Havana is world-renowned for its colonial architecture and profusion of colourful vintage cars. However, if you ask to those of us who visited the city as part as part of the first-ever International Justice Camp,* chances are you might hear more about a former state-run psychiatric hospital turned nursing home known as The Colony or the co-operative urban farm in Nueva Havana.
This May, I had the privilege to travel to Cuba as part of the justice camp, and The Colony was one of the places we visited for an immersion experience on economic justice.
I had never been to Cuba before, and despite having attended an Anglican church for almost nine years, I still consider myself new to the tradition, so when I boarded a plane full of Anglicans of all ages from across Canada for a week of social justice education, I had no idea what to expect.
Over the next week, the group of 25 Canadian and 25 Cuban participants in the camp would attend a variety of plenary sessions at the Roman Catholic Retreat Centre, located beside the beautiful Bay of Matanzas, in the city of Matanzas. In these sessions, we learned about the history of Cuba and the role of the church in the tumultuous events of its history, from the 1959 revolution through to the so-called “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which economic conditions in Cuba worsened drastically and church-funded projects had to fill in many gaps in the state social safety net.
However, this was a justice camp, not a justice conference, which meant we would be learning experientially as much as theoretically, explained the Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community and global ministries of the diocese of Niagara, who helped organize the camp.
When the larger group dispersed to locations around Cuba to delve into topics like food security and social engagement, I boarded a bus to the capital city of Havana as part of a group focused on economic justice.
Many tourists visit Havana—once known as the Paris of the Caribbean—to enjoy the stunning diversity of architecture (Colonial, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Moorish and Modern) and to explore the other sights and sounds of the port city, often in a vintage automobile.
But we didn’t come here as tourists; we were bused around the capital visiting various projects made possible by Canadian and Cuban partnerships. At the Cuba Emprende business training centre, I was struck by the passion of students learning about private enterprise for the first time—although Canadians take private business for granted, it has been allowed only very recently in Cuba.
When we visited The Colony, I was amazed at the resourcefulness and optimism of both patients and staff, despite the many difficulties they faced (for instance, much-needed renovations have stalled due to lack of state funding).
At a co-operative urban farm in the neighbourhood of Nueva Havana, the farm operators had devised a system for making their own feed for their goats, chickens and rabbits because animal feed was not affordable.
From dreams of private business to an innovative approach to urban farming, a common theme was independence and sustainability. Projects aimed to empower people to change their own lives, rather than offer short-term solutions.
By the time the week was over, we were sunburned and tired and surrounded by new friends. As we boarded the bus to the airport, Archdeacon Andreis Diaz Dorta, priest-in-charge of the Cuban mission station in Bolondron and one of the camp organizers, encouraged us to return home and share with our communities the incredible things that are possible when Canadians and Cubans work together toward the reign of God. I think I can safely say for all participants of International Justice Camp 2016, it will be impossible to do anything else.
* The International Justice Camp, held April 30 to May 7, was a joint initiative of the Episcopal Church of Cuba, the diocese of Niagara, the Anglican Church of Canada, The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and the Anglican Foundation of Canada.