Cindy Clark and her seven year-old had just finished reading one of the Harry Potter books when she held up the Spanish version of the book.
“Emily Jane, look at what I’m taking to Cuba with me,” said Clark.
“Why are you taking those?” her daughter asked.
“Well, you have three libraries,” Clark said. “You have the library at school, the DeKalb County Library and the library at Oakhurst, plus we have hundreds of books at your house. But where I’m going they don’t have a library.”
“What do you mean they don’t have a library?”
“That’s why I’m taking these books. We’re going to put together a library,” Clark replied.
"Well Momma, when I miss you while you're gone and I'm really sad, I want to think about those kids having books and I won't be so sad anymore,” the first grader said.
In January, Clark joined a group of Oakhurstians on their trip to Perico, Cuba to help residents build a library. The Cuba Partner Mission Group regularly travels to the island country to solidify the friendship they began back in 2002.
“Wasting time together to build relationships,” is how first-timer Cuba traveler Clark characterized it.
But this time they had a project to build, a library for the town. Ten members from Oakhurst Baptist Church, including Clark, Wayne Grinstead, Claudia Dickerson, David Odom, Dalon Brown, Dee Ann Dozier, Lynn Farmer, Becky Drysdale, Howard Prunty and Elise Phillips, joined Susan Aldridge from the non-profit One Library at a Time to bring about 300 books and a library to Perico. They weren’t constructing the building; instead they were teaching residents how to label the books using the Dewey Decimal system and create the card catalog (because computer catalogs, which require electricity, just aren’t reliable in the town).
The group brought 75 books from the states and then purchased around 225 books in country. The members paid their own way, but the cost of the books and the library shelves were paid by the Georgia Chin Baptist Church, which shares space in Oakhurst’s building. The Chin also donated six Sunday school books in their native language, Kuki-Chin as a symbol of their friendship.
“This is a relationship that involves getting to know people,” said Grinstead, who led the group this time around. “It’s about encouraging people who live in difficult circumstances. But they are people who have a lot to teach us, not only about life, but about scripture and how they deal with scripture.”
Grinstead has been part of the Cuba Mission Group ever since Oakhurst member Leon Clymore sounded the call 14 years ago.
"Put me in, coach. I want to be a part of this!" is how Grinstead recalls feeling when the call was sounded.
Since then he’s been on every mission trip to Cuba the group has made, 13 he reckons, plus an additional trip he took with the Alliance of Baptists.
“Of all the great trips we've had to Cuba, this, for me, was the best,” said Grinstead. “It was really great because a little girl, even before we had the books on the shelf, was sitting in the corner reading to her mother.”
The Cuban connection goes much deeper than the mission trips. Both churches are refugees of a sort from the more conservative groups they once belonged to. Most people from Oakhurst are familiar with the tales about how the church was ejected from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 for refusing to back down on its commitment to being welcoming and affirming to homosexuals. But what may be less known is that the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba, the denomination to which The Bethania Baptist Church in Perico belongs, was started after being booted from the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba for issues related to politics, communion and baptism.
“It is about the value of friendship,” explained Grinstead. “But also, if you're willing to stand up in your country and say we will accept all of these people, regardless of what they may or may not believe, there are other people who will affirm you for doing that.”
While friendship is the raison d’etre of the relationship, it was books that brought the groups together this time. What many people don’t know is that Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the U.S. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Institute for Statistics, Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.7 percent, while a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy shows the U.S. lagging behind at 86 percent.
“The problem is that the books in Cuba for children do not contain many illustrations,” said Grinstead. “So the things that we brought down, like The Cat in the Hat, are very popular. Our goal is to be able to bring more books each year to augment the library.”
Grinstead began the trip on a Wednesday, heading down with Odom, Brown and Aldridge. The four met up with the pastors of The Bethania Baptist Church in Perico, Olga and Haydee Rodriguez, and then spent the next two days buying books in Havana and Matanzas. They met up with the rest of their group and spent approximately three days working with members of the Bethania church to establish the library. .
“We sat at these little tables and one person would get the book and they'd write the first card,” said Clark. “The next person would copy the card while the next person would put the label on the binding. It was like an assembly line for 300 books.”
In addition to being able to help their friends in Cuba, the group also valued the time away from their usual haunts.
“It was refreshing to my soul to be away from everything,” said Clark. “We didn't have Internet and it made me feel present.”
“Going with a group also made it meaningful. You go on a trip with 10 people and you kind of fast forward the relationship to family. I know everybody's brand of crazy now. There's something authentic and real about that.”