Promptly, the Church in Cuba must and wants to participate in education. Faced with new realities that amaze and even threaten to perpetuate the current educational scene, it is also up to Catholics to inspire new spaces or teaching projects that, together with the family and the state, allow to build a more humane society: to train good men and women.
It is not, as some people think and expect, to reopen those Catholic schools that existed until the early 1960s, but to continue to encourage and energize initiatives that, far from promoting unproductive skills, offer alternative paths that seek to enrich or improve what we have. In her fundamental mission to make Jesus Christ known, the Church assumes the role of educating in the ethical values that define Christianity and that coincide with the principles that must be crossed by any kind of teaching: love, justice, solidarity, and respect.
Since the State assumed, in 1961, absolute control of teaching, with a marked Marxist orientation, the Church in Cuba has been forced to reduce its participation in this field to parish schools for laity and to the celebration of doctrinal catechesis. It was not until the late 1980s, with the celebration of the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting (ENEC), which was opened to more participatory work in education.
New and varied educational options were promoted from different pastorals and the option of distance education was extensively initiated. Similarly, several religious congregations made their own decisions about it and from their distinctive charisms, they promoted important initiatives that until today endure, as is the case, to name just one example, of St. John lateran, the work of the Dominican parents.
This is how training centres began to appear in Church spaces, open to all kinds of audiences. The courses offered benefited children, adolescents, young people and adults. Early programs included subjects such as computing, languages, human training, philosophy, ethics, anthropology, thought and creativity, among others. Today the list of content is much broader, but it is worth highlighting those that drive private business development. This formative activity gradually expanded with spaces of dialogue that have fostered exchange between the Church and other social actors.
As a community that wants to accompany the Cuban family in the education of the little ones, in recent years several churches and religious congregations in Havana have begun to develop projects in very specific locations and for the benefit of children mostly from dysfunctional homes. Also, although somewhat diminished, doctrinal catechesis continues within temples. Among these churches that have opened their doors to training initiatives for children is Santa Rita de Casia, in the neighborhood of Miramar, Playa municipality. The project is named Aula Inspírate and welcomes children between seven and fourteen years of age.
They educate me, they love me
Aula Inspírate emerged in January 2015 from the alliance between the Church of Santa Rita de Casia and Ingenius, a team of accountors that since 2012 provides computer, electronics and software development services. Although thought of as a creative learning space for people of various ages, courses and initiatives designed for children have motivated many parents, even from remote areas to that parish, to take an interest in enrolling their children.
Young sociologist Claudia María Bernal Mendoza is the current coordinator of this project. From start to date, he said, he had some changes. “Initially,” he said, “he wanted to benefit people interested in issues related to computer science, software development and electronics. However, the need soon arose to broaden the project’s profile to other population groups, especially children. According to a local study, most families agreed on the need to create English courses for children and second through sixth grade school reviews. Currently, English and theatre groups work for children between seven and fourteen years old. In addition, other courses are held for adults, but without a doubt, our fundamental audience is the children’s audience.”
Class plans for the teaching of content include topics such as value formation, human growth and social responsibility. “In this way,” says its coordinator, “we hope to influence the construction of a better country.”
The publication of the Get Inspired newsletter, printed material on a monthly basis, is “another way to influence families,” Claudia says. Although aimed at children, it is intended to read and share among all who live at home. Parent Workshops also add to the purpose of the Church being, together with family and school, a community that cooperates with the education of the youngest. Claudia goes on to say: “These encounters, on a monthly basis, make it possible to exchange between parents. In an open dialogue, they share their concerns – which are often similar – they expose conflicts, suggest advice to resolve them, talk about the communicative barriers between themselves and their children, or between children and grandparents, in short, realities that are ultimately common and the opportunity to share them helps them see more clearly the possible solutions. This meeting is accompanied by a psychologist who moderates and offers tools to deal with the controversies generated today in many homes. It is an hour of exchange and enrichment that is generally defined by a thematic line on the proposal of the parents themselves.”
Miramar’s slum is not exactly what any habanero would identify as a marginal area or place where dysfunctional homes predominate. It is known as one of the highest-income areas of the city per capita. It is home to numerous embassies, diplomats’ houses, firm headquarters, business centers and real estate. Then think about the project for this locality?
Quite contrary to what we can imagine, in the midst of all this splendor there is a “hidden side of the moon”. Many of the old houses of the slum were converted into quaderies, where several families live in multiple and small private spaces; in each of them coexist two and up to three generations. “A significant number of the children who attend our courses are the children of single mothers, who are usually the only financial support in the home.”
School break weeks or the holiday stage are a challenge for many Cuban families, who have no one to leave their children with all day long. Children, for their part, reduce recreation at that time to watch TV, play on the street or stay connected for long hours to a technological device (tablet, cell phone, computer, laptop…). Aula Inspírate also thought about this reality and for two years develops summer workshops with a duration of fifteen days (two weeks). Also at school recess time he plans a workshop on the environment.
In the methodology of these meetings insert classes of computer science, theater, crafts, photography, dance and even cooking. The general conception of the workshop depends on what its organizers can think of according to the demands of the group or the availability of the collaborators.
“We move forward thanks to the collaboration of entrepreneurial friends with a great vocation of service. For example, Juanky’s PAN (gastronomic microenterprise) supports us with snacks and in this edition of the workshop he gave us a cooking course. Similarly, a member of the D’Brujas project (micro-enterprise craft soap producer) offered a cartoon course. On the other hand, without the support of Ingenius, promoter of this project, it would be impossible to sustain it. It is no exaggeration to say then that thanks to a network of collaboration already established, not only with entrepreneurs, but also with parents, we can follow this mission, with the gratitude that with love, things move forward”, explains Claudia María Bernal.
For families or individuals who cannot afford the monetary contribution set for each course, Aula Inspírate offers a number of subsidized places. Similarly, respect for any belief, ideology or race is an essential rule of the project.
Right in the hall of the church of Santa Rita de Casia, a lot of children reveal to us a very different atmosphere from that of gathering and silence that defines any ecclesial space. The little ones have just come out of a dance class, have lunch and then start the photography meeting. The parish offers all its facilities and spaces: classrooms, sanitary facilities, offices… Santa Rita is today an open house for the good of Cuban society; accessible and inclusive home. His parish priest, Father José Félix Pérez, wants it that way.
Amanda, an agile and small teenager, says with some presumption: “This is my second time in the workshop, I’m one of the oldest here. The wonders step. I’ve created new and good friendships. Here I have been told about many topics that make my life easier and brighten today. We have talked about how to live in harmony with the people around us, we talk about respect, solidarity, friendship… But in addition, we put that into practice from classes, when we work as a group, either in craft meetings or in cooking classes. If I could repeat… I repeat.”
For her part, Marta Natasha’s mother, another girl who repeats the experience, finds no words to thank her daughter for this possibility. “She is another, communicates and socializes better. The big change I discovered in the final activity of the previous course, seeing it standing, in front of everyone, and acting unsymphied, completely uninhibited. I didn’t even know the girl had those skills myself. Then I realized that in this space each child counts, and that, despite the short development time of the workshop, it is worked in a personalized way. I thank every day of my life for this opportunity. Hopefully and spaces like this will multiply.”
Flavia is a young drama teacher. Working with children captivates her. It is very rewarding for her to see how the little ones, through the theater, bring to the stage what they have learned in class. “The end result is a great work that highlights in its argument values such as solidarity, friendship and respect. In the workshop, we have practiced exercises of organic silence, improvisation, and now we work with puppets, which are prepared by the children themselves in the craft workshop. I enjoy tremendously that illusion that accompanies them on the day of the closing of the workshop, when they grow up to show their parents what they have learned.”
For a Catholic as committed as Maria Josefa Chiang, professor of crafts and animator of the Project, “this initiative supports and benefits state education and, on the other hand, realizes the dream of many catechists who want, from Catholic spaces, to bring the values of Christianity to a greater number of people. Experiences of this kind should multiply in our churches. It is necessary for society to grow up dreamy, creative and hopeful children in a better world.”