Photo courtesy of Jack Suderman

John Lapp (center right), former MCC executive director, visited Cuba in January along with his wife Alice (center left). The tour was led by Jack Suderman (right). Part of the tour included visiting the Cuban Council of Churches where Gema Montes (left), administrative assistant, profusely thanked Lapp for saving her husband’s and mother-in-law’s lives by approving shipments of canned meat.

When John Lapp visited Cuba earlier this year, he didn’t expect to meet people who credited him with saving their lives. But MCC’s shipments of canned meat have had a lasting impact in the country.

In the early 1990s, Cuba was reeling and its residents were desperate for food relief. Cuba had been supported by the Soviet Union from 1966-89 which injected massive amounts of capital and finances into the Cuban economy. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, that economic support dried up literally overnight.

“It threw the Cuban economy into a very severe tailspin,” explains Jack Suderman, former General Secretary for Mennonite Church Canada. “The next five years were very rough years for Cuba, probably the toughest in their history.”

People didn’t have enough food, and malnutrition was rampant. In response to that crisis, in 1992 MCC sent 17,685 pounds of canned pork. The meat, which provided much-needed protein, was designated for children and pregnant women.

Lapp, who lives in Goshen, Ind., was serving as executive director for MCC at the time and approved the shipments. “MCC is a wonderful organization,” said John. “We had excellent staff up and down the line.” Elizabeth Soto was MCC’s assistant secretary for Latin America, and she traveled to Cuba several times and helped arrange the details.

Along with his wife Alice, Lapp had the opportunity to visit Cuba for the first time in January as part of a Tourmagination group led by Suderman and his wife Irene. The Sudermans have been making regular trips to Cuba since 1986 through Mennonite Church Canada and MCC. They recently led several tour groups through various organizations centering on the experience of the Christian church in Cuba, along with the cultural history.

In the tours, groups often visit the Cuban Council of Churches the story of MCC distributing canned meat always comes up. “One doesn’t spend much time there, as soon as one is identified as Mennonite, before that story comes up. It’s the story that defines the MCC and Mennonite identity in Cuba in many ways,” said. Suderman. “If people weren’t directly helped themselves, they know someone who was.”

Suderman mentioned to Pastor Joel Dopico, the president of the Cuban Council of Churches, that the director of MCC at the time of the shipment of canned meat was in the upcoming tour group. “He became very excited about it,” remembers Suderman. “He didn’t ask me who it was, but he became very animated about it.”

As Dopico was speaking to the group, he came to the part of his speech where he told the story of MCC and the canned meat. According to Suderman, he became very emotional as he looked around the room and said the person responsible for approving the shipment of canned meat was in the room. He walked straight over to John and gave him a big hug. “It was a very emotional,” remembers Suderman.

“I had not traveled in Cuba,” said John. “But he must have known me from a photograph. He was effusive in his gratitude for the food shipments which he said were important for a generation of humans, particularly women and children.”

After the gathering, Gema Montes, administrative assistant to Dopico, came over with her husband and asked to speak with John. She and her husband were both very emotional and gave John a big hug with tears in their eyes. She wanted to let John know that her husband and his mother were some of the Cubans who had benefited from the MCC canned meat. “She was effusive that this meat kept her husband alive when he was a toddler,” remembers John.

“This wasn’t just a little bit of help,” said Suderman. “This was actually a matter of life and death for many people. It goes way beyond a bit of charity.”

The story has been relayed from one generation to the next, so much so that is has almost turned into folklore. “I am very grateful that MCC was able to respond in this way,” reflected John. “I hope MCC can continue to be a resource for meeting human needs in the most difficult situations.”

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