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June 15, 2015
Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!
The first time I came to Cuba, I heard a baptist church choir singing what I later learned was something of a Latin American anthem during the 90s, Danos Un Corazón. The chorus translates, give us a heart big enough to love, strong enough to struggle. I knew no Spanish, but I felt a great deal of resonance in the line of a verse someone translated for me: gente nueva, amando sin fronteras/new people, loving without borders. My theological/ethical education had as a centerpiece this idea of crossing borders, of tearing down the walls that divide us as a people. That’s what I was doing there in that Havana church in 1998, and I felt some sense of pride. But after 20 of these short-term border crossings into Cuba, and 9 months into a longer stay, I am beginning to question the wisdom of my progressive theological value, of this utopian quest to love “without borders.”
Cuban history (and I suspect this would be true of many other national histories) shows that border crossing is more often than not done in the context of some kind of conquest. If the native Taino people put out a welcome mat for the Christ-bearing Colonizer when he guided the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria to the eastern shores of Cuba in 1492, it was a misguided gesture. There are no more Taino people. Before their genocide, they learned the lesson. The city we are living in, Matanzas, literally means slaughter; the name comes from one of the first cases of aboriginal resistance to the Spanish invasion, when a group of Taino subversives capsized the boats of 30 conquistadors in the bay of Matanzas and sent them to a watery grave.
Cuba is well-known for the richness of its culture; the irony is that its diverse cultural wealth is the product of many border crossing conquests, from Dutch and French as well as Spanish colonizers, and from the human traffickers who breached African and Asian borders to bring in labor forces necessary for the extractive industries generated by the colonial powers. Add in the US power moves of the 19th and early 20th centuries (with business magnates and missionaries and government leaders all working hand in hand), followed by the Soviet Union’s 30 year stay in support of its revolutionary interests, and you have quite a blend of cultures, influencing everything from language and cuisine to the arts and religion.
While the prospects of opening Cuba’s borders has generally been greeted with enthusiastic hopes for economic recovery, I also hear underlying worries of yet another era of imposition and exploitation. I suppose if I have learned anything from this year in Cuba, it is that if we are going to be a genuinely new people — gente nueva — those of us in the dominant culture have got to learn how to love, not without borders, but with borders intact, crossing gently, humbly, listening more than talking, learning more than teaching, respecting more than judging, acquiring the language, absorbing the history, accepting that we do not have all the solutions to their challenges. May we not tear down the discriminatory dike of an economic blockade only to make way for a tidal wave of imposed values and assumptions. May we instead find a way to create mutual partnerships, with shared lessons of what works to build community, with sustainable investments in each other’s well-being. Danos un corazón — give us a heart — big enough to love across borders, strong enough to struggle against the tide.
Stan Dotson makes his home in Fairview, NC, with his wife Kim Christman. Stan took a year off from his duties as Director of In Our Elements to live and work in Cuba. In Cuba he taught courses in Leadership and Church History at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, and led the Kairos Center of Matanzas in the development of their 3 year strategic plan. He also preached, played guitar, translated for groups, and led many workshops and retreats all across the island for the Fraternity of Baptists and the Cuban Council of Churches.