Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 4:31-54) transports me to the sugar cane fields of Cuba in the spring of 1968, when the Castro government was ramping up efforts to increase export production and generate surplus money needed for industrialization. Their goal was to reach a 10 million ton harvest, known as la gran zafra, the great harvest, by 1970. The government encouraged all citizens to volunteer to go into the fields and help with the arduous labor great harvest. Baptist pastor Francisco “Paco” Rodés was one of the unlikeliest of these volunteers. The revolution had not been kind to the clergy; many pastors, Paco included, had been arrested in the early years for holding illegal meetings and had to spend time in jail or prison. Many others, including Paco’s brother-in-law Raul Suarez, were labeled as having a “weakness in ideology” and were sent into forced labor camps, where they suffered greatly under grueling conditions. And so for a Baptist pastor to be among the volunteers helping with the revolution’s harvest raised a lot of eyebrows, both among the government folks suspicious of the church and church folks suspicious of the government. Paco explained that he loved his country, and wanted to do all he could to improve the conditions of the people, and he also wanted to help people overcome their prejudices against one another. While he was in the fields one day, during a lunch break a news announcement came over the loudspeaker, informing them that Martin Luther King had been shot. Many of the workers shook their heads, wondering aloud why those crazy American imperialists would kill one of their own fellow imperialists. Paco started weeping, and when he composed himself he corrected them, explaining that King was not an imperialist, that he was a Baptist pastor like himself who was on the side of the poor, and was doing all he could to bring justice to his country. The cane workers, almost all of whom were members of the Communist Party or Communist Youth, listened as Paco explained a Christianity to them that they had never heard of, one that cares for the poor and seeks to thrown off chains of oppression.
Jesus had a gran zafra project of his own, and he was recruiting people to join him in the great harvest. And he had his own discrimination to overcome as a Galilean, for a prophet was not generally treated well in his own community. The fields were not sugar cane, though, nor was the goal surplus money for industrialization. For Jesus, it was a field of suffering that was ripe, ready for a harvest of faith and redemptive love and transformation. Care for the suffering crossed all dividing lines; today’s passage shows us that Jesus’ field included Samaritans facing hatred and marginalization, as well as a Roman official desperate to find healing for his dying child. Jesus invited his followers to join in the harvest, to reap where others had sown seeds of faith and love and transformation.
For a while it looked like Jesus’ great harvest project was a failure, as his followers abandoned him and he faced execution on that Roman’s cross. We understand now that the harvest exceeded the wildest dreams of the disciples. In many ways la gran zafra of Cuba was a failure, as they did not reach the 10 million goal, and having so many workers leave other sectors to work in the cane fields devastated the economy. But we know now that Paco’s work was not a failure. His was decades-long work to open up hearts and minds, to erase the prejudice that existed both ways between people of faith and the revolutionary government. This work, and the work of many pastors who sowed these seeds of understanding, led to a meeting between 70 pastors, including Paco Rodés, and Fidel Castro in 1990. The meeting was instigated by Raul Suarez, who, like his brother-in-law Paco, had overcome his persecution and had been working for years to support the efforts of the government to improve conditions for the people. Rev. Suarez, head of Cuba’s National Council of Churches and founder of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, was the only Baptist pastor to be elected to the National Assembly, Cuba’s legislative parliament. Castro listened as minister after minister shared their love for the country, their work for the poor, and their experiences of discrimination. The seeds were sown, and it wasn’t long before fruition; the Cuban Constitution was amended, removing all language of discrimination against the church and people of faith. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’s what I call a gran zafra in the making.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.