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Intercom Feature Articles

A Vision that Keeps Unfolding
By S. Louise Akers

Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba. In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.  ~ President Barack Obama

When I heard these words I immediately thought of S. Stephanie Lindsey. She was a bridge builder, not only between the U.S. and Cuba but between many other countries and cultures. I thought this would be a good time to make the connections between the Sisters of Charity and this monumental event! I believe it’s evident a global vision continues to grow within our Congregation.

Cuban Relations
Under the rule of Dictator Batista (1952-’58) “people subsisted under miserable living conditions with little access to education and health care. Sugar, tobacco and coffee production was in the hands of U.S. companies. Cuba depended as well on U.S. oil and imports of all kinds. The nation’s raw materials and human resources meant huge profit for foreign interest, with a bit trickling down to an ostentatious local oligarchy.”1

On Jan. 1, 1959, Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro ousted a dictatorship and claimed their country’s sovereignty. Immediately, covert destabilization strategies as well as an all-out military invasion were orchestrated to bring the new government down. U.S. policy, then and since, could not conceive of a nation in its sphere of influence being allowed to follow its chosen path. In July 1960, the U.S. suspended its quota of Cuban sugar. Six months later, Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. In 1962, a blockade and trade embargo began. Thus began decades of attempts to destabilize, overthrow and discredit the Cuban revolution.

History of GATE
In response to the call of Pope John XXIII to religious congregations in the United States to send 10 percent of their members to Latin America, many congregations of Sisters established a missionary presence there. One of those who participated was S. Stephanie Lindsey. She found her life profoundly affected by what she experienced in her ministry in Lima, Peru, where for 18 years she served the people. When she returned, she was asked by her Congregation to share her understanding of liberation theology and the way its preferential option for the poor was transforming the Church in many Third World countries.

S. Stephanie responded to this need by going to Mexico and designing GATE (Global Awareness Through Experience). Its mission is to create an awareness of other cultures and their realities through people-to-people connections. GATE’s alternate tourism allows the traveler to approach a people as pilgrim; in deep respect for their culture and history and presents the opportunity to learn from the poor as well as from social analysts, teachers, theologians and economists. S. Stephanie found support both from SC Associate Chess Campbell, a Presbyterian missionary, and from the Lutheran Center in Mexico City. It was in Mexico City in 1982 that S. Stephanie and Chess offered the first GATE program to eight participants.

Interest in the programs grew rapidly, and in 1984 GATE offered 15 programs in Mexico, eight in Nicaragua, and one in Honduras. Later they added tours to Cuba, Peru and the Caribbean, as well as the Eastern Bloc countries.

GATE programs have continued to evolve. To learn more visit www.gate-travel.org.

SC Memories
I searched for Sisters of Charity who had either participated in the GATE program or had gone to Cuba through other programs. The following are excerpts from their memories: 

S. Nancy Bramlage participated in a GATE immersion trip to Cuba.

“[It] was probably the most transformational and educational trip I ever made. And this was largely due to the super effective propaganda about Cuba that the U.S. government fed us in the 1960s after Fidel Castro came to power as president. We learned in school that Fidel Castro was an evil man who ruled a Communist Cuba. It was such a threat to the U.S. to have a small island country so close to us with a Communist government and every effort was made to make us fear them and keep them from succeeding. It was so very enlightening for me to be surrounded by Cubans who liked  Fidel Castro and who could tell me all the good things that had been developed in their country: an excellent health care system and a very good educational program for everyone.”

Associate Chess Campbell worked and lived in Mexico with her husband, Gary, a Presbyterian minister. Gary worked at CENCOS, a progressive predominantly Catholic center of social analysis and communication.

“I went to Cuba after living almost a decade in Mexico which gave me the opportunity to view life on the island through a different set of lenses. Some of my impressions: We talked with some Cuban officials at higher levels of government and church but more time was spent listening to people at the grassroots. Not all of them were in accord with the policies of their government but all were supportive of the priority given to health and education. Billboards everywhere emphasized the country’s priority for Cuba’s literacy rate which then and now continues to be among the highest in the region. Efforts were made to combat a spirit of machismo with special attention for women in church and society nationally and internationally …”

S. Joan Flynn visited Cuba.

“I remember a sadness in some people’s faces. However, there was an evident desire to connect when we were in church, as exemplified in their reaching across two or three pews to shake hands at the kiss of peace.”

S. Louise Lears traveled to Cuba during her Novitiate and was able to spend time with S. Stephanie following the 10-day GATE program.

I have a collage of memories: smiling schoolchildren in uniforms; cars from the 1950s; brightly colored doors lining the streets; peeling paint and crumbling walls; health care for everyone; an undercurrent of fear; hospitality wherever we went.”

S. Judith Metz went to Cuba in 1979 on a comparative economics program.

“Cuba is a very beautiful island, but it was like a walk back in time. The pace was slower than in our country. There weren’t too many cars on the streets – and the ones that were there were very old American models. One thing that stands out in my mind was when some of us went into a grocery store. There was very little on the shelves – and very few choices. It was startling after having experienced the superabundance of our supermarkets. We had a guide who was with us all of the time when we met with people or visited various sites.”

S. Jean Miller visited Cuba several times as a staff person for GATE.
“Each time I was in Cuba my heart was happy because I saw an economic program that had a priority on the neediest in society. Through cooperatives people had ownership in their industrial or agricultural business. They worked with others for the good of all. Life was difficult for everybody because of foreign blockades, etc. However I saw the seeds of a new way to organize economics that was more just and formed more community. With the economic wealth gap we experience now, we might want to look more closely on how to use what we could learn from Cuba and how it was implemented in Nicaragua later.”

S. Donna Steffen, with S. Louise Akers, were participants in a preparatory regional conference for Central American and Caribbean women in 1984; 19 were from the U.S.

“Being present for the roll call of nations as the women from the various Latin American and Caribbean countries entered the hall where the NGO conference was held was extremely moving. During the conference I was surprised to find that the women from the various countries saw Fidel Castro almost as a hero. From their perspective, the people of Cuba had food and housing that many in their own countries lacked.

“The country is a beautiful island nation. Yet, even when I was there in 1984, the impact of the embargo hurting the people, the economy, and the development of the country was evident.”

S. Caroljean Willie attended the International Christian Peace Conference in Havana.

“I visited schools both on the Cuban mainland and on the Isle of Youth. There were a number of schools here that Castro founded to educate teachers for developing countries. We also had the opportunity to visit a prison (not political prisoners) and one of the things that impressed me was that there was no system of parole, but all prisoners had a full-time job for which they received a salary which helped their families while they were incarcerated. I also learned that only about 7 percent of those released return to prison. In the U.S. it is closer to 40-50 percent.”

In the words of Chess Campbell, “How thankful we are that S. Stephanie’s vision keeps unfolding!”  

  1. New Mexico Mercury,  Margaret  Randall “The United States and Cuba: A Half Century”, December 19,2014

S. Louise Akers arrives at the Havana Airport with two other women from the U.S.

S. Louise Akers with Philippine/U.S. women from
New York.

Sculpture of Lenin, Bolshevik Revolutionary hero.
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Children entertain an audience at the NGO conference.

Making Cuban cigars in Havana hotel.

Matanzas Beach where there were a couple hours reserved
for relaxation.

Day Care Center in Havana.

Production and Defense – a mantra seen throughout the country.

A fashion show began around
1 a.m. following the NGO

S. Louise Akers at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.
International Christian Peace Conference in Havana. S. Donna Steffen was present along with S. Stephanie Lindsey, who served as secretary of the conference.

History will not condemn me; it will absolve me.

 S. Caroljean Willie with women at the peace conference.

S. Caroljean Willie with the relative of a Miami priest.
A hospital in Havana, Cuba.

S. Caroljean Willie visiting with Cuban youth.

Books on Fidel Castro in the Museum in the Isle of Youth.