The United States is not there — at least not in relationship to our close neighbor, Cuba. Thanks to the tenacity of the church in the U.S. committed to God’s justice and love, and to President Obama, our neighborliness is improving incrementally, but we have a long way to go before we get anywhere close to being a good neighbor.
We know the markers of neighborliness from the oft-proclaimed story of the Good Samaritan. A staple of Bible school curricula and an over-used text for seminary preaching class assignments, the parable takes on metaphorical and even mythological meaning in religious culture.
How would a nation be neighborly anyway? Perhaps the same way individuals are portrayed as neighborly in the text — by demonstrating mercy and compassionately sharing what we have with those who have been abused, robbed, neglected and left to perish on the side of the road.
Neighborliness is what I’ve experienced the 20 years I’ve been visiting ministry partners in the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba. During each of my eight visits I have witnessed Cubans sharing, caring, extending a helping hand, laboring together and bearing one another’s burdens. In contrast to the hyper-individualism of our culture, community and national concerns are the focus of conversation and commitments.
The over 50-year-old sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on Cuba have created hardship for people across the island who have needed access to affordable medicine and medical treatment. In spite of this resource handicap, the medical system in Cuba is one of the most effective and efficient systems around the world. With an enviable rate of infant mortality and an equally enviable life expectancy age of 78, the country reaches out around the world offering assistance to other nations as needed.
Because of the need for medicine, each of my trips has been preceded by collecting vitamins and antibiotics, antihistamines and anti-inflammatory medications for delivery to to our Baptist family in the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba. What seems like a mountain of medicine when packing and checking on the airplane, looks like a paltry gift upon arrival. But soon after arrival the parable of the loaves and fishes is embodied, and pain relief becomes a reality for that day.
On one such trip my bag contained hypodermic needles required by diabetics for insulin injections. I brought them in response to one woman’s request. However, by the time my journey ended, a community of diabetic individuals had received a portion of the difficult to acquire needles.
Earlier this year I asked José Cabañas, Cuban ambassador to the U.S., and Joel Ortega, president of the Cuban Council of churches, what the Alliance of Baptists could do to support the Cuban people. “Continue to work to end the embargo,” they said. We’ve re-opened the embassy in Cuba and in the U.S. We’ve started on a path to normalize relations, but we still have a long way to go before we are good neighbors. The recent statement adopted by the Alliance of Baptists’ board of directors is in direct response to their request.
When we look to the scriptures for guidance on how to treat our neighbors, there is no instruction concerning political systems, but a wealth of instruction on the standards by which we are to treat our neighbors. In fact, the entire gospel teaching hinges on love of God and love of neighbor.
With support from Jeffrey Baker’s insight in a January 2016 article, I call on us as a nation to treat our neighboring country as would treat ourselves and accept Cuban dignity and perspective from their position in the world. “Love is not a call to standardize others in our preferred images. Love calls us to receive a [nation] in their complexity and then to love them as we would be loved if we shared it.”
The very soul of our nation is at stake, for Jesus tells us clearly, “the second — and the greatest — commandment is that we love the other as ourselves.”