Lifting Up the People of Cuba

IMG_1555Four days in Cuba have left a lasting impression on The Salvation Army USA officers and representatives, following an historic trip to the island nation.  So much so, the group intends to return for a mission trip next year. The visit encompassed fellowship with the Cuban people and The Salvation Army of Cuba, spreading the word of the Gospel, presenting the gift of music and conducting much-needed service projects at The Salvation Army Corps Community Centers there. The trip, during the weekend of February 20, is the first time The Salvation Army USA officers from the contiguous US have traveled to the once-closed off communist country in nearly 60 years.

IMG_1414The Salvation Army USA group included The Salvation Army USA Eastern Territory  Commissioners Barry and Sue Swanson;  Lt. Col. Stephen Banfield, Divisional Commander, The Salvation Army of Eastern PA & DE; Major A. Philip Ferreira, Director of Operations, The Salvation Army Greater Philadelphia; 30+ members of the renowned Salvation Army Staff Band; and Aaron Cohen, Advisory Board Chair, The Salvation Army Greater Philadelphia.

Since Cuba has been closed off to many foreigners for decades, particularly from the United States, The Salvation Army USA had been unable to visit until recently. Upon taking in the sights and culture of Cuba – a mixture of beautiful aging architecture, deteriorating infrastructure, late-model vehicles, poverty and lack of access to modern technology – Lt. Col. Banfield was especially moved by the spirit of the people.

IMG_1566“The Gospel speaks of redemption and lifting up and that’s what they are yearning for,” he said.  The experience prompted Lt. Col. Banfield to present his Lt. Colonels epaulettes to the Divisional Commander of Cuba, Lt. Col. Julio Moreno, a highly honored gesture to demonstrate goodwill and a joint commitment to serving The Salvation Army (TSA).

The trip to Cuba was spearheaded by The Salvation Army’s New York Staff Band, which is comprised of Salvation Army officers, employees and students playing brass and percussion instruments. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Salvation Army Staff Band. It has circled the globe with messages of salvation and encouragement, including such places as Buckingham Palace, Carnegie Hall and The Sydney Opera House. This was the first time the band had ever played in Cuba.

Major A. Philip Ferreira was among New York Staff Band members who played for a crowd of 300 during a performance at the Theater Miramar on Saturday evening and again during a worship service on Sunday.

IMG_1549“This was a great opportunity,” said Ferreira, who plays the baritone. “We sensed despite the humble living circumstances, the people of Cuba are very joyful about living, music and serving The Salvation Army there.”

The Salvation Army of Cuba is headquartered in Havana, with 22 Corps Community Centers located across the island.  TSA Cuba has little opportunity to fundraise, so it depends on the sale of things such as fruits, vegetables and eggs to help sustain the ministry.  In addition to worship services, The Salvation Army operates a housing program for seniors, an adult rehabilitation center and a feeding center. Its Officer Training School is meager, comparable to a one-room school house, with a small shelf of books for a “library” and one guitar for music instruction.  The visiting Salvation Army USA group performed service projects at two corps community centers, where members painted and performed much-needed minor building repairs.

20160221_080522The trip to Cuba was an opportunity Aaron Cohen, the new chair of The Salvation Army Greater Philadelphia Advisory Board, says he couldn’t pass up.  He and his wife Priscilla accompanied TSA officers and staff on tours, service projects and worship services.  The couple joined in TSA’s effort to offer hope and optimism to the people of Cuba.  Aaron hopes his experiences will further inspire the Greater Philadelphia Advisory Board.

“Our impact can be so profound and immediate with engagement,” he said. “The sense of community there is really powerful.”

DSCN0420Sunday, February 21, brought Salvationists from across Cuba together for one big worship service, a rarity, since The Salvation Army there only owns one vehicle. Expensive buses were rented to transport people from across the island to the service. Nearly 300 packed the church to worship and sing together. The New York Staff Band played its traditional British-Brass style, as well as Latin inspired music to liven up the audience.

“This was a time for celebration,” Lt. Col. Banfield said. “The trip itself was an opportunity to assess how we can go back and help during a mission trip next year.”

The Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware’s Women’s Ministry has made it a goal to work this year to raise money for new uniforms for officers and expand the library at The Salvation Army of Cuba’s Training College.

20160220_112429_HDRReverend Bonnie Camarda, Director of Partnerships, The Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, is originally a native of Cuba who left the country with family members in 1967.  Now a U.S. citizen, this was the first time she had been back to the country in more than 30 years.

“It was heartbreaking to see the deterioration of the country, but I felt like God was with us the entire time. The country was so open to The Salvation Army. It was very impressive,” she said.  “We left with hope that we are able to provide support to The Salvation Army of Cuba.”

A sentiment echoed by Lt. Col. Banfield. “We have a strong desire to return to help The Salvation Army of Cuba, so they are able to provide better service and programs and to help them help themselves to be more sustainable.”

Another mission trip to The Salvation Army of Cuba is planned for 2017.

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