Rev. Lamont Williams was among black pastors that visited Cuba earlier this year, after President Barack Obama called for an end to the U.S. embargo on the communist nation.
Williams, pastor of Diggs Memorial Church, went on a trip to the Cuban capital of Havana with pastors from around the nation. It was sponsored by the Progressive National Baptist Convention, whose general secretary, Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, helped organize and participated in the trip. The trip, which lasted from Jan. 30-Feb. 9, was part of the 25th anniversary celebration of a Cuban Baptist church organization, La Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba. During that time, the pastors worshipped, preached and took communion with Cuban congregations.
Williams said those he talked to were cautious, but optimistic about the end to the five-decade- old embargo on trade and travel to the island country that’s only 90 miles south of Florida.
“Many of them said ‘Yes, it’s wonderful,’ but they still want to maintain their identity,” he said.
Rev. Dr. John Mendez, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, helped organize the trip. He also planned to go, but was unable to, because he was helping with protests over new developments in an Apache land dispute in Arizona. Mendez is no stranger to Cuba, having visited the country several times, including in a large delegation that came with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. He said he welcomed the end of what he called “fifty years of this nonsense that hasn’t produced anything.”
“As Americans, we have to learn how to get along with other people, other countries in the world,” he said. “Everybody’s not our enemy and Cuba is a small, tiny country that has a right to choose their own social/economic system and to organize their destiny as they see it without our interference.”
Since Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement on normalizing relations with Cuba, 12 categories of travel are now allowed for Americans going there, including family visits, religious purposes and cultural exchanges. Tourism restrictions have yet to be listed. Talks are underway on renewing diplomatic relations. Cuba’s status on the state sponsors of terrorism list is being reviewed. Lifting of trade sanctions will have to approved by Congress, where opponents say that restrictions should not be lifted without concessions of free elections , greater freedoms and the release of all political prisoners by the Cuban government. Obama and other supporters have said free trade will encourage Cuba to become more democratic.
Many have made high profile visits to Cuba in the last couple months, including members of the U.S. Congress and Conan O’Brien, who filmed his show there.
Williams said he believes his was the first African-American delegation to visit since Obama’s announcement. He said he saw a lot of Cuban-Americans visiting their families there.
On the streets of Havana he saw busses labeled “US-Cuba Friendshipment” with the words “End the embargo against Cuba!” on them. These buses have been used by the U.S.-based Pastors for Peace to defy the embargo with annual aid shipments to Cuba since 1992.
Williams said the Cuban people have close-knit communities that rely on each other for things like large urban gardens that are planted by and benefit the whole community. He heard from one Cuban that it was odd that some Americans don’t know their neighbors. In Cuba, he was told, neighbors help each other survive.
Williams sang during the Cuban church services. He said that, despite the language barrier, he was well received with requests to come back and do a concert, and inquiries if he had any CDs of his vocals.
“This lady comes to me after the service, she says ‘Listen, I couldn’t figure out all the words you were saying, but I was moved by the spirit in which you sung it,’” he said.
They also visited the Centro Memorial Martin Luther King Jr. in Havana, which was founded to provide training and education in King’s philosophy of nonviolence.
By Todd Luck, The Chronicle
March 11, 2015