I was off to spend a couple of hours of free time with my friend, who was a Cuban pastor. Thomas walked with us to the nail salon, before taking off to roam the streets of Santiago de Cuba looking for photo opportunities.
My husband has an outstanding ability to get in touch with people wherever he goes. He somehow gets away with being curious. When he asks someone how they are doing or what they’re up to people naturally pick up on his genuine interest, as they willingly share their stories while allowing him to capture their heart in a portrait.
It happens all the time. While I tend to get shy around people I don’t know, Thomas comes to life. He starts talking to strangers on the street and they always end up thanking him for stopping them. Nobody seems to mind being interrupted, even the busiest make time for him.
As he walked down the streets of Santiago, he observed for a while before immersing in yet another conversation with strangers. He passed a bike repair shop and stopped to see how they custom-made parts out of old rubber tires and discarded steel bars. When realizing that he knew their trade and appreciated their craft, they graciously allowed him to take pictures of the workshop. And for a few minutes, there was a connection. A sacred space of togetherness.
He moved on and studied the chess players on the street. They paid little attention to the pale Scandinavian but nodded when he asked to shoot a few photos of them playing. After, they glanced to see how the pictures turned out, grinning before returning to the game. A brief moment in time preserved through the camera lens.
The distinguished smell of barbecue led him to an improvised street food cart and the owner offered him a freshly grilled pork ear. Thomas suddenly realized the origin of high-pitched squeals at 4 a.m. that morning. He searched out an extremely well-done ear and chewed on it, only to find that he actually liked it. The self-made chef was all ears when Thomas asked to take a picture of him with his delicious BBQ pork.
As he walked on, he met a ran into a man eager to check out the newcomer and maybe practice his English. Soon the conversation flowed effortlessly in Spanish. When Thomas asked to do a portrait of him the man was thrilled. He posed while staring into the lens. “You have to give me a copy” he said, clearly not expecting one, and obviously not knowing the photographer very well. “Of course!” Thomas said, making a note of the man’s name and address.
Keeping a promise
Six months later and we’re back in Cuba. After work was done and we had a couple of hours off, Thomas made it his mission to find the man. Among the lenses in his camera bag he had a copy of the portrait, neatly framed.
He passed by a pelea de gallos, a rooster fight, while walking the streets of Santiago. Once again, he stopped by the familiar game of chess, saying hola to the players before studying the note with the address. As he entered an alley a little boy looked up at him and he showed him the photo. The boy pointed further down the alley and ran toward a middle-aged woman. She squinted at the picture and nodded knowingly before entering a house.
After a little while, a shirtless, somewhat disheveled man appeared in the doorway. He recognized my husband immediately, greeting him and shaking his hand. Even though he had promised to return with the photo, it was clear that he was surprised to see Thomas again.
He beamed at the photo, though, holding it carefully in his hands. A friend suggested that Thomas should take another picture of him, holding the framed portrait. “Sure, hold on!” the man said, “I’ll just put on a shirt first.” Seconds after, he reappeared in the doorway wearing a orange shirt, just as he had done six months earlier.
This. Just this.
As I saw the photo, I was struck by the story behind it. Keeping a promise. Roaming the unknown streets. Searching for a man who never expected to be found.
It’s a story of faithfulness. Of recognizing someone’s God-given value. Of stopping for the one. Learning his name. Acknowledging his story. Reflecting his image through the lens of a good Father.
It’s the story within the story. Then again, it always is.
We are called to help people see themselves through the lens of grace as we call forth their inherent worth as sons and daughters of the living God. It’s revealing the image of the Creator in them as we invite them to come Home.
It’s faithfully awaiting a homecoming.