Not So Secret Church in Cuba
Guanabacoa, Cuba – Tolerated, but tightly controlled by the Castro government, thousands of Cuban Christians meet every week in house churches to worship, pray and study the Bible. They are not exactly underground or secret, but they are not exactly open and legal either.
These house churches are a relatively new phenomenon in a land that seems frozen in time. They are symbolic of where Cuba seems to be right now.
The signs of Fidel Castro’s Soviet-era oppression are everywhere. Cuba is still an old-style Communist dictatorship, where food is rationed — eight eggs per person per month — and the government tightly controls everything. Propaganda signs and portraits of Castro and Che Guevara dot the landscape. Cubans and visitors still fear running afoul of the government. Millions of Cubans still live in the drab, 5-story, concrete Soviet-designed apartment blocks.
With these last living vestiges of the Cold War, the classic American cars, the moldering vintage architecture of old Havana, and the lack of signs, stores, commerce and traffic, it’s easy to imagine that it is still 1960 in Cuba . Fidel and Che have just won the revolution, the Cold War is raging and the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis are imminent.
However, it isn’t 1960. It is 2012. The Soviet Union has long since collapsed. Che was executed in a Bolivian jungle in an unsuccessful attempt to lead another revolution. And after 50 years of defying the United States, Fidel is ailing and in semi-retirement. His more moderate brother, Raul, runs the country now.
It is a little easier for Americans to visit Cuba these days, thanks to the Obama administration. Cuba is building an embryonic tourist industry, fueled by non-American visitors. A new souvenir market and some new fashionable restaurants were created in Havana to service a new cruise ship port. Individual Cubans are allowed to set up small markets as capitalism gains a toe-hold here.
After the 1959 revolution, the government did not close and destroy the existing, established churches like the Communists did in other countries. But attendance fell to the point that those churches barely subsisted. Cuba was officially declared an atheist country, but in the early 1990s, that was changed for some reason from “atheist” to “secular.” A 40-foot statue of Jesus Christ, which overlooks Havana harbor and shares the strategic hilltop with the Cuban military academy, was allowed to stand. In Moscow or Beijing, that statue would have been dynamited and replaced with a statue of Lenin or Mao.
Even with these tiny glimmers of light, the last few decades have been a dark time to be a follower of Jesus in Cuba.
When I visited earlier this year, it was obvious that times are changing. The “official” churches are filling up. And these new house churches are multiplying, spurred ironically by tight government restrictions.
On a Tuesday night in the Havana suburb of Guanabaco, we attended a house church meeting in a tiny garage – really nothing more than a shed — in the shadow of tall coconut palm trees and the hulking concrete Soviet apartment blocks.
The 40-year-old pastor, Juan Carlos – who once practiced the Afro-Caribbean religion of santeria some equate with voodoo – led the small group of believers. Christian praise songs, with the distinctive Cuban beat, rang out in the quiet neighborhood. The singing, clapping and praying of the believers and the light from two bare fluorescent light fixtures spilled into the dirt street.
The government rules state that the group can only meet in a house or apartment and cannot have its own building, so technically we were in violation for meeting in this shed. The group cannot surpass 25 and if any neighbor complains for any reason, the group will be disbanded.
Ironically, it is the government’s rules that are helping the groups multiply. Once a group reaches 26 people, it must divide and create two house churches. More than 50 congregations have appeared in the last couple of years in Havana alone.
The government knew of our meeting that night and it could have been shut down at any time. For all I know, this church now may be gone and Juan Carlos may be in jail. More likely, that fledgling church may be two or three different churches by now. Who knows?
That’s just part of the alluring enigma that is Cuba in 2012.
Havana, Cuba - For all you classic car guys – and you know who you are – there is a Heaven. It’s on the streets of Havana.
Thanks to the U.S. boycott of the Castro regime since the 1959 revolution, Cuba in 2012 seems somewhat frozen in time. With the old historic buildings, the lack of economic development and all of the classic cars, it is easy to imagine that it is still 1959.
Not all of Havana’s cars are old, but about half seem to be. There are many relatively new buses and some newer Korean and other foreign cars. Oddly enough, there are some motorcycles with sidecars.
But the roads are still filled with classic Detroit cars from the late 1940s and 50s, along with an occasional, oddball late Fifties, early Sixties Opel , Fiat or other European model. Every now and then you see some unknown and unexplainable vehicle from the old Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and even a couple of classic Mercedes.
These babies are still running, thanks to ingenuity, desperation, spare parts from Mexico and some serious jerry-rigging. Some are in seemingly pristine shape, and others are barely hanging on. Some look they did when they were new in the Fifties, while others have been repainted in colors never found in Detroit.
We talked to one taxi driver who was driving a black 1954 Chevrolet and he let us look under the hood. It had some sort of replacement Nissan engine attached to what looked like a 1954 Chevrolet radiator. I can only imagine what’s under the hood of the other cars.
I was in Cuba with a group of middle-aged American men on the serious business of trying to enhance the new house church movement there. Our group included senior and somewhat famous pastors, a couple of high-level businessmen and the leaders of a multicountry sports organization. But we all were reduced to acting like goofy teen-aged boys when we started car spotting on the way in from the airport.
We giggled and hollered and pointed out Studebakers, Chevys, Fords, an old Woody station wagon, an old DeSoto, Buicks and who knows what else. It was like this all week. Embarrassing, but a lot of fun.
The highlight was one day when we divided up into three groups, hired three convertible taxis and took a one-hour tour of Havana. My car was a red and white 1952 Chevrolet convertible in pristine condition. I included a photo of it and our driver on the streets of Havana.
As you can see, it was One Sweet Ride.
And I’m not even a car guy.
Atlanta, Georgia — Okay, I’ll admit it. I love the Chick-fil-A Cows.
In case you don’t know, Chick-fil-A is a leading quick service restaurant chain in the United States. It’s also my day job. We serve chicken at our 1,600 restaurants. No beef. So it makes sense that our chief advocates are the cows, who are focused on their own survival and encourage people to “Eat Mor Chikin.” (The cows are not very good at spelling).
Our cows are absolute rock stars wherever they show up. People just seem to go crazy when the cows appear. I’m a cynical former journalist who thinks he’s seen everything. Yet, when I’m shooting photos for Chick-fil-A, I find myself drawn to them. Yes, I do know that’s not a real cow and it’s just a guy in a suit. But I can’t help myself.
It’s really fun finding the cows in unusual circumstances, such as riding on a Segway, enjoying an NBA game or striking a pose in Times Square. So I thought I’d put together a gallery of some of my favorite cow shots. (Check it out in the Photos section).
I hope you enjoy them and — selfishly for the sake of the cows and my children’s college fund — I hope you “Eat Mor Chikin.”
Dominican Field of Dreams
Angelina, Dominican Republic – Standing out there in the 10-foot sugar cane near Angelina are almost 3,250 career victories in NCAA major college baseball.
Every November, a group of current and former baseball players and coaches travel to the Dominican Republic with SCORE International to conduct free baseball clinics amid the poverty of the bateys and sugar cane villages.
Many are current and former professional players, such as the legendary Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees, Hall of Famer Gary Carter of the New York Mets and big-name major leaguers like Tony Fernandez, Nelson Cruz and Andy Benes.
Others are current and former college coaches, including Hall of Famers like Ron Polk (Georgia and Mississippi State) and Mark Johnson (Texas A&M and Sam Houston State).
One day last November, as we bounced in our little bus along the muddy roads lined with sugar cane, we decided to have a little fun. We realized we had five current or former NCAA Division 1 baseball coaches and two assistant coaches in our group alone.
What better way to memorialize this trip than to coax the coaches into the cane for a photo?
From left to right, we have Dan McDonnell, head coach at Louisville (217 career victories); Jeremy Sheetinger, assistant coach at St. Joseph’s College; Rich Maloney, head coach at Michigan (575 career victories); Ron Polk, former head coach at Georgia and Mississippi State (1,373 career victories); Keith Madison, former head coach at Kentucky (737 career victories), Matt Husted, assistant coach at Michigan, and Spanky McFarland, head coach at James Madison (445 career victories).
Think about it. There are 3,247 career victories standing out there in the sugar cane.
Eye of the Tiger(s)
Atlanta, Georgia – Love them or hate them – and there are plenty of people on both sides – the college football bowl season is upon us.
We’re about a third of the way through the 35 bowl games. Right now, I’m watching the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (or whatever the name is), while recovering from last night’s 67-56 post-midnight, shootout victory by Baylor over Washington in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
And tomorrow night, it’s the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which used to be the Peach Bowl.
I love the bowls, and after watching two or three dozen of them, my eyes look like the guy in this photo.
The names are ridiculous, of course.
Food is a popular naming choice. We have a Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl (pizza), our own Chick-fil-A Bowl (chicken sandwiches), Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (potatoes), Outback Bowl (steak), Discover Orange Bowl (citrus fruit); Allstate Sugar Bowl (condiments), Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (corn chips), and the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg (sandwiches and fries). I get hungry just writing this.
In addition to all of these tasty food bowls, we have the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. I am not making this up. It occurs to me that we could fight a lot of hunger with pizza, chicken, potatoes, steak, oranges, sugar and corn chips.
Last year, we had the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, but that game became the Belk Bowl after a department store chain took over the sponsorship and the name. But never fear, Car Care fans. This year, we had the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, which was played in Houston. (It was the Texas Bowl last year).
Then there was the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, a scintillating football matchup between Rutgers and Iowa State, played in the outfield and infield of historic Yankee Stadium. Yes, it is that Yankee Stadium, the mother church of baseball, the House that Ruth Built. That’s just wrong on so many levels. But, hey, we watched it.
My family’s consensus choice for the dumbest Bowl name this year is the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsetta Bowl. It rolls right off the tongue. Of course, our all-time favorite worst name is the infamous Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl in breathtaking Shreveport, Louisiana, played in the fairgrounds stadium across Interstate 20 from a refinery. It gave rise to the term “Weedwhacker Bowl” to describe miserable, second-tier bowls.
My favorite team, LSU, plays in a few days for the national championship in the 35th and final Bowl game. Part of the reason I love LSU football is the intensity and the insanity of the crazy Cajun LSU fans. I first encountered the mystique of LSU Tiger football when I was a young boy and saw them play in my very first bowl game, the Cotton Bowl. LSU upset Arkansas that day, and I was hooked.
Today’s photo is of a dedicated – and quite possibly deranged — LSU fan from the Chick-fil-A Bowl three years ago.
Enjoy the games, and Geaux Tigers.
Sweet Little Jesus Boy: A Christmas Card
Atlanta, Georgia – Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I’m reflecting on what that means, while listening to one of my favorite carols – the old spiritual, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”
When we first moved to Asia in 1995, God taught me two very important facts. First, He taught me that God is not an American. That sounds crazy, but I think I unconsciously believed that. When He opened the world to me, I learned that He is the God of all people in all corners of the world.
Secondly, He taught me that Jesus came on Christmas for all of the people throughout the world – not just those with Christmas trees. The Bible is very clear about that. Again, it isn’t something that a typical American who had never left the USA would ever think about.
Since then, He has taken me to 30 countries and I’ve met and photographed countless of His children.
So my online Christmas card to you is in the link below. It is a collection of photos of some of those people, from Haiti, Mexico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Cambodia, China, India, Peru and a homeless shelter here in Atlanta.
The photo here of the smiling little boy was taken in a makeshift refugee camp and hospital in the days following the horrific 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Despite being badly injured, his smile lit up the hospital tent.
Here is the link to my 3-minute slide show of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” Please click on it and see who Jesus came to save. (Thanks to my colleague Stanley Leary for helping me put this together and letting me use his server).
Merry Christmas and I pray you, too, know the little Jesus boy.
Has The Music Died?
Atlanta, Georgia – For now, the music has been stopped. Is it possible that it has died?
The Florida A&M “Marching 100” band, both famous and fabulous and maybe the finest show-style band in the land, has been suspended and silenced. Its director has been fired. One of its drum majors is dead, allegedly by the hand of his bandmates in a growing hazing scandal.
And now, the young man’s beating death has been ruled a homicide as additional reports of brutal hazing surface from among these legendary performers.
Apparently hazing is a growing problem among these elite bands. As we were awed by the musicianship, the choreography and the sheer fun of one of their performances, who knew?
Hazing cases have cropped up in recent years, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the marching band is coveted and the bands are often revered even more than the sports teams.
In 2008, two first-year French horn players in Southern University’s marching band had to be hospitalized after a beating. A year later, 20 members of Jackson State University’s band were suspended after being accused of hazing. Other FAMU band members have come forward to reveal recent hazing incidents there. There are now reports surfacing of hazing even among the show-style high school bands in Atlanta.
The FAMU Rattlers and Tennessee State Tigers usually meet each year in the Georgia Dome for the Atlanta Football Classic. The football game takes a back seat to the battle of the bands at halftime. It’s one of my favorite events of the year and one I love to photograph.
These photos are from happier time. Look closely at the face of the FAMU player closest to you in the top photo.
Will we see them high stepping onto the field again?
Three Little Spidermen
Matamoros, Mexico – A few years ago, before the violent drug cartels made it far too dangerous, we would go to this border town every year to do mission work amid the poverty in the barrios. We would build houses, distribute food, visit orphanages and put on a street festival for the kids.
One evening, our festival was erupting in all of its full, chaotic glory, with balloon animals, face painting, loud music, games, clowns and candy. I was holding one small child in my lap with one hand, unsuccessfully trying to fashion a balloon animal with the other and somehow attempting an occasional photo.
Then, I happened to look up.
There before me, up in my face, were three more little boys up in my face trying to get my attention. I was able to fire off only one frame with my camera before the chaos overwhelmed me again.
I call this photo, “Three Little Spidermen,” and it is one of my favorites.
Who Discovered it? And What Is It?
Machu Picchu, Peru – Thanks to Hiram Bingham, an adventure-seeking, self-promoting scholar from Yale with an appreciation for the power of publicity, we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the “discovery” of the Lost City of the Incas.
A century ago, The New York Times called Machu Picchu, “the Greatest Archaeological Discovery of the Age.”
However, controversy still rages over whether Bingham was the one who actually discovered Machu Picchu and theories still abound as to exactly what it was that he “discovered.” In addition, there has been controversy for decades between Peru and Yale over who owns crates of artifacts that Bingham found and shipped home to Connecticut.
The spectacular pre-Columbian, 15th century citadel of Machu Picchu was known locally, but the Spanish conquerors never were able to find it and loot it. In July 1911, a local Peruvian led Bingham up to ruins overgrown by the Andean jungle.
Bingham milked his discovery for all it was worth. Throughout his life, he wrote numerous books and articles about it. Bingham enlisted the powerful National Geographic Society, which funded his subsequent missions there. In 1913, an entire issue of National Geographic magazine was devoted to Bingham’s discovery.
Bingham’s Machu Picchu-fueled fame propelled him into legend and then into the United States Senate. Many feel Bingham was the inspiration for the fictional movie hero Indiana Jones.
Of course, since it was a local Peruvian who actually led Bingham to the site, it is obvious Hiram didn’t actually discover it. Supposedly, Bingham found graffiti on the walls from others who had been there in 1901, a fact he neglected to mention in his reports. The family of an English Christian missionary, Thomas Payne, claims he and another missionary climbed up to the ruins in 1906. The site also may have been discovered and plundered in 1867 by a German businessman. There also is some evidence that a German engineer arrived earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874.
So we don’t know who really discovered Machu Picchu. Hiram clearly was the first to bring news of it to the outside world, hence this centennial anniversary. With a nod to the controversy, some now refer to him as, “the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu.”
And we still don’t really know what it is that Hiram actually “discovered.”
Bingham theorized that the complex was the traditional birthplace of the Incan “Virgins of the Suns.” Most current thinking speculates that Machu Picchu was built in the 1400s as the estate of an Incan emperor. The mountains surrounding it were considered sacred by those civilizations and there is additional evidence to suggest that it was some sort of religious site. Another theory suggests that Machu Picchu was an Incan settlement designed to control the economy of the conquered region. Some have suggested it was a maximum security prison or even an agricultural testing station. Finally, some suggest that the city was built as a place for the deities or for the coronation of kings.
Shockingly, I haven’t seen any theories involving space aliens, although they are probably out there. I mean the theories are probably out there, not the aliens, necessarily.
The fact is, we just don’t know. And that unknown – combined with its remote, inaccessible location and the mists that shroud the sacred mountains – adds to the mystery and allure of this spectacular place.
In a letter to his wife, Bingham wrote, “My new Inca City, Machu Picchu . . . is unknown and will make a fine story.”
A fine story indeed.
Japan Grapples With Another Crisis
Tokyo, Japan – Japan’s deep cultural foundations, rattled by economic stagnation, a nuclear disaster and a massive killer earthquake and tsunami, are being shaken again down to their very core. This time the crisis involves the ancient sport of sumo.
For more than 700 years, the Japanese have marked time by watching the regular “bashos” or grand sumo tournaments in which the near-naked gargantuans grapple with each other in hopes of becoming a “yokozuna” or grand champion.
The sport has deep roots in Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto and almost everything about it is dictated by ancient tradition. Even today, the sport includes many ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, from the days when sumo was used in Shinto. The referee, for example, is dressed like a Shinto priest and the yokozuna wears the same zig-zag strips of white found in shrines.
Life as a sumo wrestler is highly regimented. Most sumo wrestlers are required to live in communal sumo training “stables,” where all aspects of their daily lives—from meals to their manner of dress—are dictated by strict tradition. Training is brutal and harsh. In one practice session we witnessed several years ago, an older wrestler beat a younger wrestle with a rattan cane to motivate him. It is almost medieval.
Like Shinto, the sport is uniquely Japanese, and the Japanese people are fascinated by it.
But public interest is waning, sponsorships are disappearing, credibility is gone and foreigners are taking over the top ranks. This ancient Japanese institution is in crisis.
There was a scandal in 2008 where a stable master went to jail for hazing a young wrestler in the accepted ancient tradition, ultimately killing him. Last year, the sumo association had to dismiss a top-ranked wrestler and a stable master for betting on baseball games in a gambling ring run by the Japanese mafia or “yakuza.” Two other stable masters were demoted and an unprecedented 18 wrestlers were banned from the July 2010 tournament.
Earlier this year, the Japanese government announced another major investigation of sumo for gambling and widespread match fixing. Allegedly, 14 wrestlers or stable masters were involved. Three wrestlers admitted what some had long suspected – they had thrown or fixed bouts. As a result of the independent investigation, the board of directors of the Japan Sumo Association took an extraordinary measure – canceling the March 2011 tournament in Osaka. It was the first time a grand tournament had been canceled since the end of World War II.
In sumo, the yokozuna is the top rank. The next level is “ozeki.” Wrestlers who reach these lofty levels are revered by the Japanese – particularly if those wrestlers are Japanese. But by last month’s grand tournament in Tokyo, there were no Japanese in either rank – for the first time ever. Sumo – the most Japanese of sports – is now dominated by Mongolians and Eastern Europeans, and this creates another crisis of culture and identity for the Japanese. (A Japanese wrestler was promoted to ozeki after the tournament).
Sumo tickets used to be impossible to obtain. But last month in Tokyo, I was able to walk up on a Saturday afternoon and almost have my pick of tickets for that day of the grand tournament. Where it used to be packed, the arena was only about 75 percent full. On weekdays of the 16-day tournament, the arena is often only half full, since most weekday tickets are now bought by foreigners seeking a Japanese cultural experience. But with fear of radiation, earthquakes and an unusually strong yen, foreigners aren’t visiting anymore.