By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt
Every year, as I walk the Lenten pilgrimage I am reminded of breakfasts prepared over charcoal in a remote farm community in Cuba where our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Team was working along side our Cuban brothers and sisters to build a retreat facility for the emerging Cuban Methodist Church. It was in that setting that my hungry, empty soul was filled as if by Jesus who also prepared a breakfast over a charcoal fire for his despairing disciples. I am deeply grateful for the compassion from a community filled with Grace who fed my soul.
In the early 1990s, Jesse Jackson personally confronted Fidel Castro with his abuse of Christians. Castro publicly apologized opening the doors for suppressed faith groups to come out of hiding and grow. By 1998, the time of my first trip, the Cuban Methodist Church had grown from 2,000 to more than30,000. Other Christian denominations and Jewish communities have grown at great speed. Within the last year, the Cuban government has asked our UMVIM teams, which have averaged one team a month, to come more often.
Perhaps the rapid growth is because their faith was a light the darkness could not overcome, an underground light much like a smoldering fire that lingers unnoticed until the firefighters have left the scene, whereupon it erupts into flames.
It is a strange irony that Genesis begins with darkness and the last of the four Gospels, John, ends in darkness—Genesis1: 1-5 and John 21: 1-14. Genesis tells us that before darkness there had never been anything other than darkness; it covered the face of the deep. At the end of the Gospel of John, the disciples go out fishing on the sea of Tiberias in the dark night! They have no luck. Their nets are empty. Then they spot somebody standing on the beach. They don’t see who it is in the darkness. It is Jesus.
All it took to break the darkness of Genesis was God’s word, “Let there be Light!” Amazing—beyond our imagination! But the darkness of John is broken by the flicker of a charcoal fire in the sand. Jesus has built a charcoal fire and he is cooking fish for his old friends. Breakfast! The sun is rising. All that we need to know about overcoming our own darkness may be found in those two scenes.
The original creation of light is so extraordinary that most of us cannot fathom it. Breakfast cooking on the beach is the opposite. It is so ordinary that we are prone to ignore it.
God’s creation of Light to overcome the darkness is not what pulls most of us to faith. It is too exceptional. So, a small spark was lit to draw us. Jesus sheltered a spark with his cupped hands and blew on it to make enough fire for a breakfast. Very few of us will come to God because of our interest in creation. We are much more likely to come because of the empty feeling in our hearts and stomachs.
Nearly every morning while working in Camp Canaan in Miller, Cuba, I was reminded of these scriptures. We awoke in the pale early morning light before the sun arose. Then, like the dawn of creation, the rising sun filled the sky with a golden ball of fire. As we watched the sunrise, the smell of breakfast being cooked over an open charcoal fire drew us toward the morning table.
I wasn’t sure why I went to Cuba. I felt called to go but it was a call I resisted. It scared me. It was out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t even speak Spanish! I responded to a pilgrimage I needed to take. I went to attempt to heal something in my hungry, empty soul. I hoped and prayed that if I loved and served in a new way my hungry, empty soul might be filled. Every morning two women cupped their hands and blew on a spark to start a charcoal fire for preparing breakfast. It was the love and compassion of colleagues in a grace filled community, eating breakfast together, working for others who loved us in return that filled the dark empty place in my soul. They loved me. I loved them. We worked in community, and Jesus brought light into the darkness of our lives and the lives of those we served. God healed my hungry, empty soul through the ones I went to serve—with charcoal, a compassionate community filled with Grace, in Cuba.