Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Acts 6:1-7) transports me to the northern coastal city of Yaguajay, Cuba, where a group of widows gathers under a lemon tree for their weekly meeting of the Edad Tercera, the third age (after youth and middle age comes the edad tercera). The recently widowed host, Xiomara Diaz, tells us that her mother had planted the tree when she was a young girl, and now the tree is in it’s third age, too. The group always starts the meeting with a riddle, then they sing some songs, discuss some scripture, and pray. At the end of the meeting comes a tray of refreshments, cookies and lemonade from the tree’s fruit. Xiomara was the first person I met from Cuba, back in the mid 90s, when she and her husband Lazaro visited our home. Kim had made her first trip to Cuba in 92 with a delegation of ordained Baptist women to celebrate the ordination of Xiomara and two others into the gospel ministry; these were the first Baptist women to be ordained in Cuba. I remember my first trip to Yaguajay, riding a horse and buggy through the town with Lazaro as tour guide, giving us a history lesson as he went about his business of tending to his congregation.
Yaguajay is the famous site of one of the last battles of the Cuban revolution at the end of 1958. Camilo Cienfuegos, the extremely popular revolutionary, led the battle that proved to be a tipping point in the quest to overthrow Batista. Once in power, the revolutionaries set out to do what they had been dreaming of doing – re-distributing the wealth, creating a social experiment with a controlled economy insuring that all the disadvantaged people of their country would receive the same share of the common good as the advantaged people. Money and education and health care and all other social resources were equally distributed, and over time many of the indicators proved that the experiment “worked,” insofar as the nation has a lower infant mortality rate than the US or Canada, and has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. But the experiment also shows indications of failure. Yaguajay, whose pride in the revolution is reflected in the large statue of Camilo in the city square, was one of the first launching points for Cuban people fleeing the island for a better life in the U.S. While the widows who live on the island of equality might be well-educated and have access to better health care than much of the world, they don’t have political freedom, and they don’t have the opportunity to strike it rich. So they sit under the lemon tree and pray for their grandchildren who have set sail for America, where they can once again experience the freedom of the haves and have nots.
The early Christian community was revolutionary in its own way. The book of Acts describes the social experiment that this group of rebels was undertaking, as they pooled all their resources and had all things in common, with a divine death penalty enacted on one couple who held back some of their stuff. Today’s passage reveals some of the difficulties in maintaining equality in the community, as some of the Grecian widows were complaining that they were not receiving the same resources as the Jewish widows. So the apostles created an agency of sorts to deal with the problem, a board of deacons, to oversee the distribution. It’s interesting that the apostles chose all Greeks to serve on that first board, no doubt to send a signal to the Grecian widows that they took the problem seriously. And it’s interesting to see indicators in the passage of how well the experiment worked. After these seven spirit-filled and wise deacons redistributed the wealth, the text tells us that the word of God spread and the number of disciples increased rapidly. There were even large numbers of Jewish priests converting to the faith of this radical community. But somewhere along the way the nature of that early church revolutionary community changed. The island of equality described in the book of Acts was abandoned for the shores of freedom, the freedom to once again have extremes of rich and poor.
Yaguajay is in the province of Sancti Spiritus, which means Holy Spirit. The book of Acts is sometimes titled Acts of the Holy Spirit. It makes me wonder, how does the Holy Spirit act today around issues of economic equality and political freedom? Wouldn’t the real revolution be seen in a community that embodies both – where the wealth of both food and freedom is re-distributed on a daily basis?
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. The Daily Passages posts will be hit and miss over the next month, as I’ll be in Cuba. I’ll post as I have access to the www.