Jennifer Barten, youth education and Christian education coordinator at Pratt Presbyterian Church, went to Cuba in February on a mission trip, and came back filled with ideas for prayer and communication.
Jennifer Barten of Pratt has been out of country before. She traveled in the Caribbean, visited Mexico, vacationed in Honduras and spent time in Belize, but a trip to Cuba as part of the Southern Kansas Presbytery in late February turned out to be one of her most inspirational trips yet.
Barten, the youth director and Christian education coordinator at Pratt Presbyterian Church, visited 13 rural churches in central Cuba with four other team members from Kansas and 13 more from Florida.
"Our goal was to start relationships with the people in these Cuban churches, get to know them, develop a support system and pray for each other," Barten said. "We hope to go over once a year to take them things they need, like sewing supplies (they hand-make almost all their clothes there), vitamins, crayons, pencils, seeds, even bandaids. They just don't have access to things like that."
In return, Barten said she came home with new ideas about how to make church more community-based, more alive with better communication."
While Cubans do get ration cards to buy needed food, they live in poverty and depend on each other to survive, making neighborhoods and communities a life-force in every day life.
"We say people here in the mid-west are friendly, but they take it to a whole new level there," Barten said. "I came home filled with ideas of how we could make our churches to better serve our communities. Meeting the people and learning their culture truly was a wonderful experience."
Barten said there are stereotypes of Cubans that people here see on television that just are true. She saw people helping people, no violence, no drugs, and only one man smoking a cigar the entire week she was there.
"I didn't speak the language but didn't feel fear out in public at all," she said. "I even went to a courtyard where I had to figure out how to buy internet and it wasn't that big a problem."
The biggest problems she saw were poverty related. Transportation is stuck in a time warp with very old cars from the '50's on the streets, horse-drawn wagons pulling food to the markets from the country, people going to the black market for food.
"I wanted to go to the black market, but they wouldn't allow me too," she said. "I am so grateful for what I know they must have gone through just to feed me and my group as they did."
Barten said native Cubans were forbidden to eat beef or lobster because was only for the tourist trade. Often they did not know from day-to-day where the next meal would come from, but that didn't stand in the way of their hospitality.
"I absolutely fell in the love with the place," she said. "I went there to see what we could do to help them, but came home with ideas of what we could do here to make prayer a bigger part of our lives."
Barten said weekly prayer meetings in neighborhoods, laundry facilities at churches, and fellowship activities planned on days when groups were already together were things she hopes to incorporated into church life here in Pratt.
She hopes to be part of the Presbytery's continued work with Cuba and their churches, noting it was still very difficult to get individual Visa's to visit the country, but missions, culture and education groups were often approved.