Eliecer Valdez Suárez is a pastor and missionary with the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, but last year he was working as a gravedigger.
COVID-19 was taking a heavy toll on families and the Cuban tourism industry, and the island’s already difficult conditions had become worse.
Valdez had many graves to dig. But when a shipment of Mennonite Central Committee relief kits and canned meat arrived, he stopped digging and started driving containers across the island.
“This help arrived in a moment where we didn’t have anything to eat, when we were fighting COVID-19 face-to-face in the streets,” he told a group of MCC staff during a visit to Cuba in February. “It arrived like manna from heaven.”
Working with the church is a key part of MCC’s relief work in Cuba. MCC has partnered with the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba in response to the pandemic to distribute 3,615 relief kits and 91,006 pounds of canned meat to communities throughout Cuba. MCC plans to send more kits in the coming year as the worst economic crisis in decades shows little sign of improving.
Since MCC started working in Cuba in the early 1980s, the country has gone through many difficult periods, most notably after Cuba’s main trading partner, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Long-standing and harsh U.S. sanctions leave few options for international trade and partnerships. Rapid expansion of tourism and support from Venezuela generated a period of growth, but it didn’t last.
Many Cubans, especially those who don’t have access to outside sources of currency, haven’t eaten meat or eggs in months and struggle to find basics like cooking oil, soap, toilet paper and towels.
The Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba is made up of about 5,000 members across the country, many in small house churches. Not all denominations are legally recognized, but the Brethren in Christ, an Anabaptist church, is, allowing it to import goods with relative ease. This makes the BIC an ideal partner for receiving and distributing humanitarian relief.
Local churches know their communities better than any external group. They know which families are struggling and what conflict might be caused if items are distributed in a way perceived as unfair. Relief goes not just to church members, but also to neighbors who are not part of the church, gaining the respect of communities and even local governments.
Since an initial project that provided funds to rebuild houses after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, MCC has supported Brethren in Christ churches as they grow capacity to respond to emergencies. Local emergency assessment committees now assess needs, track participants, document expenses and collect participant feedback.
Valdez remembers the reactions as a truck loaded with relief kits and canned meat pulled into communities throughout his province in 2021.
“The pastors were smiling from ear to ear because they saw that the heavens had opened,” he said. “[The cans of meat] weren’t just those little cans that you would think were tuna! But the buckets too, the towels, all of the personal hygiene products inside — they came at a moment of tremendous crisis, where there was nothing in our country for us to buy.”
Another MCC partner, Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue, has worked through churches in the province of Pinar del Río to send relief kits and roofing materials after Hurricane Ian hit the area last September.
Pastor Imer Cordobés Pérez of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pinar del Río remembers how he heard the door of his home blown off its hinges and furniture moving around. When the eye of the hurricane passed over, he could hear his neighbors screaming.
“I was afraid many people had died,” he said.
Homes were destroyed. Poor economic conditions meant there were no resources available for reconstruction. MCC partnered with the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue and Kerk in Actie, a social organization of the Dutch Protestant Church, to send relief kits and roofing materials, in addition to providing psychosocial support.
Pérez’s church managed the logistics. The church’s emergency committee identified those most in need of assistance and organized a commission to distribute the relief kits.
“[When the buckets arrived], all of the kids were happy. There was laughter in the houses,” said committee coordinator Dania Penalva Rodriguez. “I remember someone said, ‘Wow, shampoo! This is so expensive!’ Sometimes you might wonder how important this kind of stuff really is, but then you see how happy someone is when they receive something like shampoo.”