“Timing is everything.” For the Corban University baseball team, that phrase could not have been more true when the Warriors traveled on a historic mission trip to Caimanera, Cuba. They were the first American collegiate baseball team to ever play on Cuban soil since the Cuban revolution of 1959, and the local Caimanera population was ready for a message. The message that Coach Jeff McKay and the entire team delivered was one that will ring through the streets and set the stage for generations to come. Seeds were planted and bricks were laid. The future for Caimanera and Cuba is now, and that future is bright.
How Corban University and the Warrior baseball team were chosen to go to Cuba is a story in itself. A little more than a year ago, Cuban native Glenn Wilson, a pastor who now lives in New Jersey, began working with Mike Silva International, a ministry based in Sisters, Ore., to bring a baseball team to do missionary work in Cuba. Through prayer and varying connections, Silva and McKay became connected and the idea was presented to bring the Warriors to Cuba on a mission trip.
The first day was a long day of travel with various members of the team flying to the East Coast from around the U.S. Everyone met in a Miami hotel near the airport, organizing and planning, before leaving for the airport at 3 a.m. Following the strenuous process of getting through the international terminal, they finally boarded the plane, and a little over an hour later were flying over the beautiful country of Cuba. The countless rolling hills turned into lush green mountains of dense forest as the plane finally descended next to the ocean at Santiago, Cuba. There was a loud round of applause from all of the Cubans on board, thanking the pilot and the staff for getting them there safely.
The Navy and Gold successfully made it through customs without delays, and trip leader and native Cuban, Pastor Glenn Wilson stated, “We just witnessed a miracle!” It was something that never happens, especially for Americans. The team boarded a bus and traveled through the scenic countryside, passing numerous horse-drawn carriages and tightly-spaced, two-lane highways. After passing through the city of Guantanamo, they proceeded through multiple military checkpoints and then entered Caimanera. There is only one road leading in and one road leading out of the city, with armed guards at every entrance.
The scene was incredibly unique for the townspeople of Caimanera, a city of 11,000 filled with old cars and architecture from the 1950s. Despite the military differences between our two countries at the disputed Guantanamo Bay base, every Cuban in Caimanera welcomed the Warriors with open arms and hearts from the second they entered the city. On top of providing meals and coordinating a safe and high-quality location to stay, the Cubans showed their willingness to accept the Americans.
Later that evening, the team walked the city streets together to a dinner location beside the bay. They were welcomed by Cuban children on the streets who were playing barefoot soccer with a flat ball and small goal with no nets. They also were greeted by those who lined balconies to get a look at the ‘newcomers.’ The team felt well-prepared for what was ahead, thanks to a Corban professor, Paul Johnson, who, in years past, has worked extensively in Latin America. He provided countless hours of preparation about what to expect in Cuba.
Waking to the familiar sound of a rooster marked the start of the first full day. Following a breakfast overlooking the bay, the Warriors traveled to the city of Guantanamo to further immerse themselves in the country. That evening, team members were invited to a church service. The church is the only one in the city and recently came to fruition thanks to the help of Pastor Glenn Wilson. Wilson was born in Caimanera and grew up in the city before moving to New Jersey. His return home to Cuba for the first time in 30 years occurred just a couple of years ago. God spoke through Wilson, and he was motivated to organize and build a church. The team enjoyed a vibrant worship service with more than 500 people, packed wall to wall and lined around the outside looking in. There were also those in the local area who watched from their rooftops, listening to the worship music and message. That day the Warriors donated 300 Bibles to the church along with much of their own clothing. The effort was led by Pastor Saul Perez and named ‘Salt of the River.’
June 1 was the historic third day of the trip—the day the U.S. and Cuba made history playing baseball in Caimanera for the first time in six decades. Corban met with the local Caimanera government officials first, exchanging gifts and stories about how the game of baseball is our common language.
Seeing the stadium and field lined with local Caimanera people was a sight to see. The team was given a hero’s welcome as fans lined the fence, foul pole to foul pole. Children and adults piled on top of the dugouts. The people sang the songs of their native city. The anticipation grew as Corban warmed up, and following the player introductions and pre-game gift exchanges, the stadium filled even more, as locals started surrounding the outfield. It seemed as if the entire city was at the game, cheering for both teams equally. Chants of “USA – USA – USA!” rang out from the Caimanera children, while the adults also cheered for Corban following many good plays on the field and at the plate. The game was competitive but Corban scored an early run in the top of the first frame.
“We are not here to play against them (Caimanera), but we are here to play with them,” said McKay.
The momentum continued into the next day as miracles in Caimanera continued. The buzz around the city, because of Corban’s win in the first game and the manner in which the team carried itself, set up more interactive opportunities the next day at the ballpark. The locals began to arrive early, excited to witness more history in the making. Warrior Braden Wolgamott provided the highlight of the day, launching a two-run homerun over the left-field wall, bringing the entire Caimanera crowd to its feet as the ball sailed over the fence.
Following the conclusion of the game, the Warriors donated jerseys, t-shirts, baseballs, bats, hats, cleats, pillows, candy and other items to the Caimanera team, city officials, children and townspeople of Caimanera. Sometimes the gift of giving can be powerful, and seeing the expressions on the faces of the Cubans was priceless. God was doing good work. The children once again came onto the field following the donations, and hundreds and hundreds of youngsters got the opportunity to once again hang out with the American players. For many of the children, it was the first time in their lives they had ever seen an American or had the opportunity to interact with one, let alone a baseball player. Corban players ran the bases, took photos, talked, smiled and laughed, touching every soul with high-fives, hugs, handshakes and the sound of their voices.
The sign entering Caimanera says, in Spanish, “Anti-Imperialism” (“Anti-America”). Cubans are taught from a young age that Americans are the bad guys, and that the reason for the many rough years in Cuba is because of the United States. When the children, their parents and the elders of the city came to the baseball games and church service, and saw the Warriors walking through the streets, many started to realize that Americans and Cubans are not so different. We are all children of God. Americans and Cubans can both smile. Cubans and Americans can both laugh. There is a future for them, and it lies within the youth of Cuba. The children who met the Warriors and interacted with them during the week may not realize it now, but those interactions will stay in their minds. Seeds take time to sprout, and even longer to grow into full size. While Corban may not see these youth in leadership positions now, it is evident that the seed has been planted and the future is bright.
In the final game of the Corban vs. Cuba baseball series, the Warrior players were truly treated as heroes. The Caimanera children asked for autographs, photos, handshakes, and high-fives, and the players happily obliged. The game evolved as many local church members joined the Caimanera team for the game. The Navy and Gold played to an enjoyable triumph, but in the victory, something very special occurred. In a mid-game presentation, Caimanera officials presented the Warriors with gifts, thanking them for making a big difference in their town. The Warriors then read a speech of gratitude to the Caimanera people, and everyone intently listened.
“We have proven to the world that our nations can not only come together, but play together.” said Warrior speaker, Austin Guzzon. “We did not come here to play against you, we came to play with you. Our identity and worth are not defined by our nationality.” The Warriors linked arms with the Cuban players and prayed over the loudspeaker for everyone in attendance to hear. It truly was a powerful moment as the sun shone down on the dirt field. Children and adults alike took photos and talked with the American team for a final time following the international exhibition, and the Warriors left the field knowing they had made an impact on each of the Cuban’s lives they had touched.
The relationship between Cuba and the United States through Caimanera and Corban is one that could become long-lasting, and is undoubtedly the first step in smoothing the relationship between the two countries that have been so far apart for so many years, despite being so geographically close in proximity.
The team broke down old stigmas about the U. S., showing that maybe Americans are not all that bad. Corban showed Cuba that the U. S. is a friend of the people of Cuba, not an enemy. Through God’s grace and the team’s actions throughout the week, the seed of hope was planted within every Caimaneran’s heart, where previously, hope was nonexistent. The change has begun in Cuba, and it really is the dawn of a new day for the Cuban nation. As flowers bloom and the grass grows here in America, so too do the hearts and minds of the Caimaneran and Cuban people.
You can find photos from the trip here.