By Saundra Amrhein
Times Staff Writer
At first, Dayan Machado sought out the sick and the grieving.
He thought of his grandparents, without him in their final hours. They died before he could return to Cuba.
When he started as a young seminarian last fall at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, he wanted to bring comfort to others in ways he couldn't for his grandparents.
He didn't realize how hard it would be, or how much of his own pain he'd confront.
But Dayan, 25, had faced his fears before, when he found his faith in Cuba — hiding behind thick pillars at the back of the church, attending catechism on the roof in secret.
• • •
It was January 1998, and 15-year-old Dayan stood in formation with his classmates at an agriculture school near San Antonio de los Banos, a rural town less than 30 miles southwest of Havana.
The professor of Marxism addressed the 600 students: "The pope has just arrived in Cuba," Dayan remembers him saying. "For those interested, the television is in the cafeteria."
Dayan and only a handful of classmates crowded around the small set to watch Pope John Paul II. He was curious about this historic visit, even though he grew up with no religion. Dayan's grandparents and parents had been baptized as Catholics, but no one spoke of God.
Teachers expected students to join organizations like the Communist Youth, not attend church. Dayan never questioned it, especially because he wanted to be a professional, a history professor.
That day around the television, Dayan watched in awe as the pope shook hands with Fidel Castro during a welcome ceremony.
For the first time in his life, Dayan heard someone talking about God in front of Castro.
He barely listened to the pope's words urging Cubans not to fear opening their hearts to Christ, about social justice and peace.
Dayan couldn't take his eyes off Castro, who was dressed in a suit instead of his customary fatigues. He studied Castro's face on the screen, trying to read his reaction. Dayan and his classmates were shocked, witnessing something they never thought possible.
A few days later, at the end of the pope's visit, Dayan and his family gathered around their television to watch the pope hold Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution.
This time he paid close attention to the pope's message.
He felt as if an electric current passed through him, hearing the pope talk about God and Cuba's historical figures, like Felix Varela y Morales.
Dayan learned in school about the 19th century intellectual, about his patriotism, his advocacy of the abolition of slavery, for justice, human dignity and Cuba's independence from Spain.
But here was the pope, saying Varela was also a Catholic priest, a strong proponent of religious tolerance whom the pope himself had beatified.
"Someone from far away had to come here to open our eyes," Dayan told his family.
• • •
After that, it took Dayan six months to work up enough courage to slip inside the local church.
He hid behind one of the huge columns in the far corner of the last pew. He didn't want anyone to see him.
He later told the priest he wanted to become a Catholic. He attended catechism with eight or nine other young people on the roof of the church.
He never told any of his friends. For months he kept it from his parents until his father revealed what he knew.
"Do you think I'm blind?" his father asked him. "I know where you're going. Don't be afraid. We support you."
Weeks later, on Aug. 29, Dayan's birthday, Dayan's father won the visa lottery to leave Cuba with Dayan and his mom.
Dayan took extra steps not to be seen at church. His family feared antagonizing the government and jeopardizing their departure.
His priest baptized him on an afternoon when the doors are normally locked, with his parents and godparents, in a corner of the church.
In April 1999, they received the final permission to leave.
The hardest thing was leaving his grandparents. Dayan and his parents lived with them for part of his childhood.
His grandfather regaled Dayan with stories of Cuba's days as a republic with elections and debates. His grandmother would sing while cooking huge meals of black beans, rice and plantains for all the family plus anyone in the neighborhood who needed a hot meal.
On the day they left, his grandfather hugged him tightly.
"Study and be obedient," he told Dayan.
His grandmother squeezed him close and kissed him on both cheeks.
"Respect your parents and do what they tell you," she said.
• • •
Dayan and his parents settled in West Tampa, where relatives had moved years earlier. He attended Jefferson High School, made new friends. One day he took a walk through their neighborhood and found St. Joseph Catholic Church.
He'll never forget his first Mass in the United States.
"People were celebrating with smiles on their faces," he says. Everyone talked to each other, both before and after Mass.
In calls to his grandparents, Dayan's father put them on speaker phone.
His father said they'd be back soon for a visit.
"My son, don't worry about me. I've lived a long life," his grandfather told his father. "I'm happy you are happy over there, but I'm tired."
It was the last time Dayan heard his voice. He died two months later.
Dayan wrestled with his sadness about his grandfather and his confusion about what to do with his life.
"What if God is calling me to seminary?" he wondered. It filled him with purpose. He enrolled in St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and graduated in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
While enrolled there, he was able to return to Cuba for a visit. His grandmother died several months later.
He is now in his third year at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary studying toward a master's degree in theology, passing this year's internship at Nativity.
The ministry he sought — visiting nursing homes, the sick in hospitals and grieving families — was much harder than he expected.
"I wanted to be with them because I wasn't able to be with my family," he says.
Then he began to dread those visits, reminded of his own grief.
The more he brought a message of hope, theology and philosophy to hurting families, Dayan felt his own loss and pain healing.
"I began to be very comfortable and at peace," he says.
Pastor Father Arthur Proulx calls Dayan "brilliant" in his grasp of multiple languages, his inspirational speaking abilities and gentle manner with grief-stricken families.
Dayan hopes that one day, as a priest, he could play a role in healing the scars in many Cuban families back on the island and those here in the United States.
"I would be honored and proud of myself and humbled if I would be able to help," he says.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or 661-2441.