Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 18:1-33) transports me to the Cuban city of Santa Clara, famous for being the final resting place of the revolutionary hero Che Guevera. I was visiting friends in Santa Clara just two weeks ago (my friend April Baker and folks from Glendale Baptist are there now), and I learned more of the history of why this city is so much associated with Che and the revolution. It was the site of the decisive last battle of the revolution in late 1958. Che and his forces marched toward the city to the cheers of peasants along the way, and government troops began deserting their posts. President Fulgencio Batista sent an armored train filled with ammunition to the east to reinforce his troops. Che commandeered a tractor from the university’s School of Agronomy, and used the plowshares to destroy the rails outside of the city. The train derailed, the armory was in guerrilla hands, and within 12 hours Batista fled the country, clearing the way for the rebels’ march to Havana. The derailed train is still there, now a museum. It is somewhat ironic to me that so many peacemaker type folks (like me) find Che to be such a heroic figure. We love sporting t-shirts with his iconic face, his red-star beret, his cigar. He was essentially a man who didn’t shy away from violence, albeit for a just cause, to overthrow a ruthless dictator. Firing guns and throwing Molotov cocktails and derailing trains were his bread and butter. But we liberal peacemakers lift him up nonetheless, content to romanticize the revolutionary spirit and the uprising of peasant folks against the poderosos led by Batista (and the mafia supporting him).
There’s something of that same ambivalence around the confrontation with enemies throughout the Bible. We read early in the covenant code that God brought Israel into being to be a light to their neighboring nations, and then we have the conquest. We have the Psalmist praising God who stops wars to the ends of the earth, breaking the bow and splintering the spear, burning the shield (Psalm 46:9) and then we have today’s passage, celebrating the God who rides in with smoke coming from his nostrils and consuming fire from his mouth, sending out arrows and bolt of lightning, routing the enemies and delivering the humble poor from the haughty eyes of the oppressors. By you, the Psalmist prays, I can crush the enemy troops. Had those enemies of Israel enjoyed access to armored trains and modern munitions, this would be the God who derailed those trains and commandeered the armory. And yet we peacemakers still worship this God, even if we haven’t gone so far as to create t-shirts of Jesus in a Che beret lifting up a rifle and smoking a cigar.
My friend Lila González grew up in Santa Clara; she was a child when Che brought the revolution to her city. Her father was one of the ricos, owning the largest hotel on the city square. Unlike so many of the established poderosos, though, Lila’s parents did not flee to Miami or send their children away with Operación Pedro Pan. Lila grew up to marry Francisco Rodés, whose own father had been a doctor and mayor of the town where he grew up. (It seems fitting to me that the legendary Saint Francis’ life partner was Santa Clara, and this modern day “Saint Francisco” found his life partner, a saint in her own right, in the city of Santa Clara). Francisco, aka “Paco” was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but instead answered a call to preach. He married Lila and began his ministry in an era when church leaders were severely persecuted; he spent time in jail and in a forced labor camp simply because he was a pastor. For the new regime this was a sign of “weakness in ideology.” Here’s where the story gets interesting to me – we could fully expect Paco and Lila and others to treat Fidel Castro as public enemy number one for the church, and to do all they could to undermine the revolution. But instead, in spite of persecution, they have long worked to support the ideals of the revolution. Paco went and volunteered to work in the sugar cane fields during the gran zafra, to show the local communists that as a pastor he loved his country and wanted to lend his support to the efforts to make a better life for the people. For decades he and Lila made a consistent witness that the church was not a clandestine anti-revolutionary force employed by the U.S. Until finally, in the early 90s, Paco and several other pastors gained an audience with Fidel Castro, bearing witness that the work of the church in feeding the hungry, in housing the homeless, in ministering to the sick, in educating the masses, was what the original ’59 triunfo de la revolución was all about. Castro soon had the Cuban constitution re-written to take out all language of religious discrimination. Paco and Lila, along with a few others, found a network of like-minded Baptists, the kind of Baptists who believe in social justice, who are not afraid to build bridges of understanding with the government, who ordain women and believe in ecumenical cooperation. Their church, like a few others, were kicked out of the Baptist convention for these kinds of beliefs, and they created their own fellowship, the Fraternity of Baptists. From a humble beginning of three churches, the Fraternity has grown to over 40 churches, with another 40 missions. One of the new churches birthed by the Fraternity is in Santa Clara, a short distance from the town square where Lila’s parents had their hotel. The church operates a beautiful finca – a farm, where tractors that once derailed trains are once again working to cultivate land to feed the community. History has come full circle. Peacemakers are reclaiming the once militarized plowshares, within the shadow of Che’s monument.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.