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The Rev. Tom Beam’s thoughts on relationship with Cuba

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

CARY — The Rev. Tom Beam has dealings with Cuba on a daily basis. Beam is coordinator for the North Carolina Baptist-Cuba Partnership based in Cary, a division of N.C. Baptist Men.

Still, he was surprised as anyone when news of president’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba broke last week.

The partnership has taken place for the last 10 years, and is based in Cuba at Santiago, near the eastern part of the country. Beam works with members of the Eastern Baptist Convention in Cuba, sending some 15 teams a year there to participate in construction, evangelism and youth camp projects. He’s been to Cuba eight times in the last three years. He typically travels there in February for project planning, then leads a youth mission trip in July. Teams from all over North Carolina have visited Cuba, Beam said, including a team from Faith Baptist Church.

I went to Cuba just to get a project ready for some college students,” Beam said Saturday. “While I was there, it was determined we could take youth. All of that led me to being in charge of the partnership.”

Beam, who also serves as student missions mobilization consultant with N.C. Baptist Men, said that while he understood the president’s plan, he believes it will be a challenge for it to happen.

The Cuban government often says they’re going to do things and then they don’t,” he said. “I think it’s great if it happens, but I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

He said that people he’s talked with in Cuba thus far seem to be happy about the possibilities. He communicates with partners there via telephone and email. When he’s been in Cuba, he’s found the email system to be “antiquated.”

That doesn’t sound like the right word to describe email,” Beam said, “but it is. We tell the people we bring to Cuba that there’s no email, no Internet and no cellphones.”

Because of the embargo, American cellphones do not work in Cuba.

That may change, but whatever happens, it won’t change the work that’s already being done by the partnership, Beam said. “We already get to go. It’s a big pain to get visas and apply for visas, but our groups have never been denied visas.”

The teams typically are comprised of 10-14 members, he said. “The people of Cuba love Americans, and Americans who go there love the Cuban people. They’re a very resilient people. They seem to live in fear of the government, and they’re quick to say, ‘We can’t do that.’ To an American, that doesn’t compute. If there’s something we feel needs to happen, we work to make it happen. Cubans are a very compassionate people. Even those who have nothing work to help those worse off than they are.

They rely on miracles. They pray about it, and somehow, it works out.”

Beam has been amazed at the scarcity of the rationing system — including eggs, beans, coffee, bread and cooking oil.

You couldn’t feed a family of two for what they receive as rations,” he said. “They receive 1 liter of cooking oil a month. That’s the same as a 20-ounce bottle of Coke.”

Hopefully, Beam said, the re-established relationship with the U.S. will change all that. “But bless their hearts, they think it’s gonna change overnight. It will make it easier for us to do what we’re doing.”

Over the past decade, the partnership’s teams have built a 40-bed retirement center for pastors in Santiago. They’re just completing the addition of a small hospice, Beam said.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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