Surviving Sandy in Cuba

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When asked to tell a story from his visit to Cuba shortly after Hurricane Sandy swept through the Caribbean nation last October, Rev. Juan Vera, former bishop of Puerto Rico and a disaster response consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), finds it hard to stop at just one.

There was the couple who sought cover with their days-old baby, he said, as gale-force winds tore their modest home apart. They huddled together under the bed, holding onto each other while the rest of their house and all their belongings blew away. All three, including the tiny baby, survived.

Then there was the house church with a generator, in the city of Santiago. “The church offered it to the whole community,” Vera said. “People charged cell phones, families had occasional light in their homes thanks to extension cords, and parents charged up respiration therapy machines for children who needed them.”

House churches like this one, Vera said, are the “growing edge” of the Methodist Church of Cuba and can be found across the island. During the day, they are home to a pastoral family or member of the congregation; in the evening, they become a small sanctuary, where the community joins together to praise God.

Hurricane Sandy caused most of its damage in the eastern part of Cuba, where Santiago is located, damaging more than 200,000 homes. The storm may also have given new life to a cholera outbreak in the capital, Havana, which reportedly had been contained back in August.

Vera said he witnessed a great spirit of solidarity in one community after another. “Each one did everything it could to ensure that all of the families residing in the community had at least a simple shelter to live in after the storm had passed,” he said.

“I didn’t see anybody with folded arms, doing nothing,” Vera continued. “On the contrary, the creativity of people was evident everywhere.”

Most often, from a ruined home survivors were able to piece together a room with a bathroom, called a “contra,” that is, just enough shelter to protect “against” the elements. The “contra” has enough space for the family to sleep at night and to safeguard what few belongings they still have.

Families and communities could feel solidarity from beyond the watery borders of the island nation as well. In Puerto Rico, Bishop Rafael Moreno Rivas called on Methodists there to take up an offering for their sisters and brothers in Cuba. Rev. Vera brought the initial offering of $8,000 to Cuba in November. Bishop Moreno expects to travel there soon with a second offering.

UMCOR provided an initial emergency grant of $10,000 to the Methodist Church of Cuba, so that assessments and relief efforts could begin.

Vera says the recovery process will be a long one. “There is still a great deal to be done before the affected areas can sense a return to normalcy,” he added. The destruction he saw—and the hope he perceived—Vera said, remind him of the biblical story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones.

“The powerful biblical image of Ezekiel, in which the dry bones, by divine power and grace, come back to life, came to mind many times when I saw the destruction not only of nature but of whole communities in the hurricane’s path,” he said. “Definitively, the trees that were harmed or destroyed by the wind will recover their leaves, their liveliness, their greenness.

“I hope, too, that the love and solidarity of The United Methodist Church and of other churches of the Methodist family, will transform, with their offerings and support, all the devastated communities so that they may become new communities…,” he said.

Your gift to Hurricanes 2012, UMCOR Advance #3021787, will help.

*Unger is senior writer for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

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