Although Cuba typically discourages religion, the nation has nonetheless become the destination of "caravans" of Florida United Methodists over the past five years.
The most recent one traveled from Christ United Methodist Church, which sent its pastor and two members to the island as part of what the denomination's Florida Conference refers to as the Cuba/Florida Covenant.
Ideally, the covenant is seen as an exchange of prayer. Florida church members who visit Cuba, however, take items such as Bibles, Sunday school material and medical supplies.
Cuban churches, in return, which serve as hosts to their American visitors, are seen as providing great examples of a fervent and deep spirituality and a sense of gratitude in the face of need.
Renee Kincaid, a Cuban who left the island after the Bay of Pigs and is secretary of the covenant's task force, expresses this belief.
"When I left, the churches were closing and the pastors and priests were leaving. In 1961, it was felt that God was leaving Cuba and to go back 36 years later and find such revival in the churches," she said.
"After so many years, to find that these young pastors, they knew the word, they preached the word. They knew God and it was so astounding. And that is what keeps us going. We think we take things, but we don't. We want to bring that fire here for our Florida churches."
Established in 1997, the covenant pairs United Methodist churches in the state with the denomination's churches in Cuba. In the St. Petersburg District, a jurisdiction that includes churches in Pinellas and Pasco counties, relationships are being built with churches in the Cuban province of Matanzas, east of Havana.
District superintendent, the Rev. Kevin James, says it is a valuable partnership.
"It enhances our outreach ministry and our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Cuba," he said.
"Both parties can learn and appreciate the diversity of culture and spirituality."
Twenty-nine caravans traveled to Cuba from Florida in 2003, said Mrs. Kincaid. In 2002, there were 22. Typically, said Mrs. Kincaid, who attends Bayshore United Methodist Church in Tampa, such groups consist of about five to six people.
Most recent figures indicate that there are 197 Methodist churches in Cuba, with many missions attached to each, Mrs. Kincaid said.
"Of that, two-thirds have sister relationships with Methodist churches here in Florida," she said.
The covenant is seen as a renewal of an old relationship. Florida's United Methodists are said to have played an important role when their denomination was introduced to Cuba in the late 19th century. For many years, Cuba and Florida shared the same Methodist bishop. Change came when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. By 1961, large numbers of Cuba's Methodist clergy, foreign missionaries and their congregations had fled.
Under Castro, building of new churches was forbidden and many were left to fall into ruin. In recent years, permission is being granted _ under certain conditions _ to repair those that still stand. Christmas as a holiday was not recognized again until 1997, when it was temporarily reinstated because of the pope's anticipated visit. The holiday was permanently restored in 1998.
The relaxation of restrictions on religious activities does not mean complete ease for recent missionaries. Church members have to apply for religious visas, which they get through the Cuban United Methodist Church, Mrs. Kincaid said. The visa process can take two to three months, she said, adding that a license from the United States Treasury Department also is required.
Nonetheless, the travel continues.
"We had a very good year this past year. We had 16 teams out of this district," said Jim Gee, coordinator of the St. Petersburg District's covenant program.
He said Riviera United Methodist and First United Methodist churches are planning visits in the next few months.
Late last year, Christ United Methodist's mission team shared its experiences with members of the congregation at 467 First Ave. N. The three visitors to Cuba showed photographs and spoke of their trip after a Cuban-themed lunch of picadillo, a type of ground beef hash, rice, fried ripe plantains, a dessert of cream cheese and guava paste sandwiched between cookies, and chunks of Cuban bread.
Limited to two 70-pound suitcases and hand luggage, Cindy Fish told of taking 68 pounds of children's clothing and limiting her personal items to her carry-on bag. She and fellow travelers, the Rev. Tom Norton and Cecelia O'Dowd, also took several duffel bags of medical supplies. They also packed a personal stash of instant oatmeal, granola bars, boxes of raisins, beef jerky, cheese-filled pretzels and other snacks, which they gave away.
For Norton and Mrs. O'Dowd, it was a bittersweet trip. Norton, a sixth generation United Methodist pastor, said his father, who died in early 2003, had led crusades in Cuba before the revolution. Mrs. O'Dowd is Cuban on her father's side. She served as her traveling companions' interpreter.
The sister church of Christ United Methodist is Pueblo Nuevo United Methodist in Matanzas. The October mission trip was the first between the two churches. The congregations, though, have been corresponding with each other and sharing prayer requests, said Norton.
"Our group went down for the purpose of meeting the people of the church and the pastor, discovering their needs, sharing some materials with them _ Sunday school materials, Bibles and to take a sum of money to help them with their needs," he said.
"We discovered that the roof of the church needs to be replaced and they would like to expand and the only place to expand is where the rose garden is."
The rose garden, Norton told his congregation, is tended by a church member in his 70s. He owns the congregation's only car, which could be seen in a photograph parked in front of the small church.
Norton was moved by the visit.
"I think what struck me the most was their dedication to Christ, in spite of all the hardships that they have to endure, that they find a great hope in the presence of Jesus," the pastor said.
Living in Cuba is not easy, said Norton and his companions, who spoke of ration books and the need to scramble to fill buckets and other containers with water, whenever it happened to be available, day or night. Big brother is always watching, Norton said.
"Part of the governmental structure is that you have a block captain who watches over the activities of the people," he said.
Despite their deprivation of material things, their Cuban hosts treated them like royalty, the visitors from Christ United Methodist said. "We had no wants, no needs," Norton said.
"They sacrificed for our comfort and the people we met at the church and on the street were as congenial as they can be. They were an open and loving and caring people."
A youth group performs a liturgical dance at the Pueblo Nuevo United Methodist Church in Matanzas, Cuba. Christ United Methodist in St. Petersburg is the Florida sister church for Pueblo Nuevo.