Embracing an opportunity to help construct prison ministry in Cuba, Mark Siler is hoping to "build more bridges that allow for experiencing God in the 'other.' "
Siler, a prison chaplain in Asheville, N.C., began on Oct. 8 a nine-month series of prison-ministry trainings for local church leaders in Cuba with workshops in the eastern cities of Camagüey, Holguin and Vayamo.
"Our time there can only increase the common commitments and destiny that have already been claimed," Siler wrote in an April 21 letter outlining his intention. "This Cuba-U.S. faith exchange creates more opportunities for our mutual following of Jesus beyond the political, cultural, racial and economic barriers that try to falsely define and separate us.
"It gives those of us in the United States another link to the courageous and vibrant faith in Cuba – a faith neither supported nor compromised by state privilege," wrote Siler, a member of the Circle of Mercy in Asheville, N.C., who was invited to Cuba by the Cuban Council of Churches.
In an Oct. 26 blog entry, Siler says he and his family experienced an early whirlwind prison chaplaincy tour of Cuba that was "amazing, exhausting, humiliating and perfect."
"The baptism by fire often felt more like drowning as we (wife Kiran and I) were expected to lead our parts of the workshop in Spanish, minus a couple of days with a translator in Camaguey," wrote Siler.
Satisfied with his Spanish-speaking acumen, Siler says his comprehension was another story. "The fact that those gathered were participating in a lively and engaged manner was a good sign, but lively and engaged speech is harder to understand when one is still a novice with a new language."
The process prompted Siler's ego to generate questions, second-guesses and doubt.
"What am I doing here?" Siler blogged. "I'm never going to learn this language. There has got to be someone besides me who should be doing this. I am reminded again that humiliation and humility come from the same word.
"At times, I can recognize the gift to learn more about this gift of the Spirit and am able to just be with all my inadequacies. But often, knowing that I am standing in front of a group of adults talking like a first-grader (at best) is just plain hard. In many ways, the journey is just beginning."
The 25-plus denominations represented in Cuba are striving to mount a unified, organized effort under the auspices of the Cuban Council of Churches.
"Largely for theological reasons, many of the chaplains have been quite reluctant to work with the Cuban Council of Churches," wrote Siler, adding that "Paco," the project coordinator who invited the Silers on the journey, has an immediate positive effect. "Many of them came with great suspicion. Paco, however, was able to transcend the divisions and name the common faith and hopes that all shared. It was a great first step."
Founded in 2001, Circle of Mercy is affiliated nationally with the UCC and the Alliance of Baptists, both of whom have churches partnered with Cuban congregations. Circle of Mercy's partnership with Iglesia Getsemani, a Baptist congregation in Camagüey, Cuba's third-largest city, set the stage for the larger partnership with Cuban churches.
"The Cuban government has relaxed restrictions on churches' contacts with prisoners," says the Rev. Ken Sehested, Circle of Mercy's co-pastor, who has maintained contacts within the Cuban Christian community over the past two decades. "This prompted a Council of Churches plan for mobilizing local congregations for pastoral ministry with inmates. This is one of those old-fashioned, free-range, leap-of-faith callings."
In his letter, Siler cited his two years as a chaplain at a maximum-security prison in Asheville – as well as the encouragement of retired pastor Francisco Rodes to help develop ministry in Cuba – in answering a calling that could not wait.
"I'm convinced that ministry with those who are, or have been, incarcerated is my particular place within the body of Christ," wrote Siler.
In addition to teaching prison ministry, Siler is also teaching chaplaincy at the Ecumenical Seminary in Matanzas.
Sigmon, who has chaired Circle of Mercy's Cuba Mission Partner relationship since it was formed in 2005, is helping to host church groups visiting Cuba. Siler, Sigmon and their daughters Joy and Leigh have traveled to Cuba several times in recent years. This trip is no different.
"Many of our congregations' delegations to Cuba included children," wrote Siler. "We have witnessed the extraordinary way in which children lead us toward the Beloved Community that we so desire."
Siler is an M.Div. student at Earlham School of Religion, Richmond, Ind. He holds master's degrees in pastoral studies from Loyola University in New Orleans and in social work from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. In 1998, he earned a degree in pastoral education from the Carolinas Medical Center.
"During much of the past decade, Mark has also been a stay-at-home dad," says Sehested. "He still managed as a volunteer director to get two non-profits off the ground. And he also served as our congregation's music coordinator for several years."