Circle of Mercy members at the MLK Center in Havana, Cuba, for Christmas 2010. Mark Siler (third from right) and Kiran Sigmon (third from left, back) hosted the group. Photo provided.
Experiencing a non-traditional type of Christmas, 10 Circle of Mercy (UCC/American Baptist) members left behind the mountains of Asheville, N.C., to spend the holiday in Matanzas and Camagüey, Cuba – a country still under a U.S. embargo begun 50 years ago, about the time the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union started.
Five adults, a high school senior and four other children made the trip. Since 2005, Circle of Mercy has had a partnership with Iglesia Getsemani Bautista (Gethsemane Baptist Church) in Camagüey, Cuba's third-largest city.
The visitors were Chris Bell and Beth Maczka, and their daughters, Kenzie, 13, and Gaven, 10; Jim Miller and Jeanine Siler Jones and their daughter Peyton, 18; and Tracey Whitehouse and her sons, Graham, 13, and Jack, 11.
"I am most grateful for the opportunity that we had to share Christmas without the typical wrappings," says Maczka. "My favorite memories are of singing carols together, celebrating Christmas Eve at the First Baptist Church in Mantanzas and watching their live nativity scene that opened to the streets of the city the next morning.
"For all that they don't have in Cuba, they certainly have an abundance of joy and creativity and beauty," adds Maczka. "We felt so blessed to be with our Cuban brothers and sisters along with our friends from the Circle of Mercy."
The nine-day trip included time in Matanzas, on Cuba's northwestern shore, where another Circle of Mercy family — Mark Siler, Kiran Sigmon and their daughters, Joy and Leigh — are living for a year.
The group traveled under an official license by the U.S. Treasury Department. Thus far the U.S. State Department has declined to give a travel visa to Iglesia Getsemani's pastor, Rev. Angela Hernandez, to visit Asheville.
On his second trip to Cuba, Graham Whitehouse says what touched him most was the generosity and sincerity of the people there. "The saying 'what's mine is yours' is completely true there," says Graham, an eighth-grader at Asheville Middle School. "People were always willing to share the little that they had".