In-Between Spaces

A reflection on a Three Month Study Leave in Cuba

Homily for Easter 5, 2012

by Music Director, Becca Whitla

Good morning.

I have been asked to share with you a little bit about my recent three month study leave to Cuba. There is also a blog: http://springincuba.blogspot.ca/ and I plan to organize my photos someday!

I was there for three months from January to April to study choral conducting and theology at a seminar in Matanzas with my thirteen year old daughter Emma, finishing up the final semester of a Master of Sacred music degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. It was part of my larger personal, spiritual and academic journey.

This morning I’d like to invite you to reflect upon in-between spaces and in- between times. My time in Cuba was, for me,  an in-between intercultural space.

The reading from Acts describes such an intercultural encounter. Philip is instructed to “make his way south” on a wilderness road where he encounters an Ethiopian Eunuch. Riding together in the Eunuch’s chariot, they engage in an exchange. A space is created between them in which the Eunuch experiences a conversion moment and decides right then and there to be baptized.

I confess that I experience a little bit of envy when I read this kind of reading – it is a dramatic story in which the angels and the Holy Spirit play an active role. As I wrestle with spiritual and vocational questions myself, it would be so great to have an angel pop out of the sky and give me some clear direction.

But a little deeper reading reveals some messiness and complexity, that might more closely mirror my own life and perhaps our life as a community.

Why did the Eunuch need to be converted?
What was wrong with his first understanding of scripture?

Our formation as Christians teaches us that our way is the right way, an approach that has colonized,  and annihilated peoples all over the world. Perhaps this isn’t the best model for an intercultural exchange after all? Especially as Philip, in this story, appears to have all the power, though it is true that the Eunuch also has the power and privilege of the royal court. Power relationships are often complicated like this.

At Holy Trinity we reject this kind universalizing, at least the part that oppresses other people. I wonder though, sometimes, whether we have done all we can? When might we be tempted to use our power and privilege to get our way?

These are the kind of questions I have been personally wrestling with in my studies as I try to make sense of my own faith journey which I could equally well call a ‘journey of doubt’. They are also certainly questions I also encountered in my time in Cuba in daily intercultural exchanges – in the thousand little conversions I experienced all along the way.

In Cuba, I am wealthy, I am foreign and I am white. Our way here in Canada is greedy, it is unsustainable, and I would say, life-killing. I can see that the kind of simplicity that dominates Cuban life might be a better path forward for humanity. And yet, this life of simplicity is also a life of scarcity that has its own problems – lack of privacy, a struggle to get basic food needs met, wasted time just trying to accomplish the most basic tasks.

In Cuba, there is the added complexity of the a need for a whole scale re-visioning of society –  the revolution is tired and it is no longer capable of looking after the most vulnerable. There is a sense of desesperanza –  a lack of hope –  in the air.  This is a huge challenge for Cuban churches – it tears at the ecumenical fabric of their unity. In these contexts, who am I to waltz in and say that the simple way of life in Cuba is a better path forward from my position of relative wealth?

My task is not to tell Cubans that they’ve got it right, though I kind of think they do. It is to be self-critical, to learn from my experience there and apply it to my life here.

How can I lead a simpler life, in this land of plenty? How might I invite others to join me? My friends my family, you, my community, in a bid to live responsibly, to live in solidarity with the rest of the world and many people in this country who have so little? Within two days of our return, Emma had cut her clothes in half, appalled by the relative amount of stuff in our house.

Over the course of my stay in Cuba, I became increasingly aware that my friendships were challenged by a power imbalance. I had more wealth, more freedom, more privilege, and more power. With such an imbalance, it is not very difficult to assume mutuality. But, I know that friendship is possible. For me the starting point is to acknowledge my own position of relative power. By putting my own power, my own privilege on the table, by giving it up a little, even a little,  real engagement becomes possible.

Returning to the first reading, I want to now imagine it a little differently for a moment
— I wonder if the Eunuch, an African and a member of a sexual minority, kept intact his own understanding, experience and culture in the conversion moment, contrary to what I might have assumed at first. Perhaps he went on his way rejoicing, intact as a the person he was but enriched with new knowledge and new perspective.
— I wonder too if Philip may have been changed, maybe he experienced a conversion of sorts through the interchange with the Eunuch

So then, how do I? how do we? enter the in-between space that is required by real engagement? How do we truly give up power? How do we discern what the gospel means and then seek to proclaim it, potentially open to our own conversion even as we seek to convert? This is messy hard work. And it is work that makes me, at least, really uncomfortable. That’s when I know I am doing it – when I get squirmy.

At Holy Trinity we say we are committed to challenging oppression wherever it may be found, expressing our faith through lives of integrity, justice and compassion. I can get behind that, at least in theory. But I fall short in the living-it-out all the time. How do we ensure that we are truly putting our privileges and our entitlements on the table?

I’d like to look to the second reading for some guidance –  an excerpt of the first letter of John. The task requires nothing more and nothing less than “love”. Loving one another and loving God. It is an invitation to embody love. “Love is of God” John tells us. Last week we heard in the sermon that we are to love in truth and action, not in word or speech. That sounds good.

But this is not an easy task to carry out.

First, there’s the problem of sacrifice — or atoning sacrifice, in some translations of this text. Through much of Christian history, a theology of the cross as self-giving love (and I am going to quote Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza here, from Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology) “has rendered the exploitation of all women in the name of love and self-sacrifice psychologically acceptable and religiously warranted.”  I’m going to read that again: “has rendered the exploitation of all women in the name of love and self-sacrifice psychologically acceptable and religiously warranted.” I actually don’t think that’s what John had in mind. And I know it is not a theology I can embrace.

And yet, this kenotic move, this emptying of the self, this taking on of humanity through the incarnation has great potential as a model for embodying love.

I do not believe that the kind of annihilation and violation of the self which has been imposed on women and others in the name of Christianity is what is required. Instead I suggest that it is a ‘self limiting’, a ‘giving up of power’ in order to allow for space for an other. And I acknowledge that this is tricky work for anyone who has suffered oppression. Love is hard work. I am a mother. I know that I sometimes chose someone else’s needs over my own – but that does not mean that I erase myself or deny myself. If anything it requires the opposite.

The harder life gets, the harder it is to love, the harder it is to be lovable, the harder it is to accept love. Love is hard work. Hard choices are required. A child with cancer, my child with Leukemia,  is not always easy to love – despite the false propaganda we see everywhere. Daily awful chemotherapy is required, even when your kid is screaming and kicking, bouncing off the walls on steroids. Love requires the seemingly inhumane act of feeding daily poison to your kid so that he can live. It requires full exhausting engagement all the time.

Let me return to Cuba where love is an important ingredient in the daily recipe for survival. Cubans depend utterly on each other. At the daily chapel services at the seminary in Matanzas where we lived, love was a constant theme – but it wasn’t some kind of sentimental, sappy love.  Love means solidarity, it means living together – ‘convivir’, it means living together well – ‘buenvivir’, it means sharing the last food you have. As wealthy as I am, by Cuban standards, I needed to depend on my neighbours for everything from food, to lice treatment, to forks, to a cup of coffee and a friendly conversation. From their scarcity, my Cuban friends showed warm generosity and hospitality. They embodied love.

When David, my son, visited with Alan for two weeks and got sick, the seminary driver Girardo, drove the seminary van for two hours in the middle of the night to the Pediatric Hospital in Havana and stayed with us all night long. Hospitals are in between places –  in Cuba and in Canada –  in between sickness and health in between life and death. Love takes us to those in between spaces. Our friends in Cuba organized daily visits and brought toilet paper, soap, water, cutlery and food, just as many of you have accompanied us here.

But how do we keep it up? We must depend utterly on each other.

A Cuban friend I know suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and had to give up a career as a nurse in the same pediatric hospital where David and I spent a week. At the age of 33 he now teaches Hebrew at the seminary –  he learned Hebrew from his Sephardic neighbours in Havana. He told me a story about how he had been inspired by a little boy. It was as if an angel was speaking to him, he said. Overwhelmed by the challenges of his life, he had been sitting alone in the seminary dining room thinking about giving up when he heard this boy’s voice and it gave him the courage to keep going. He didn’t understand the language. That little boy’s voice was David’s.

Sometimes the work of loving, the work of engagement requires nothing more than our simple presence. Sometimes that is all we are able to do. Every good pastor, every good shepherd, knows the discomfort of being in those in-between times and places with other people.

But when we can, I believe we are also called to a self critical engagement. That’s where I think the third reading points us. Branches that do not bear fruit get cut away.

My Cuba experience gave me the enormous privilege of being in a three month period of self critical engagement. I got to cut away the branches that bear no fruit. Everything thing I know, every way I have of being, all the ways I have of perceiving myself were lovingly challenged by my Cuban friends as I opened myself up and entered the in-between space of intercultural engagement.

I know this community engages in self critical process. We do this to embody love, to live out the justice seeking gospel we proclaim, to open ourselves up to the chance encounter with another that might convert both of us and continue to act as an agent of transformation in our lives.

I’d like to ask you to consider for a moment whether we are really doing this as much as we can – in our own lives and as a community. Where are our growth edges? What are the things that make us uncomfortable? Are we engaging the in-between spaces or do we avoid them? Will we choose the wilderness path to the south like Philip? Are we open to our own conversion?

Embodying love in these in-between spaces, at this in-between time means examining and re-examining our privileges, our entitlements, our prejudices. We need to prune away the branches in ourselves that do not bear any fruit. We need to consider questions of wealth, fairness, waste, needs and wants. This is our calling as Christians. This is our vocation as Holy Trinity.

The basketball court after the Easter Sunrise service, in Matanzas, Cuba.