / grudges will be put away / and we all will share / the same sentiment / although time has passed / with pride and dignity / I have taken your name / all around the World / I have told your truth.” —English translation of lyrics to “Por si acaso no regreso,” performed by Celia Cruz


        You will be excused for not knowing that Cuba is in the midst of a historic electoral process which, when completed, will feature a Cuban president not named Castro.

        (It’s quite possible you didn’t even know Cuba had elections. Whether their process qualifies as “democratic” is an important question. Whether US elections qualify as such is also an important question.)

Right: Precinct polling station. Older children (younger than 16) serve as poll watchers.

        The process began on 26 November 2017 when citizens went to polling stations in every district across the country to select leaders to serve on ward [precinct] and municipal governing bodies as “delegates.” On 11 March, candidates for provincial and national legislatures will be chosen. The National Assembly will then chose a new president to succeed Raúl Castro, who retires on 19 April.

Call to worship. Habana Compás Dance. (Thanks Jim.)

¶ “In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba ‘the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States’ and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States ‘ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.’” —continue reading “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

¶ “What Chicago is learning from Cuba when it comes to fighting infant mortality.” Cuban specialists in prenatal care are assisting medical officials in Chicago study the cause of low infant mortality rates in the city. Cuba’s 4.3 infant mortality rate is lower than the 5.7 rate in the US. In Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood the rate is14.5. Miles Bryan, WUNC

What follows is a bit more background on Cuba’s electoral process.

            • Cuba’s recent election is the first of three stages in choosing their provincial and national assemblies. A field of 27,000 candidates were on the ballot in 12,515 wards, with 11,415 members of Municipal legislators elected. Of those, 35.4% were women and 14.3% were “youth” (up to age 29). —for more see Telesur

        • The Miami Herald, one of the few publications in the US covering the election, ran the headline, “Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip?”

        • In fact, 85.9% of eligible voters in Cuba cast ballots—7.6 million of the country’s 8.8 million eligible voters. In US presidential elections, average turnout over the last 50 years is less than 55%. In mid-term elections that number goes down to 34.4%. In most major cities, fewer than 15% of eligible voters participate. —for more see Drew DeSilver, “US trails most developed countries in voter turnout,” Pew Research Center ; PBS News Hour; Kriston Capps, CityLab

For the full accounting of details on the electoral process, see “Cuba’s historic electoral process November 2017 – April 2018.”

Hymn of praise.La Paz de la Tierra/The Peace of the Earth,” a traditional Guatemalan blessing arranged and performed by Marty Haugen and Marc Anderson (sung first in Spanish, then in English).

¶ “I read all the speeches of [Pope Francis], his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.” Cuban President Raul Castro, in a visit May 2015 to the Vatican to thank Pope Francis for his work for a Cuban-US détente —Washington Post

Right: Artwork by Dan Trabue.

¶ “On January 18, 2018, Cuba was named ‘Safest Country for Tourists’ at the 38th annual International Tourism Fair in Madrid, Spain.” Christopher P. Baker, smerconish

Confession. “R.J. Suderman, a Canadian Mennonite, reports that in a 1986 interview Castro joking noted ‘either the church has changed a lot or I’m getting old.’ Just this past December, during a similar meeting with religious leaders from across the Americas, Castro is said to have repeated the following comment four different times: ‘Atheism has been the traitor of the revolution.’” —Ken Sehested, “My Sling Is That of David: US-Cuba relations as an emerging agenda

In a 2007 trip to Cuba, while visiting a small village in the central region, a member of a local church told me, with more than a little pride, that her pastor had recently been elected to the town’s municipal assembly. “Because of his involvement in community affairs, he was better known and more trusted by the people [than the other candidate, who was a Communist Party member]. It’s really that simple.”

Hymn of intercession.Fey Oh Di Nou” ("Oh Leaves Tell Us") by the Creole Choir of Cuba tells of a group trying to invoke the divine power of medicinal plants to heal a sick person.

Left: A major tourist attraction in Cuba is the presence of vintage American cars from the 1940s–1950s. They are a testament to the ingenuity of Cubans who, lacking access to replacement parts, engineer their own as needed.

Government documents declassified on 30 September 2014 reveal US plans to bomb Cuba in 1976. “I think we are going to have to smash Cuba,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Gerald Ford during a February meeting. A few weeks later he repeated that sentiment, saying “I think sooner or later we have to crack the Cubans. I think we have to humiliate them.” ­Raf Sanchez, The Telegraph

Words of assurance. “It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.” —Ursula Le Guin, in “A Wizard of Earthsea”

A decade ago, when some in my congregation’s visited our partner congregation in Cuba, we asked one of the lay leaders if he thought the US embargo would ever end. He paused before answering “yes.” But then he added, “But my fear is that your country will simply buy ours.”

Rev. Raúl Suárez, retired pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana and founder of the Martin Luther King Center, was the first Christian to be elected to Cuba’s National Assembly, in 1992, after the country’s constitution was edited to remove language identifying the nation as “atheist.” Two other clergy serve as deputies in the National Assembly: Miriam Ofelia Ortega, a Presbyterian, and Pablo Odén Marichal, an Episcopalian.

Short story: Footwashing in Cuba. “A simple wooden stool was placed in the middle of the circle. A large, dented, metal basin quickly appeared, and a two-gallon water bottle, one of the many we had used for drinking water, became part of the ritual. We quietly sang, swayed, and washed each other’s precious feet. For someone for whom public emotion is a rarity, I could not contain the sweetness and goodness I felt in this moment. I then had the chance to wash the feet of Joy, my courageous 9-year-old daughter. Be cleaned, I thought. Be free, I prayed.” —continue reading Kiran Sigmon’s “While Washing My Daughter’s Feet

¶ “I have never voted for anyone important, not even our president,” said a retired air force mechanic in Cuba. “I can only vote for my neighborhood representative and they never go anywhere,” he said, “but I still think it's a better system than one based on money and lies.” Marc Frank, Reuters

Preach it. "The society we seek, based on communal values, is spelled out not in Marx or Engels but in the Book of Acts. It's not pure socialism, but it's surely not capitalism either. I would applaud capitalism if it would feed the people of the world. But in fact, the forces of capitalism have a deteriorating effect on the two primary projects of God: human nature, and the creations of the natural world." —Rev. Raúl Suárez, retired pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Havana, Cuba

Being in Matanzas [Cuba] and watching election results on the night of November 8 [2017] was surreal. . . . The most interesting conversations came from people like my friend Samuel, who didn't seem at all bothered by a Trump presidency.

        Samuel's view is that America has long been suffering from a political/economic cancer, and perhaps Trump is the poison, the chemotherapy or radiation, that we need to deal with our cancer. Our cancer is the imperial illusion/fantasy of unlimited growth. (Isn't that what cancer is? he asked me). We are a discontented people, never satisfied unless our bank accounts and material storehouses are growing.” —Stan Dotson,  who along with his spouse Kim Christman, are living and working in Cuba for the year. If you would like to receive their posts reflecting on everyday life in Cuba, send him a note:

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.” —prominent anti-immigrant Republican Steve King (R-IA), Mark 2017, reported on CNN

Call to the table. “Picture this, if you can: The Lord God of Hosts stands at the church house door, at the pulpit, at the communion table, maybe even at the potluck dinner counter, hands perched on hips, lips pursed and brows furrowed, voice wavering with a parental mixture of broiling anger and urgent affection, saying: What in heaven’s name has gotten into you dimwitted people of the Promise, you ninny-headed, shallow-hearted sucklings of the Most High God!—continue reading “Get over yourself,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40:21-31

Good read. “As Cuba opens, it’s time to recognize our proxy role in Cuba’s slave trade, and the Monroe Doctrine’s real purpose.” —Stephen Chambers, “Our forgotten slavery horror: The shameful, untold history of America and the Cuban slave trade,” Salon

The state of our disunion. “When we evolved the [Electoral Integrity Project, for evaluating the relative freedom and transparency of purported democratic elections] I could never imagine that as we enter 2017, my state, North Carolina, would perform so badly on this, and other, measures that we are no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy. In the just released EIP report, NC’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table—a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.” —Andrew Reynolds, “North Carolina is no longer classified as a democracy,” The [Charlotte] News & Observer

Best one-liner. “Cuba seems to have the same effect on U.S. administrations as the full moon once had on werewolves.” —Dr. Wayne Smith, former director of the US Interest Section in Havana, Cuba

For the beauty of the earth. Cuba is home to the world's smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird. (9:57 video)

Altar call. We “urge Christians in the US to attend to the testimony of our Cuban brothers and sisters. Due to political circumstances, for three generations the churches in Cuba have learned to live without access to social privilege, a status we have long assumed, compromising our understanding of the kind of authority granted under the Spirit’s direction. We stand in need of being evangelized anew.” —“Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean,” United Church of Christ resolution approved at its 2017 General Synod, authored by Ken Sehested

Benediction. “We have only begun to know / the power that is in us if we would join / our solitudes in the communion of struggle. / So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, / so much is in bud.” —Denise Levertov in “Beginners”

Recessional. Chan Chan,” Buena Vista Social Club.

Lectionary for this Sunday. “To what wilderness have you strayed, oh people of the Way? To what distraction have you tuned your ears? Have you not heard? To what diversion have you loaned your eyes?” —continue reading “Chords of comfort,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40

Lectionary for Sunday next. “The season of Lent is upon us. Listen for your instructions! Now is the time to flee Pharaoh’s national security state for the insecurity of the wilderness. Now is the time to listen for the Word whose hearing bypasses the ears of princes and high priests but is heard only in the wilderness.” —continue reading “Lent is upon us,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40:23, 43:19; Matthew 3:3

Just for fun. World champion salsa dancers (ages 6 & 7).

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Chords of comfort,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40

• “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

• “While Washing My Daughter’s Feet,” Kiran Sigmon’s story from a trip to Cuba

• “Lent is upon us,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40:23, 43:19; Matthew 3:3

• “The Ties That Bind,” The Integrity of Penitence, on the 50th Anniversary of the Massacre at My Lai, an essay

Left: Bookmark created by the women's sewing cooperative of the Kairos Community Center in Matanzas, Cuba, which creates a variety of textile art products.

Other features

Two dozen new annotated book reviews

• “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

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