What would stand out somewhat from the historical timeline of U.S.-Cuban relations is mention of American citizens being granted religious visas for the purposes of traveling to Cuba.
But that’s exactly what Pastor Joe Santerelli of Hillside Church and his daughter, Ariel, were granted by the Caribbean island prior to their missionary trip to the country last week: something disallowed in any widespread way since 1963, two years after the Bay of Pigs invasion of the island by CIA-trained Cuban exiles.
“I would call this an open door,” Joe Santerelli said. “We were granted a religious visa for the purpose of working with the churches.”
According to a 2010 Pew Forum report, 12.3 percent of the world’s Christian population lives in the U.S., compared to the nearly doubled Christian population that occupies Latin America and the Caribbean at 24.4 percent.
The Christian outlook in Cuba is even stronger and more concentrated, according to a Pew Forum study released last year: 66.7 percent of Cubans identify themselves as Christians.
“Here, I can invite 100 people to church, and maybe one of them will come,” Joe Santerelli said. “There’s a spiritual hunger, not necessarily for Christianity. People are open to anything here, and quite honestly we’re oversaturated.”
“For a pastor that’s bothersome, but that’s the way it is.”
The trip was a welcome and unexpected gift, Joe and Ariel Santerelli said: an answered prayer.
Ariel had asked a friend of her father’s, who organized the mission trip, if she could tag along with the group. It was her father who broke the news to her: His friend was able to make room for her; however, that chaperone would not be traveling with her, and he had decided to back out of the trip.
The assumption at the time, Ariel said, was that she would be roughing it on her own in Cuba.
“You scared me when you came home and said he wasn’t going to go,” Ariel said to her father.
But what she later learned was that her dad’s friend suggested that Joe take his place instead: that way Ariel would be with family as she travels abroad.
“I knew her calling was in missionary work, and I wanted to help foster that,” Joe Santerelli said.
Not only were the father and daughter not expecting the opportunity to visit Cuba and minister together there, they also weren’t expecting to encounter the openness they did, particularly through a Spanish translator.
“They seemed more concerned about our welfare, which was great,” Joe Santerelli said. “We stayed with a family, and they had breakfast laid out everyday.”
“They washed our clothes, made sure everything was taken care of for us,” Ariel Santerelli said. “Although I could not speak their language, through the translator you could see their face light up.”
The Santerellis describe walking the streets of Havana as a time warp in all the right ways: 1957 Chevy taxis, manners, Cuban restaurants serving delicious authentic foods and coffee with real sugar cane.
“For a car enthusiast, they’d be salivating,” Joe Santerelli said about the ’40s- and ’50s-era model cars. “They’d have to wear a bib.”
They went with other church leaders and translators, knocking on doors, asking residents how their morning, afternoon or evening was, and if they could have a conversation with them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“Even if they weren’t Christians, they still wanted to hear the whole story,” Joe Santerelli said. “There wasn’t anyone that said, ‘No, I don’t want to hear it.’
“We wanted to hear their hearts, too,” Ariel Santerelli said.
This was not the West, Joe Santerelli said: these are special times for Cuba. When discussing the religious authenticity of Cubans he spoke to, he pinches his eyes shut and talks with his hands.
“The ones who know Christ are so authentic,” he said. “When you say someone’s a hypocrite — I don’t see a sense of play-acting.”
And prospects about the American and Cuban cultures and countries having the freedom to open travel, at least in any widespread tourist sense, currently rests in bill form in the hands of a committee. The bill is called the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act — there’s been two of them introduced so far, the first in 2002 and most recently in 2009 — and if passed, would allow U.S. and Cuban citizens to openly travel between the two countries.
So far, no action has been taken on the bill.
The day came they had to part ways with the Caribbean country, less than 100 miles from Florida but in other ways much farther than that.
Their plane was delayed while leaving Cuba, Joe Santerelli said, and the wait was long enough that food was provided for them at the airport. While waiting in line to receive their food, several teenagers looked at the Santerellis, backed up and said, “Go ahead.”
“They didn’t have to, but just a service attitude,” Joe Santerelli said.
“There’s just more common courtesy with the Cuban people,” Ariel Santerelli said. “I wish America could (have) what Cuba has.”
Joe Santerelli describes his trip to Cuba, and the witnessing and worship he experienced with the Cuban people, as a resurrection for his love of being a pastor.
“It grounded me a lot, and reignited the passion; they wanted to hear what we had to say,” he said. “God is moving in Cuba, and you can sense that. In America … I’m praying personally for another Great Awakening here.”
The church will hold a sunrise Easter service at 7 a.m. March 31 at the Sherman Hills Golf Course. Breakfast, baptisms, and a community-wide egg hunt are on the list.