We had just finished a delicious dinner of rice, beans, pork and fruit, when Inervis, the leader of the camp crew, asked us to join her and the fellow staff members in the yard. It was our last night in Camp Canaán, which is where our group spent the majority of our time during this 10-day mission trip to Cuba. Much of our journey included getting to know the people and culture of the country while sharing resources collected in America with a variety of small village churches. However, this camp served as our home base, and we generated a special bond with the staff.
Our group stood in a circle per Inervis’ instructions, and I anticipated another fun evening of singing and fervent Cuban prayer. However, instead, I see our friends grinning at us with the anticipation of a surprise. After an unnecessarily kind speech thanking us for our time, they excitedly presented us with individual gift bags. Each of the twelve Americans in our mission group was given a Cuban souvenir. As I looked at my tiny pink and brown leather purse, I experienced an unexpected reaction. Rather than mere excitement or sadness as we neared the end of our trip, I felt almost frozen with shock and shame at the lavish generosity of our friends.
You see, I had learned quite a bit from my Cuban neighbors during this time. I discovered that the average monthly salary in Cuba is a mere $25. Monthly! ( This includes doctors and professionals. I saw the humble two-room houses that most people shared with too many people, dilapidated buildings and infrastructure that was truly lacking. I strolled along a street with chickens, pigs and dogs that freely roamed the villages. I learned that electricity, hot water, air conditioning and window screens to protect people from mosquitoes were luxuries reserved for the wealthy. I saw the ration books used to provide each family their monthly allotment of rice and beans and discovered that only tourists were allowed to eat their precious beef. I learned that when a headlight in our van broke or we needed more tools or gasoline, it required a multi-day search around the island only to learn that these items simply did not exist in this country.
Resources are scant in Cuba, yet everywhere we went, the people greeted us with open arms, extravagant hospitality and a generosity I have never experienced or seen anywhere else. How could they possibly afford to give me this gift? I felt burdened with the thought of the sacrifices they had made, yet they seemed so…happy.
Once I returned home, I placed my new souvenir on display and began thinking about generosity differently. Often we get it in our head that we’ll be more generous when we have more money. However, statistics show that the opposite is true. In 2011, those in the lower 20% give 3.2% of their income; yet people in the top 20% gave an average of 1.3%. If we wait to be generous with our money, we will simply accumulate more “stuff” which would require more money to maintain. Our Cuban friends had so little, yet they gave without hesitation. This inspired me to also give generously.
I thought about happiness differently. Happiness poured out of the Methodist Cubans that we encountered. Each and every person I met spoke of terrible hardships, yet maintained a spirit of joy that is often lacking amongst my American peers whose problems cannot compare. Once again, this goes against our culture, which teaches us that we just need to buy the right “thing” in order to be happy. However, I think the key to happiness is, in fact, living a generous lifestyle like our Cuban friends.
Many studies suggest that generosity has benefits to both physical and emotional health. An article in the Chicago Tribune says, “The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness.” (Chicago Tribune, 2017) In The Paradox of Generosity, researchers found that those who described themselves as “very happy” donated 5.8 hours of time a month, yet those who were “unhappy” only donated 0.8 hours. There was also a lower rate of depression reported in the group that donated 10% of their income.
While reading this statistic, the number 10% stood out to me, as this is the biblical rule of tithing. I get the impression that some view tithing as a way religion can suck the joy and money out of us, but perhaps God’s intent was to give us true joy. Once again, God has outsmarted us and is trying to show us a roadmap to a healthier and happier life.
Honestly, I don’t know why the Cubans’ gifts surprised me, as this was our experience in every village. Generosity simply flowed from these beautiful people, and I felt incredibly honored and humbled by the purity of their souls. However, their gift had a significant influence on me. My hope for each of us is that as we enter into this season of gratitude, we can also look at ways to be generous with what we’ve been given. Yes, we have worked for some of our money and possessions, but truthfully it was pure luck that allowed us to be born into a system in which we can prosper. Perhaps if we give often and intentionally, we might actually have the happy life we all yearn for.