(NY Staff Band plays at Havana Corps)
Since America opened the door to easier travel with the communist island of Cuba over a year ago, The Salvation Army’s Eastern Territory NY Staff Band wanted to experience the Lord’s work with its people. Major Steve Ditmer, Divisional Music Director and Ken Kirby, Deputy Band Master of the Manchester Citadel Band were among those who traveled to Cuba in February of this year.
The Salvation Army, an Evangelical part of the Universal Christian Church, started in Cuba in the early 1900s with missionary officers, and was officially recognized in 1918. In 1959, upon signs of a revolution, the last overseas officer left the island. Cuba’s people were without contact to The Salvation Army in the US, but continued the Army’s work underground, with minimal ties to Latin America North Territory, which is based in Costa Rica. Today, twenty-four officers of The Salvation Army in Cuba operate twenty-two corps and two social service projects – a senior home, and an addiction recovery program. They even have their own training college now with eighteen cadets.
Cuba does recognize established religions, and allows them to practice openly now, with certain restrictions. Every church is limited to only one service per day. No social work is done openly there like it is here in United States. All social work is done by the government, which issues basic monthly food rations to its people. The cost for buying more than the allotted rations is very expensive. Compounding the problem, is low monthly income, averaging only twenty dollars.
When Ditmer and Kirby arrived at the Cuban airport, two luggage carousels were surrounded by shrink-wrapped bails of personal belongings marked on the outside with magic marker. These items, including boxed flat-screened TVs, were waiting to be recovered by their owners. “Cubans need to apply to leave the country,” Kirby said. “When that is granted, items that can’t be bought in Cuba are purchased and brought back for families and friends.”
As The Salvation Army’s NY Staff Band proceeded through customs, serial numbers of each instrument were recorded. Musical instruments are not allowed to be sold or left behind in the country. “They particularly asked us if we had any guitars, which I thought was interesting,” recalled Ditmer. “I had to think about that for a while. Of course, a guitar is a native Latin American instrument, and must be very valuable in Cuba.”
Before leaving Connecticut, Ken Kirby knew his visit to Cuba would be like going back in time. “Some of the buildings look like there hasn’t been a coat of paint on them in forty years or more,” Kirby stated. “In fact, a resident told me buildings, including occupied buildings, were crumbling almost daily.” Major Ditmer knew going to Cuba was an exciting prospect. He knew the country had been encapsulated for some time, but didn’t know what that would actually look like. “I’ve been to Dominican Republic, so I assumed Cuba would be impoverished, which it is – greatly impoverished,” Ditmer said. “I had thoughts of what Castro had done for fifty years, just squashing everything. I was surprised to see as much deferred maintenance as there was.” At the same time, Ditmer was surprised to see the amount of European and Asian exchange. New cars were very much European or Asian based. The only American cars were old models that would have been from the very affluent time in the mid-fifties and early sixties.
On the streets of Cuba, people were very open and welcoming. Cuban Salvation Army officers were especially welcoming, having not been with other Salvationists outside the country for quite some time. Although the language barrier hindered conversations, a bond was felt through their mutual love of Jesus Christ.
The hotel in which the band stayed was built in the 1930’s. It was absolutely pristine and immaculate inside, maintained as if it was in a time capsule. The bathrooms were ordained with rich white tiles and porcelain fixtures. On the main level, was a very long, central corridor with dark woodwork in the high ceilings that offset the cheerful yellow archways. At the end, an entire glass wall with etching on it led into the dining room, where a classically trained quartet performed, and heavy China plates were etched in gold. The temperature was a comfortable seventy degrees, tropical but not hot. It was a welcome change from the minus six degrees left behind in Connecticut. In the evening, a cool breeze from the ocean blew through the lobby and veranda where a four-piece ensemble played.
Saturday morning, band members left the beauty of the hotel and were brought down the street, through run-down neighborhoods to The Salvation Army. The group spent the morning at two corps – the Central Corps and the Havana Corps, which are very small. Everyone pitched in to paint the outside of the building, giving the corps a much-needed facelift. In the afternoon, the corps officer and cadet took band members on a little tour of old Havana and the surrounding areas of the capitol building. In the evening, a musical concert brought everyone together to celebrate. Sunday morning, all the Havana corps gathered for worship and song.
Music is large part of the Cuban culture. In Havana alone, dozens of children would jump at the chance to play, and be involved in a music program. Although Salvation Army music programs are easily organized in the United States, gathering brass instruments like trumpets and trombones in Cuba would be a big challenge. Other instruments are easier to come by. “Percussion instruments are part of the Cuban culture,” Ditmer said, “Drum sets are all over the place, and singing can be done anywhere.” Ditmer and Kirby would like to return to Cuba in the future to offer a week-long music camp, and help the corps with electrical and plumbing work, and continue their fellowship with their new found friends across the way.