Who is my neighbor?

byMaureen Crowley Heil

Youth of the Missionary Childhood Association with their new baseball bats in Santa Clara, Cuba. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

As a seasoned traveler, I have come to expect the unexpected. Long lines are an opportunity to say an extra rosary. Flight delays give me time to read or people watch. Airplane take offs and landings rarely unnerve me; I read even through the bumpy ones. So why was it, that as I sat at the Miami airport in the wee hours of May 26 that I was a tad nervous? Perhaps it was because my destination was a place that had been shrouded in mystery for so long.

I was headed to Cuba.

Stories of revolution and rations, Communism and control, and government imposed Godlessness were in my head. The country was "opening" to Americans. What would we find as a group of not just Americans, but Catholics as well?

As I prayed my rosary, asking for some measure of guidance for the trip, I was given one word: neighbor. I smiled in thanksgiving. I was going to meet my neighbors.

After a mostly smooth arrival -- one group member was scrutinized to a level that made us worry about his admission to the country -- we were greeted by the most effervescent sisters you could ever imagine. These pint-sized women embodied the joy of the Gospel with their very smiles. Their spirit was infectious and inspiring.

We headed straight to the Chancery and met with Sister Bernadina who heads the local Missionary Childhood office, known in Cuba as Infancia Misionera. She and her team of animators -- those people responsible for forming the faith of the local young people to include a missionary spirit -- meet with children after school on a weekly basis. They sing, pray, learn about our Catholic faith and the importance of spreading it to others. The children go out in teams, knocking on doors and handing out Catholic pamphlets, encouraging people to come to the local parish and join them. The children learn early that to be a Catholic is not to be a bystander to our faith.

As the Infancia Misionera students grow in faith and age, they become animators themselves, training the younger ones in what it means to be a missionary every day and to love their neighbors as themselves. This was a message we saw lived over and over. Everyone had a responsibility to share the faith; the invitation was not only open but made repeatedly. Come! Join us!

The neighborhoods of Santa Clara and Camaguey were similar. With homes densely packed and poorly maintained, the children have little space to congregate. That is, unless they play baseball.

I am never surprised at the conditions in which I find people in the missions. Things are not good or bad, they are simply the reality of daily life. While the baseball fields we played on were not in the best shape, I found myself thinking how lucky these children were to have a local field on which to play. The Missionary Childhood members who accompanied us from the diocesan center were eager to not only learn new skills from the baseball coaches, but also to invite the local children from the neighborhood into their game.

Some of the players had actual baseball clothes or equipment, while others were making due with whatever they had. All eyes opened to the size of dinner plates when they saw the brand new bats we had brought as a donation! Though oversized for all the children, they already knew how to "choke up" on the bat to use it. My first thought was of them making due...again. Then I realized that these were bats that the group would use to bring other neighborhood gatherings together under the MCA banner for years. They would literally grow into them!

At each stop, I became more convinced that baseball was the perfect vehicle to help regrow our faith in Cuba. As I watched the coaches teach baseball skills, I saw them teaching the children about how to repeat an action over and over so that they develop a "muscle memory" for it -- it becomes automatic. No one knows how to throw a ball accurately as they run on the first try! All Catholic children must learn this fact about our faith as well: unless they practice the various components of their faith regularly, they will not have the skills when it is time to step up to the plate in life and live it.

Missionary Childhood exists to be a part of that skill set. We teach children about the World Mission Rosary -- and how to say the rosary at the same time. There are regular opportunities to learn about new saints, heaven's heroes, helping our youth identify their own path to holiness. MCA also invites children to practice stewardship, caring for others through the sacrifice of what they are blessed with, so that other children can be blessed as well.

The faith of the children of Cuba I met was astounding! I felt as if I was watching the early Church being planted for the first time. Each person brought in another person, then another. The Archbishop of Havana, Juan Garcia Rodriguez, told us that he does not worry about numbers. "When the Holy Spirit moves them, they will come."

Thanks to the evangelizing gifts of the animators of the Missionary Childhood Association, the Holy Spirit has more vessels with which to do His work amongst God's people in Cuba, our neighbors.