COLLINSVILLE — Last week, it was nearly as if Cathy Dunham had stepped back in time.
“I saw an awful lot of people just getting by,” Dunham said. “They didn’t have transportation, so they’d take the city bus or wake up early to start walking. A lot of people were walking.”
But Dunham, a member of Community Fellowship in Collinsville, wasn’t on an expedition deep inside a third-world country’s jungle. She wasn’t a reality television star dropped on a remote island. Dunham was merely 90 miles south of Florida’s coast when she arrived in Cuba.
A handful of members from her church recently experienced what they considered a life-changing mission trip when they traveled to Havana, Cuba, with two other churches and the nonprofit organization Samaritan’s Feet of Charlotte to deliver shoes to impoverished individuals.
Dunham said the mission trip to this country dotted with buildings of every color felt like a vacation at times, but she said she didn’t anticipate the Cubans’ way of life.
“They’re living a lot like agriculture was here about 75 years ago,” Dunham said. “There were no supermarkets that I saw, just local markets, like a flea market or bazaar — people with tables with merchandise. There was no Kroger, no Walmart, things like that.”
Farmers pushed their produce to market in handcarts and proudly proclaimed their food as organic.
“They didn’t use manmade fertilizers or pesticides,” Dunham said. “The food was really good.”
Pastor Michael Harrison of the Community Fellowship said he stood in awe of the historic architecture lining the streets.
“There were 500-year-old buildings all around you,” Harrison said. “There were cathedrals dating back to the 1700s.”
Dunham also noted the Cubans’ bright, casual clothing, unlike typical business attire in America.
“You don’t see a lot of people really dressed up,” Dunham said. “There are lots of colorful clothes, but it’s mostly everyday slacks or shorts because it’s warm down there.”
While the clothes matched what one might expect for a fun-loving port city, the footwear was a different story.
Bryan Boan, a photographer with Samaritan’s Feet, captured moments from the trip not only with his camera but also with his heart. There’s one instance in particular that won’t likely leave his memory anytime soon.
“We went to a nursing home where the needs are extremely great,” Boan said. “We gave one woman a pair of socks. She kissed the socks.”
The elderly weren’t the only people living without proper footwear, as Boan saw at a youth soccer camp.
“There were kids at athletic camps with toes sticking out of their shoes, playing soccer,” Boan said.
When the group arrived in Cuba, a large portion of their shoe shipment didn’t make it past customs. Thankfully, there were shoes left over from a prior Samaritan’s Feet mission trip, but not enough to equip every child at the soccer camp.
“A team member took off his own shoes and gave them to the child,” Boan said.
The individual who gave away his personal shoes enjoyed running, so team members told the child he could likely run faster while wearing the shoes. The boy ran up and down the soccer field, testing the theory.
Shortly after Cuba’s borders opened after the United States restored diplomatic relations in 2015, Samaritan’s Feet was on the ground. Meeting a need for people, like providing proper footwear for the impoverished children at the soccer camp, is why the organization keeps going back.
“It’s our third season,” said Teresa Hucko, Samaritan’s Feet international director. “Once they opened up travel to Cuba, we saw a community that really needed hope.”
Said Boan: “On looking in, the financial needs are great in Cuba.”
From what he gleaned on the trip, the average Cuban makes about $25 a month. While the Communist government provides some necessities, such as rationed food, when the assistance runs out, it’s up to the people to supplement.
“Shoes are upwards of forty to fifty dollars a pair,” Boan said. “It’s impossible trying to get shoes. Financially, the money’s just not there.”
That’s where Samaritan’s Feet steps in. But this nonprofit doesn’t just hand out shoes and head to another location. Team members spend quality time with each individual they serve.
Just as Jesus Christ did during the biblical account of the Last Supper, team members wash the feet of the people they’re serving.
“It’s part of our servant leadership,” Hucko said. “The way we lead is by serving others. We make them feel valuable. When people are in desperate situations, they forget how valuable they are.”
Dunham said she cherished the humbling act of washing another person’s feet.
“It’s a way to talk and connect and let people know that they’re valued and loved,” Dunham said. “When you’re willing to humble yourself, you connect with a person. You have an opportunity to get to know them better.”
Meeting a physical need went alongside Harrison’s personal conviction, which he learned from years in the ministry – preach sermons often and sometimes use words. After team members washed each individual’s feet, they gave them a pair of shoes. Gratitude filled each recipient Dunham met.
“They’re excited. Their face lights up. Sometimes it’s incredible to them,” Dunham said.
While these Americans believe they met a need for the Cuban residents, mission trip team members in turn said they received gifts they didn’t expect – perspective, community and contentment.
“I remember sitting in the streets when we were dancing with the elderly,” Boan said. “We washed their feet, served them and danced for an hour and a half. About 65 to 75 people gathered to form a conga line. This is what life should be about.”
Said Dunham: “I want to be able to embrace life the way these people embraced life. It’s not about material things; it’s about relationships. They’re very expressive. When they hug each other, they make smooching sounds. They’re doing this to total strangers. They don’t just shake hands and say, ‘How are you doing?’ They have a warm and welcoming response. Some people that didn’t have a whole lot, they were content with what they had.”
Even though the Americans traveled with an interpreter, Dunham said the nonverbal communication meant more to her.
“It’s the human spirit coming out the way it should be,” Dunham said. “We’ve lost that sense in so many ways.”
The Community Fellowship members arrived back in Collinsville on Saturday, but instead of taking a well deserved break, they started planning the next local Samaritan’s Feet event.
Every year, the Community Fellowship leads a plethora of area churches in an event similar to the Cuban mission trip, in which local congregations serve their surrounding area by washing children’s feet and equipping them with a new pair of shoes just in time for the start of the school year.
“I believe we should share the love of God and demonstrate the love of God, and don’t just do it there, do it here,” Harrison said.
“The light that shines farthest must necessarily shine brightest nearest home,” he said, quoting C.T. Studd.
Harrison said that quote instilled within the local pastor a desire to meet the needs in his hometown before branching out into the world.
“Get outside of your comfort zone,” he said, “because that’s where you learn and grow most.”