The Rev. Karen Egan was originally trained as a chemist and was called into the church and began training for ordination as her youngest child was in elementary school. She completed her M.Div. and S.T.M. at MDTC and was ordained in 2003. She served as a parish priest in the Diocese of Montreal for ten years. During that time she earned a DMin in Preaching from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where her primary focus was on roundtable missional preaching. In September she began at the college as the Interim Director of Pastoral Studies. When she is not at work, Karen enjoys golfing, gardening, and brewing, not necessarily in that order.
Every year, the Montreal School of Theology takes its senior students to Cuba, where the whole group is hosted by the Ecumenical Seminary in Matanzas in a weeklong mission exposure trip. This year I was sent to accompany the students, along with Professor Glenn Smith, who oversees the Mission course. Unlike the vast majority of visitors that Cuba receives each year from Canada, who come to relax on the beaches of Varadero, we were able to move freely amongst ordinary Cubans on our religious visitor’s visas, spending four nights in Havana and three nights in Matanzas. So after a brief orientation to the history and culture of Cuba, we went out to visit, spending every day in the churches and missions of Havana and Matanzas, learning from the people, sharing in their enthusiasm for the gospel, and discovering how God is active in the lives and communities we visited.
However, before I try to tell you of what we saw, a bit of background is in order, for it seems almost nothing in Cuba remains unaffected by the ongoing economic embargo spearheaded by the United States. Because of this, the economy struggles to flourish at every level, and with every turn. This leaves the vast majority of people scrambling to supplement their very low monthly wages, and to compensate for the unavailability of ordinary necessities, like medicines and personal care items, and paint, gasoline and all manner of spare parts. It is difficult for us North Americans to imagine that shortages occur not because things are too expensive, but rather because they simply are unavailable on the open market. Life is not easy for the people we met in Cuba.
But that is not the whole story, for the people we met were not only resourceful, but the hope that they knew in the gospel filled their every day, and this hope spilled out in the joy that they shared with us, and of course, with each other. Let me tell you of just a couple of examples. First, on the Wednesday afternoon, we all climbed on the bus at our hotel in Havana and went to the western part of the city to visit the Anglican Cathedral, and to meet the bishop of Cuba, Right Rev. Griselda Del Carpio, a diminutive woman who has led that diocese and its otherwise all-male Episcopal council for almost four years. And as she described the caring ministry that her cathedral church undertook in her community, it was easy to see that her strength of leadership came from a still and secure place deep inside, which has no place for worry or fear. She was especially pleased and thanked God to receive from our group two large boxes of medicines that we had brought with us from home, medicines that her pastoral care group will take with them on their visiting, simple things like aspirin and Tylenol that she said have been unavailable for about a year. For us, it was simply an honour to participate in a small way in the ministry that they undertake every day.
But it was at the First Baptist Church in Matanzas that our preconceptions of what mission might look like were really challenged. This church is situated in the centre of this small city, in a neighbourhood that seems to especially struggle, and the buildings are in extraordinarily poor repair. It is here the church runs Kairos centre, a lively place of engagement and community which shares the gospel of Christ by undertaking programs of art, music and drama for everyone and anyone in the neighbourhood. When we visited one Wednesday morning the place was alive with laughter. On the walls were examples of fine fabric art made by women in the neighbourhood, and in the room next to us, a noisy musical theatre production was taking shape. People of all ages were welcome to come into the centre and find their own way that they could express themselves, whether that might be in clay and paint or in dance and drama. And as I thought about this place, I imagined that somewhere along the way, the people in the church had decided that more than anything else, more than food or clothing, more than friends and fellowship, what the people who lived in the neighbourhood really needed was to experience something beautiful, so it was as important to give them colour, shapes and sounds that they could use to create, both beautiful works of art, and beautiful community. I found it revealing that even while the church itself was in desperate need of a new roof, priorities were such that their meagre resources were instead used to provide musical instruments for the teenagers, and colourful cloth for the women in the sewing guild. There, on that morning in January we were witness to the resurrection: witness to joy emerging from pain, and hope giving new legs to a neighbourhood whose lack of material capital had brought it to its knees. And on that day we were thankful that our understanding of the gospel was stretched and enriched. I thank God for the people I met along the way and ask God’s blessings on their future ministry.