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from issue no. 02/03 - 2008

That singular Cuban Bethlehem

The former convent of Belén has become the center of diffusion for a humanitarian activity aimed at helping the poor of old Havana. The local Church also looks at it with interest and sympathy

by Davide Malacaria

A shot of the Havana coastline

A shot of the Havana coastline

They begin crowding outside the gate of the former convent of Belén (Bethlehem) from half past seven in the morning. They come from every corner of old Havana, the heart of the Cuban capital. A neighborhood that has come down in the world, where the buildings, mostly dilapidated, are falling to pieces, or at least were falling, before Eusebio Leal Spengler, the Historiador de la ciudad, began his work of renovation that has made this part of the Cuban capital a great open air building site. They are the old people of old Havana, the poorest and most helpless section of the population, the least equipped for the struggle for the daily survival that the inhabitants must engage in each morning. Yes, because the government assures a sort of basket of subsistence, what is known as the libreta, at symbolic prices. But it is not enough to deal with the widespread poverty. Nor can it soothe the ache of loneliness and abandonment. So for the old it’s a slow fading away, in expectation of incipient death. Then, one day, came an idea: Nelson Águila Machado spoke about it to Eusebio Leal Spengler. Belén was born. Of course the structure was already there: an old abandoned convent with attached church, deconsecrated before the revolution. But there wasn’t all the rest, that is what every morning draws approximately seven hundred old people.
It is eight in the morning when the lads begin to devote themselves to the people cramming the gate. It is the time scheduled for physical exercise. And hundreds of old people, scattered in the roads adjacent to the former convent, for there isn’t room for all inside, begin diligently to do their gym. An hour and then inside for breakfast, served by other old people, volunteers, who collaborate in the quite singular humanitarian work. “The Oficina de asuntos humanitarios [the Office for humanitarian issues, ed. ], the body dependent on the Historiador de la ciudad, was set up in 1997 to try to help the many poor of the city”, explains Nelson, director of the Office. “This old convent, that takes in all these old people every day, is only one of our activities. We have other structures for the old, what we call “protected houses”, as well as various activities to help the disabled and neighborhood children. Work that has gradually grown, to which we devote ourselves with daily sacrifice...”
Sitting on the chairs that fill the old church, the old people have a breakfast that many of them otherwise could not afford. One of the Oficina workers (there are about forty-five of them at Belén) entertains his hearers with a pacey dialogue. Today, as every morning, the birthdays of some of them are celebrated. The ones being celebrated stand up and go to the center of the room and of attention: some to sing, some to recite a poem. We discover that the sincere looking young man in the white coat is called Elain. And that, apart from being the morning entertainer (and much else), he is also the physiotherapist of the former convent of Belén. He leads us to his office, with its machines and instruments, but cannot give us much time. He has his patients. He wanted to become a Franciscan, he tells us, but then he started a family. But something of that childhood vocation must have remained to him. And he nods in concern as he watches his patients, to whom he pays greater attention than to us intruding journalists... They say Elain is very good at his job. So much so that there is great call for his physiotherapy and people come from all over. Even bishops, who come very willingly to visit this place rich in humanity. Today Monsignor Ramón Suárez Polcari, Vicar General of Havana has come to Belén and he tells us of his deep respect for the work that is done here. Artistic composition, papier maché constructions, theater, music, lace-making, stimulation of the mental processes (memory, attention span, language)... are only some of the things done in this structure. But perhaps the thing that goes down best with the old people who attend the center is the choir, directed by a pair of twins. It should be said that some people wouldn’t need to attend the course, like the trio, two women and a man, who are rehearsing a little to one side and filling the air with traditional Cuban tunes.
Everyone gets their eyes checked and, if necessary are given glasses, elsewhere unavailable. The atmosphere is cheerful at Belén. Elisa tells us of a terrible family situation, of a nervous breakdown. “Since I’ve come here I’ve given up the doctors and psychologists”, she concludes. Whereas Magali has no particular problems, but here, she says, she has found acceptance, friendship, in short a home. José, instead, tells of his working life, as a baker, and of his children who have left Cuba. He says that he did not want to come here, that he was ashamed, because in Cuba also the man must be macho... But now he is as happy as can be. And his face is all smiles. He is undergoing alternative medicine to treat a foot, that he shows off from under a strange pyramid of wires. The doctor, whom everyone calls by his nickname “Covo”, explains the principles of it, based on magnetism, and the beneficial effects it demonstrates on various maladies. He is retired now, he concludes, after practicing this traditional medicine in hospital for years. Since then he’s been coming here to alleviate the pains of his contemporaries. Blanquida, instead, was a social worker. She, too, is retired, and now works for the Oficina, visiting, along with others, the many old people who are too sick to come to Belén. She visits them at home, she says. And speaks of the terrible situations she finds on her visits. They do what they can to help them, she explains: they clean, every now and again take something to eat, according to the need. And the possibilities, obviously, because they’re certainly not rolling in gold at Belén. They say that what they do is possible thanks to foreign donations. Gladys Martínez Noa, Nelson’s assistant, tell us that they were thinking of renovating some buildings close to the former convent. It was planned to construct tourist lodgings. The proceeds from the new businesses were to be passed on to the Belén charity work. But the funding was to come from the EU. And it has been frozen. The embargo. They say it helps in the fight against a dictatorial regime. If it weren’t tragic, one would have to smile...
A schoolgirl in the capital

A schoolgirl in the capital

Normita also tells us her story, one of the many crowding our note-book. She’s a volunteer in the telephone service for those who can’t come to Belén. A way like any other of giving continuity to the home visiting.
Nelson explains to us that the children from the nearby schools also come to Belén, thanks to some projects that serve to bring them in contact with the old people. There are two projects: the first requires a class to be invited to attend a normal lesson in the former convent, in contact with the charity work; in the second, instead, the children join in the workshops of the old people, with the latter, for example, giving singing and guitar lessons. It’s also a way of checking on the needs of the children of the area, Nelson explains. And of giving shoes, glasses or other things to those without. It really is a poverty-stricken area, this. Today a family with a disabled son came by. They come from outside the city, it seems. They gave them a wheelchair, something almost unfindable in Cuba, thanks to the embargo. They are not the only ones to come from so far away, because every day someone turns up who needs something and who has nothing to do with Belén. They do what they can, the workers at the center tell us a little downheartedly.
The work of the Oficina is not limited to the former convent. They accompany us to what they call a “protected residence”: an old people’s home watched over by security staff. It is only the first, others are being opened. William Fong, who has a Chinese grandfather, but does not look Chinese at all, explains that another similar structure has already been inaugurated, two are under construction and another two have already been planned. The one we visit has a score of residents. Among them Ida, who tells us that her name comes from an Italian saint, Saint Ida. We check: saint yes, but not Italian. But that won’t make her less fond of her. e points out. Often with difficult stories. He has created two teams of five-a-side soccer, that play in the first and second divisions of the Havana championship. But around two hundred kids, whom William tries to get interested through football, center on the teams and he’s able to help them in their many requirements. This morning he’s going around the potholed roads of old Havana looking for a gym. Because this is the problem with the neighborhood: there are no spaces where the children can play. And even a football – the embargo again – is a luxury item.
We go back to Belén on Friday morning, because there’s mass. A Catholic mass. The old people of the structure all attend. Father José Miguel, parish priest of the nearby church consecrated to the Holy Spirit, the oldest in Havana, comes here every week. The Evangelicals are also at home in Belén. And now, Elain explains, contacts are being made with the neighboring synagogue. Practical Ecumenism. But today we are more interested in this singular mass. Singular because it was an office run by Communists that invited the priest. They decided that, at least once a week, the church abutting the convent should again become the place in which Jesus turns into flesh and blood. Something truly unusual. As he’s hurrying off after the service to teach in the nearby seminary, we ask Father José Miguel for information. He says he’s glad of the chance he’s been offered, that has been offered to the Church, of being able to say mass in that old building, that thus returns once again to what it was. And that he’s happy with the Oficina people’s decision to add the spiritual content proper to Christianity to their humanitarian work. We ask if he thinks that things of the sort can be multiplied. A stupid question ours. Fortunately the answer isn’t: “The important thing is not that similar collaboration be multiplied. If it happens, then welcome,” explains the priest, “but that’s not the point: one’s hope is that the spirit out of which this collaboration was born grows and puts down roots”.
The priest walks fast. In his parish church one nave (space is unfindable here) is used as a refectory for old people. A laundry service and other things are offered. Simple charity, that he doesn’t disdain, indeed he’s happy for the humanitarianism ongoing at the former convent of Belén. Which seems to share in the divine blessing assured to men of goodwill.
Some nuns drop in now and again to Belén. They are the Brigidines of Mother Tekla Famiglietti, to whom some years ago the regime donated a convent not far from here. They help to serve lunch and keep the old people company. They say that the old people often touch their robes because they cause them some supernatural awe.
Students visit the former convent of Belén

Students visit the former convent of Belén

“We do simple things”, says Sister María, a Mexican with a humble look: “A little group of old people from Belén comes once a week to our convent for lunch. Other poor people join them. Something is given them, then, we all go into the chapel, to say a little prayer...” The nun’s phrase, that sends one’s mind back to children’s prayers, has a fine effect. And there is all Christianity within it.
Today there is choir rehearsal at Belén. The twin choirmasters wave their arms in the air, directing voices in no way vanquished by the years. Further off one glimpses Pedro. He moves lightly, because he’s a dancer. They say he won a dancing contest recently. He, too, has children out of Cuba. And some hidden secret, that irradiates his wrinkled face with joy. He, too, smiles with this smiling place.
The facade of the convent is surmounted by a statue of Our Lady with Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus, with a big ox and an ass. It is they who welcome those who come through the massive gateway. And within, in the apse of the church, there is still a large cross that nobody dreams of removing. There’s a meeting there in front of it today. The people in charge of the Oficina are seeking to increase their range, to improve the service. Just beyond, a small statue of Our Lady of Charity smiles benignly on the castaways who pray to her. It has always been there, they explain to me. And it doesn’t seem at all out of place…

(Anyone wanting to contribute to the work of Belén can contact those responsible with an email to the address: oah@belen.ohc.cu)

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