Weekly Feature

2018-02-21 / Lifestyles

Pastor preaches in Spanish while in Cuba

by HOLLY N. LIPKA Reporter

The Rev. Heather Stierheim, top row, left, stands with fellow participants of the Mission of Peace program in Cuba. The Rev. Heather Stierheim, top row, left, stands with fellow participants of the Mission of Peace program in Cuba. The Rev. Heather Stierheim, senior pastor at Williamsville United Methodist Church, used her bilingual teaching skills and preached at churches in Spanish on a mission trip to Cuba last month.

Through the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church and its Mission of Peace program, Rev. Stierheim traveled to Havana, Varadero, Cardenas and Jovellanos with other religious leaders and 14 students from the Northeast.

“It’s not your typical mission trip where you go and experience home rebuilding or work in a school; it’s totally about relationships, bridging cultures and being engaged with the culture,” said Rev. Stierheim.

During the three-week trip, the group visited and worshiped in local churches; worked on a pineapple farm; made crafts with a group of disabled children; delivered 100-pound bags of rice and made meals for those in need; learned traditional Cuban dances such as the cha-cha and the samba; and celebrated New Year’s Eve at the pineapple farm with a pig roast, bonfire, songs and prayer.

“We learned a lot about the culture from their point of view,” said Rev Stierheim. “We were so warmly welcomed.”

Before she studied for the ministry, Rev. Stierheim spent five years as a bilingual special-education teacher. She doesn’t consider herself a Spanish scholar, but she wanted to try preaching in Spanish while in Cuba.

“We had a phenomenal translator named Melissa, and she came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You’re the only U.S. person that I have met who was willing to try this,’” said Rev. Stierheim. “That was kind of a struggle for me because I thought if you know the language even a little bit, you should try.”

Rev. Stierheim met several inspiring people on the trip, including a retired Methodist pastor who had been imprisoned for his faith. He was in jail for 18 months with pastors from all other denominations during the Cuban Revolution.

From 1953 to 1959, Fidel Castro’s government actively suppressed Catholicism and Afro-Cuban religions.

Religious adherents were barred from Communist party membership, and many were imprisoned for counter-revolutionary activity, according to an article in The Journal of Law and Politics. It wasn’t until 1992, when Cuba announced itself as a secular state, that religious groups had greater freedom to practice.

“His testimony was so important to these youths be- cause we don’t have that. We have such freedom here,” said Rev. Stierheim. “It was incredibly moving to hear somebody’s testimony who is living and says, ‘This is what happened because of my faith.’”

Rev. Stierheim also visited India and Zimbabwe with Mission of Peace when she was a student at Iroquois High School in Elma. As an adult, she has traveled to China through the program, and next year she plans to co-coordinate a mission trip to the Philippines.

Comparing her experiences, Rev. Stierheim noted the positive change within the church and how it has evolved and responded to cultural issues.

“People who have been allowed to practice their religion at this point are really not afraid of their faith. They’re not afraid to worship in public, and that’s an inspiration. People are realizing within their own countries and cultures that the church does have a place for social justice.”

Rev. Stierheim will present photos and stories from the trip at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at Williamsville UMC, 5681 Main St. Guests are welcome. For more information about Mission of Peace, visit www.ne jumc.org.

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