One bright morning in the fall 1996, a brief verbal exchange happened between my two sons that, when considered in light of something else that would happen a few short weeks later, I’m quite certain I’ll never forget.
I was driving my children – the two boys and their sister, Rachel – to school along a two-lane stretch of highway. We were in the right lane directly behind a large bus. Eventually, I grew impatient with the slow pace and seized an opportunity to pass. This prompted my older boy, Stephen, aged ten at the time, to say: “Nice move, Dad. Those bus fumes were getting to me.”
Matthew, four years his junior, then rather innocently replied: “I like bus fumes.”
To which Stephen, a precocious boy, answered: “Perhaps you’d change your mind if I told you that bus fumes contain deadly carbon monoxide gas.”
Matt paused, no doubt bewildered by both his brother’s words and tone, and simply replied: “Oh.”
I stifled a laugh. The difference in their perspectives was remarkable… and would soon console me during an unexpected hardship.
The next month, I made my first (of four) trips to Cuba. My visit was part of an allowable cultural exchange, and I travelled with an appropriate license from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Due to legal restrictions, travel between the U.S. and Cuba must involve an intermediate stop in a neutral country. I booked an itinerary through the Bahamas that necessitated an 8-hour layover in Nassau.
Admittedly, spending eight hours in a tropical paradise doesn’t sound like the worst of fates; however, there were no lockers at the airport in which I could store my luggage, so I spent the entire layover sitting in a nearly empty departure lounge lacking even a television monitor to keep me company. By the time the flight to Cuba boarded, I was exhausted and gnawingly hungry.
Onboard the plane, I immediately experienced disquiet. My fellow passengers were a rowdy group; and, I got the sense that many of them were traveling to Cuba for a “good time.” I wanted to disappear.
When the plane finally landed in Havana, many seemingly inebriated passengers gave a mock cheer, as if surprised by the flight’s successful arrival.
Relieved to be off the plane, I gathered my luggage at baggage claim and stood in the long line at immigration and customs. Just in front of me, I noticed another man traveling alone, who looked a bit haggard. I introduced myself and discovered that he too was from the United States. Further, I learned that he would also be staying at my hotel, the Habana Libre, in the newer section of Havana. I was grateful to have a companion for this last portion of the journey.
When we arrived at the hotel, it was nearly 2:00 a.m. We asked about food options at the front desk and were directed to an all-night cafe across the lobby. My new acquaintance and I agreed to drop our bags in our respective rooms and then meet back in the lobby to get a bite to eat. At this point, I was only moments from one of the darkest experiences of my life.
I turned on the light in my room and, as I dropped my bags on the bed, noticed a cockroach running along the top of the headboard. Things were not going well.
Back in the lobby, I joined up with my companion and headed for the cafe. We were not yet through the door when we were met by a very aggressive young man, who kept asking us in broken English if we wanted to go to the disco? I told him that we weren’t interested and kept walking toward the stools in front of the counter. He walked right along with us and sat on the stool next to mine. Again, he asked about the disco and then motioned to someone with his hand. Suddenly, two young women, dressed quite provocatively, came over to join us.
I was exasperated. “No!” I said, shaking my head emphatically. The young man looked at me with a truly puzzled expression and walked away with the two young women. A moment later, two young men – undoubtedly sent by the same pimp – came to take the places of the young women. Again, I looked at them and said, “No!” Ever persistent, two other young women then came by, only to receive the same response.
After that final dismissal, the pimp finally yielded. I hurriedly ate my hamburger, bid goodnight to my quasi-friend, and went back to my room and my multi-legged roommates.
When I entered, I did not turn on the light. Instead, I walked to the window and pulled aside the curtains, revealing the downtown area of the city. On the street below, I saw many young people, each of them a child of God, prostituting themselves.
I felt sick!
Describing what happened next is an impossible undertaking since spiritual matters, by their very nature, defy explanation. It must suffice for me to say that an oppressive and “living” sense of darkness overwhelmed me.
I wanted desperately to rescue those beautiful young people… to help them understand their awesome dignity; but, instead, I felt paralyzed and completely impotent. I could not change their world. All I could do – and this with great difficulty – was pray.
In God’s time, the then-recent conversation between my two boys came vividly to mind, and I suddenly had greater clarity about its implications. And, with that clarity, came peace.
Very few are called to change the world in an obvious and heroic way, least of all me. There is nothing I could have done directly to change the circumstances in Havana at (roughly) 2:45 a.m. that day. Still, I firmly believe that we are all genuine agents of change and that there is a portion of the world in which we can make an enormous difference – namely, in what sociologists call our personal “oikos,” i.e., our regular social circle comprised of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.
The recollection of the conversation between my two sons broke through the darkness to remind me of my “oikos,” my very own sphere of influence.
Stephen had matured to the point where he understood some of the world’s risks, but there was still so very much to learn. Matthew was in an even freer – and, consequently, more vulnerable – place, where bus fumes were still a good thing.
I was (and still am) privileged to hold an enormously important place in both of their lives. If I could(/can) help them – and other members of my “oikos” – to understand better their remarkable dignity and worth, I will have made an enormous difference.
In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven, which has a transformative effect on an entire loaf of bread.
It can defeat us to imagine trying to help an entire world “rise” to wholeness and holiness. But, if we can leaven just our personal “oikos,” the loaf entrusted to our care, we will have done a great deal, i.e., we will have changed the world.
Love dispels even the deepest darkness.
NOTE: This essay is definitely not intended in any way as an indictment of the Cuban people, who were among the warmest, kindest, and most hospitable people I have ever encountered while traveling internationally.