COLUMBIA, Mo. — Concentrating on similarities opens doors to lasting friendships and opportunities to build bridges, 14 University of Missouri students learned recently in Cuba.
Greg Moon and J.T. Smith were surprised at how similar students from the two countries are. “The trip opened my mind to the similarities between us and people we didn’t think would have similarities,” Smith said. “It was pretty incredible.”
Both students said they had accepted the descriptions of Cubans they had heard at home. Americans think all Cubans are communists, Smith said. But trip participants discovered “how nice” the people are and the similarities that exist between Cubans and Americans.
Moon compared their experience to Jesus’ taking his disciples to Samaria. The disciples learned that Samaritans weren’t as “bad” as the apostles had been taught. While in Cuba, the MU students “saw that…people have needs just like here in the U.S…. All have the central need of Jesus Christ,” Moon said.
He also was surprised at the Cuban Baptists’ ability to meet openly. He expected to “have to go down an alley” and knock twice on a closed door. Moon feared being arrested. Instead, the church is on the street and has its name in “giant letters,” he said. “It was surprising to see that open atmosphere.”
Americans are still restricted from traveling to Cuba as tourists under a continuing U.S. trade embargo. But a few U.S. citizens are able to go to the country under specialized visas. The Missouri students were able to connect with Cuban university students through the efforts of Emmanuel’s pastor Eduardo Gonzales, who also is executive director of Coordinacion Obrero Estudiantil Bautista de Cuba (Worker-Student Baptist Coordination of Cuba). The Missourians secured religious visas through the organization.
Ned Walsh captured MU Baptist Student Ministries Director Jerry Carmichael’s interest in making the trip. Walsh was the international student coordinator for the Missouri Baptist Convention when Carmichael started in collegiate ministry in 1982. They have kept in contact over the years.
Now retired, Walsh had been the executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Smithfield, N.C. But he has never given up his commitment to student work and emphasizes his passion for Cuba. Walsh connected the Missourians to Gonzales.
The most difficult aspect of the trip, Carmichael believes, was that it was unlike what most students consider a “typical” mission trip. The team did not “do” anything — no building projects or evangelistic activities.
“It was a great experience,” Carmichael said. “I think it affected our students pretty significantly in how they viewed…the world around them.
“It’s hard for some of us to go somewhere and not ‘do’ anything…. But I understand the translation of the Great Commission is ‘as you go.’ I think that pretty well sums it up for me.”
The church reaches out to its community in as many ways as possible, including securing “talking” watches for the blind, providing food, working with Wheels for the World and other ministries.
Carmichael believes the team also “bolstered the role of the Cuban church with the government” and with the university community.
The relationships they built showed them a little of the impact they had while there. One Cuban student who attended worship at Emmanuel with Moon was surprised at how Gonzales applied his message to life. The student later told his father he wanted to return and hear the pastor again.
“The only thing we built was bridges but some very key bridges,” Carmichael said.
The trip also strengthened God’s call for Moon. “It reinforced my calling to work outside the United States,” he said. The senior feels God has called him to a medically related field. An emergency medical technician at the university, he will begin a master’s degree in community health this fall.
Though nothing has yet been planned, Carmichael hopes to follow up in Cuba. Meanwhile, Mizzou participants are strengthening relationships with their Cuban friends through social media.