The Cuba Snapshot

by Pastor Paul Sandberg

They told me that they had hired a “car” to pick us up at the airport and bring us out to the town of Guane, which was about a four-hour ride west of the airport. When we finally cleared customs and immigration, we walked out to the parking lot and it felt like walking onto a movie set. Nothing seemed real. There were old cars everywhere. I saw old cars from the 1940s and 1950s, and some much older. Some looked brand new, restored to showroom condition, but most of them looked – really old and tired. I watched as a blue, 1955 stretch Cadillac worked its way through a parking lot that looked more like a junkyard than a parking lot - except that the cars were moving. The blue Cadillac pulled right up in front of us and the driver jumped out and greeted us. This was the “car” sent to pick us up. The driver’s name was Fidel, and he was an old friend of the missionaries we were traveling with. The car was bright blue, and as I looked closer I saw that it had been painted with a paintbrush. There was no interior to speak of – no carpet, no headliner, no door panels, just bare steel. The seats were the original equipment with a few blankets thrown over the springs to take the place of the seat covers that ceased to exist decades ago. 

I was told to sit in the front seat with another person from our group, while the other four people sat in the rear seat. Fidel walked around the car and closed each car door carefully and gently after each of us was seated. This car was obviously “his baby” and he took great pride in caring for it. As he started the engine there was a loud clacking sound that emanated from the front of the vehicle, while the rear of the car became engulfed in a cloud of black smoke. There was a large stick shift sticking up out of the floor that hit me in the knee as Fidel shifted into first gear and eased out the clutch. The old Cadillac moved forward – leaving the black smoke behind. I questioned Fidel about his car and discovered that the original engine had long since worn out, been remover and discarded. The current engine was a four cylinder diesel taken from an old Soviet water pumping station. He had combined the diesel engine with a four speed transmission from – someplace – and was quite pleased with the result. 

The seven of us traveled along in the hot Cuban sun, windows wide open, getting up to the top speed of about 40 miles per hour. The smell of raw diesel fuel was streaming in through the holes in the floor, and the black exhaust was wafting back in through the open windows and settling on everything, and sticking to our sweaty clothing and skin like damp dust. At 30 miles per hour there was a terrible shaking of the steering wheel and the whole car rattled, so Fidel would try to drive either slower than 30 – or faster than 30. Slower was just fine with me. The springs in the seat were beginning to punch though the blanket and say hello to my posterior, so bumps were uncomfortable.  Fidel just smiled.

That was 15 years ago, in 1997, when Pastor Mike O’Connor and I first traveled to Cuba with veteran missionaries, Roy and Ethel Nelson. Roy and Ethel had served in Cuba in the 1950s before the Revolution took place, at which time they relocated to Guatemala and continued serving as missionaries. 

We traveled with the Nelsons through much of western Cuba visiting friends they had not seen for nearly 40 years. We met some very interesting individuals, and encountered situations that amazed us and also inspired us. We found the faithful remnants of a once vibrant association of churches, still functioning under the leadership established in the 1950s. The congregations we visited were poor and small, some were less than a dozen people, but they had a strong and vibrant faith. There was a hope and vision for the future that overshadowed their meager circumstances. There was a JOY about them that caused them to laugh and enjoy life, even while pushing through the hardships and difficulties of daily living. 

The Christians in Cuba are “Healthy Christians”. They have a strong faith that they have fought for. They have counted the cost and chosen to follow Christ. It has been a joy to work with them all these years. The Cuban church is not without problems, but they deal with the issues they encounter in a Scriptural way. God is alive and well in Cuba, and we continue to join Him in the work of the ministry. 

I have not had a ride in the 1955 Caddy for a few years, but the adventure continues in a 1950 flatbed truck. More “Cuba Snapshots” and the ’50 flatbed next time.