First-time volunteer Mary Horstman remembers her December, 2019 “alternative holiday” in service in with her husband, Tom, and sons, EJ and John, as an opportunity to put her faith in action. A nurse and college professor, she spent a week in Havana collaborating on labor projects, spending time with seniors, and practicing English conversation with Cuban students. As the global pandemic has closed opportunities to return to service this year, she shares her reflections here as an inspiration for 2021.
By Mary Horstman, Cuba volunteer
Before leaving for Cuba last year, I scanned the library for any information I could absorb. I read Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire, who was one of the 14,000 Cuban children who were sent to Miami in 1960, without their parents, to allegedly save them from Castro. Eire, who is now a professor of Theology at Yale, referred to a book which changed his life. That book, Imitation of Christ, I learned, is the second most widely read book, after the Bible. Reading that book, which directs you to live a life of humility and service to others, began a transformation for me of gratitude for trials, letting go of thinking I have control of my life, and stopping seeking glory for myself and approval from others.
During my family’s service in Cuba, my transformation continued, and I am actively looking for ways to forget my ego, and look for ways to help others. Everything seems different. I now have this heightened awareness of my responsibility to take care of others. I want to know what I am here on Earth to do. I am viewing my life through a different lens.
“During my family’s service in Cuba, my transformation continued, and I am actively looking for ways to forget my ego, and look for ways to help others. Everything seems different.”– Mary Horstman, Cuba volunteer
My faith, always strong, is now my biggest priority — my ego has been relegated to the bottom of my list of daily goals and reflections.
We were invited to take part in celebrating Christmas at the Salvation Army project site. This event was truly inspiring. It featured talented musicians, an extraordinary singer, beautiful speakers, a lovely meal, and a film featuring a short interview with each of the 33 residents. The December 25th Christmas celebration was solemn and joyous, and we were so honored to be there. Tears were in my husband’s eyes as he thanked everyone. My 28-year-old son’s eyes were wet as he listened to the speakers.
The Cuban people – all we encountered – were generous. We were invited to a Cuban home for a traditional Christmas Eve celebration, where we danced and played dominoes, and had a wonderful Cuban food extravaganza! And at the end of this joyous evening, we were surprised and so touched to find out that gifts of Cuban sugar and coffee under the tree included ones for us.
My husband had a touch of something flu-like a few days later for a day during our trip. He was immediately cared for by the Global Volunteers organization, and by their Cuban partners (the Cuban Council of Churches) with homemade chicken soup and chamomile tea. As a matter of fact, Global Volunteers took careful care of each and every volunteer in such a loving and careful way. As we volunteered to help the Cuban people, we were held up ourselves.
Mary plays dominoes with seniors at the Salvation Army senior center in Havana. Tom and Mary worked with Cubans on their conversational English for a few hours each day.
I returned to the U.S. with a strong sense of the importance of loving others, being humble, and truly being a neighbor to everyone I encounter. Talking about my experience and Global Volunteers for my personal debriefing with my prayer group was all that mattered. No one else seemed to “get it.” These faithful folks understood the impact the experience had on me. Others stood back as I related the wonderful faith of the Salvation Army staff, who took such gentle and careful care of the 33 residents we met in Havana. I pray that this remains in me. I am seeking ways to continue my new faith journey, to discard what I did for my own ego, and focus on what others need.
“I returned to the U.S. with a strong sense of the importance of loving others, being humble, and truly being a neighbor to everyone I encounter.”– Mary Horstman, Cuba volunteer
I am deeply grateful to Global Volunteers and to the Cuban people for lifting me up in the ways that they did. And I hope to pay it forward.
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