What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “watering hole”?
For me, the quintessential watering hole that captures my heart is Cheers, the fictional Boston bar from the American sitcom that ran from 1982-1993. Cue the music … “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot … Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name … .”
The theme song from “Cheers” and the show itself helped all of us to understand the innate human desire for belonging, for a gathering place where we could share the joys of our lives and commiserate through the struggles. The community at Cheers was like a family, and the physical space, the working class neighborhood bar, facilitated the family gatherings.
I had the blessing of spending a week in what might be the Cuban version of Cheers in March of this year. First Presbyterian Church (FPC) of Atlanta has a partnership with a Presbyterian church in Perico, a small town of 30,000 in the Matanzas province of Cuba. The partnership started in 2012; a delegation from FPC met the congregation and leadership of the church in Perico and prayed together for God’s direction on the partnership. Another group from FPC visited in 2013 and together with church in Perico discerned the need for safe drinking water.
FPC responded to the need that was articulated by the church and community in Cuba. They sent church members to Clean Water U, a program run by the Presbyterian water organization Living Waters for the World. At Clean Water U, FPC members learned how to help the partner church in Cuba install a water system, how to run it for the benefit of the community and how to conduct health, sanitation and hygiene education with the community.
At the end of 2014, FPC sent another short term mission trip to Cuba, helped to install the safe drinking water system at the church in Perico and taught the church and the community how to run and maintain the system and about the importance of handwashing and safe drinking water.
This is an exciting story of transformation in and of itself, but the way that the church in Perico and God have used this water system since then is even more exciting!
Under communist rule, the church in Perico was not allowed to evangelize and was limited in what it could do for its community. During that time, church attendance dwindled to less than 15 people, and the church activity was largely limited to Sunday mornings. Those laws have been shifting in the past 10 years… or at least the enforcement of the laws have. Now the church is given some freedom to work in its community, and they saw this water system as a tool to reach out and share the love and light of Christ beyond its walls and beyond its Sunday morning worship.
From day one, Cubans started coming to the church with their five gallon jugs and other water bottles to get safe drinking water to take home and use for drinking and cooking. It helped that the local doctor in the community started writing “prescriptions” for people to get their water at the church. This increased traffic during the week and created a sense of pride in the local congregation. With the help of FPC, they spruced up the area around the water system, making a patio complete with chairs and plants in the shade of a big mango tree. Within a few months, the church became a gathering place in the community with people coming to get water and staying to chat with their friends. Then people started to get curious about why the church was providing this service to the community, so they asked. And then they started showing up for worship in Sundays. When I was there in March, the church had more than 50 people in worship, and there were more than 40 children who came for Sunday school. Beyond the 50 people coming to church, the water system is serving an additional 200+ community members each day that it is open.
I am blessed to be fluent in Spanish, so during my visit I spent some time sitting out in the courtyard and chatting with people. I learned so much about the daily lives of Cubans – about their hopes, dreams and aspirations, and about their amazement at this little church doing such great work serving its community. As we sat together in the shade of the mango tree, sipping safe drinking water produced by the system, I realized that this was holy ground. This space exists through the grace of God and the unique blessing of doing mission in partnership. And at that moment, rather than thinking of an appropriate hymn, I started to hum the theme song from “Cheers,” first to myself and then I sang it to my new Cuban friends, translating the lyrics and sharing in the joy of all being part of the body of Christ together. Like the apostle Paul says, this sacred watering hole was a place where we could rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
May we all seek to both create and be enriched by these holy watering holes, where the space between earth and heaven is thin. May we all find and create places to take a break from all our worries, knowing that it sure would help a lot. May we find and create places where everybody knows our name, and they’re always glad we came, and recognize that our troubles are all the same. May we find and create those spaces where everybody knows our name. Amen.
GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the director of global mission at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Prior to coming to FPC, Greg was the general manager for Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA). Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school, along with a ridiculous lab-beagle mix dog named Luna.