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Many kids spend their summers seeking respite from the demands of the school year or working to save up for college tuition or a reliable car. A select few, like seven members of the youth program at Christ Community Church in Montreat, seek to serve others on mission trips.

Where conventional wisdom tends to assume it’s the missionaries providing the aid on such trips, it was the young men and women who spent 10 days in July on the island nation of Cuba who will feel the impact of the experience for years to come.

Although only 90 miles away from the southern tip of Florida, the Republic of Cuba, as it’s known officially, might as well be a world away. The relationship between the United States and the Caribbean nation is a long and complicated one that was forever altered when Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and embraced the Communist party.

The fallout from the regime change included economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., including a ban on trade with Cuba. The collapse of the Soviet Union, a strong financial supporter of the nation for decades, devastated the economy. In 2014 Barack Obama sought to begin normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba and became the first American president to visit the island in 88 years.  

The warming relationship between the two countries chilled once again in 2017 when President Donald Trump withdrew diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Havana after a number of them experienced unexplained medical issues.

However, geopolitics do little to dampen the welcoming spirit of the Cuban people, according to 16-year-old William Hurt.

“The people there are really outgoing and nice,” he said. “They’re definitely more welcoming, and friendly, than people here.”

The Christ Community Church group, which traveled to Cuba on a religious visa, according to the director of youth and family ministry, Lincoln Walters, arrived in Havana on July 4. The visa they were granted for the trip requires a full schedule of planned religious activities.

“We wanted our students to go to a place and see and experience God, in a place that’s drastically different than the U.S.,” he said. “A lot of Americans think of Cuba as this colorful, amazing place with beautiful people, and it is. But it’s also a place where no matter how hard you work or little you work, you’re all in the same category where you’re allotted a food booklet for your groceries.”

They learned about the culture by touring the city, Hurt said.

“We basically got to be tourists for a day-and-a-half,” he said. “We got to see the sights and we even got to ride around in classic cars. We got a chance to see the city.”

The trip, which was the first time many of the teens had left the country, wasn’t a typical mission trip.

“Normally, when you go on a mission trip you’re rebuilding a roof or supporting someone in a practical way,” Walters said. “When we went down there we wanted to see and understand the culture so we could understand what it looks like when we’re praying for them.”

The purpose was “more spiritual than service,” said 16-year-old Skylar Bartman, a student at Asheville Christian Academy.

“For many people there prayer is their go-to, like if they’re sick or hurting,” Bartman said. “They automatically go to God, which showed me a lot about faith. They rely on God.”

Religion, like many things in Cuba, has a complex backstory. As a Spanish colony in the 1500s Catholicism was established as the predominant faith. Under communist rule, religious practices became regulated and Cuba was officially an atheist state. Restrictions related to religions have eased gradually since the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

Evangelical Christianity has thrived in spaces known as “house churches,” where congregations gather in the homes of their pastors. The mission trip took the Christ Community group to a small home in the mountainous region in the northern part of Cuba.

There they were welcomed by a family in a small house, from which they would travel to neighboring mountains to talk about the Bible. The teenagers they met were eager to go to church, noted 17-year-old Reece Collie.

“Here (in the U.S.) our lives don’t really revolve around our faith,” he said. “It was inspiring to see kids our age who were so excited and passionate about worshiping. You can feel the presence of God there.”

In a place where worldly possessions are scarce, Collie said, Cubans are thankful for whatever they have.

“They look at it like they don’t have a lot, so they’re thankful for whatever they do have,” Collie said. “Here, we look at everything we’ve always had and think we’re entitled to more.”

Seeing that had a profound impact on Bartman, she said.

“They have so much joy in their lives,” she said. “Little things in my life make me so upset, but they have so much less than I do, so to see how joyful they are despite what’s going on in their lives is inspiring.”

Camillia Harrin, a student at Owen High School, participated in a forum during a youth camp the group attended. She was moved by the stories she heard, particularly of a young woman who shared how prayer helped her through her battle with anorexia.

“She was so open about it,” Harrin said. “She said that she prayed and prayed and God answered her prayers. She talked about her recovery and how she grew stronger in her faith and it was great to see how God impacted her life.”

Harrin, Bartman, Collie and Hurt are all quick to say they would gladly return to Cuba if presented with the opportunity.

“It really helped me learn to not take things for granted,” he said. “Here we have clean water everywhere and that’s not the case in Cuba. But we don’t even think about it in America.”

While the group took gifts like clothes and toiletries for the people they met, what they brought back was much more valuable, Walters said.

“All of their testimonies aren’t about what they offered on this trip, they’re about what they observed, experienced or received and that’s a testament to their openness to learn,” he said of the youth group. “The didn’t go down there with the attitude of ‘we’re Americans and we’re here to help you.’ The reality is they came back with so much more, particularly spiritually, and that’s powerful.”

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