Poco a Poco: In Cuba with Pope Francis

September 26, 2015

By Vickie Machado, Eco-Steward Leadership Team

Last weekend Vickie Machado took part in the Archdiocese of Miami’s Young Adult Papal Visit to Cuba. Below are some of her reflections on Cuba and her pilgrimage to see Pope Francis.

We arrived Saturday late morning into La Habana, eager to take part in Pope Francis’ momentous journey. None of the young adults in my group had been to Cuba. For me, this was not only my first time to this island, but it was also my first real experience outside the United States. Though less than an hour’s plane ride from Miami, Cuba seemed new and untainted. All eyes were on this small country, a place devoid of advertisements, saturated with infrastructure from the 1950s, and crawling with news cameras expectantly awaiting the Pope’s arrival. Like the other pilgrims, I was greatly looking forward to seeing Pope Francis and hearing the message he carried with him.


After checking into our “vintage” hotel, we hit the streets of Vieja Habana, exploring plazas, snapping photos, grabbing lunch at a nearby paladar and purchasing our allotment of Cuban cigars. The shock set in when we drove to Calle 30 y 31 in Miramar to wait for the Pope’s motorcade. The media was everywhere. Everyone wanted to take part in this historic moment. NBC National followed our group, taking photos, filming video and conducting interviews as we waited for a glimpse of the Holy Father. As Pope Francis rode by— a bit faster than expected—the hype increased. The crowd was flooded with energy and the media was quick to start their questioning. Michael Williams of NBC News asked me if this was a life changing experience. With hardly a minute to reflect, I responded that it was definitely life enhancing. It was a less than ideal answer and didn’t make the news. I thought about this question more at dinner and into the night. Do I consider the few seconds it took for the Pope’s caravan to drive by, a life changing moment?


I continued to ask this question as I listened to his Mass on Sunday morning in the Plaza de la Revolución packed with thousands of Cubans and other pilgrims. A beautiful Cuban choir led up to his Mass. Gaining bits and pieces, the leader of my group, Rosemarie, translated his sermon about the importance of service. Still, I wondered if this was a life-changing experience.


Vickie Machado, an Eco-Steward alum and leadership team member, awaiting Pope Francis. Machado traveled to Cuba with a young adult program sponsored by the Archdiocese of Miami.

It was the young adult gathering Sunday evening where the magnitude and importance of Pope Francis’ presence and my own journey set in. After distributing rosaries, bracelets and t-shirts, my group found a shady spot under a tree to await the Pope’s arrival. We had plenty of time— arriving at 2:30 pm, four hours before Pope Francis was scheduled to address the crowd. During this time, I started talking with a couple young people, a 26-year-old former bartender and a 20-year-old student studying information technology. They practiced their English, which was quite good, while I worked on my Spanish. I learned a great deal about life in Cuba: jobs, wages, rations, past times, music, and general understandings. Although Cubans make roughly a dollar a day, goods such as cars, clothing, cell phones and travel are still incredibly expensive: $30-92 for shoes; $25,000-250,000 for a car; $200 for a passport. More than once I was told the math used in the States does not apply to Cuba, since one US dollar converts to one CUC or 25 CUPs  (used for purchasing rationed food).


Furthermore, it blew my mind to hear the Internet was only recently introduced (my new friend said in January 2015!). Still people must go to WiFi (pronounced “weefee”) spots and pay $2 per hour to gain web access. While change may seem slow to me, it is rapidly increasing and it seems to be commonly felt among many young Cubans. Pope Francis’ visit further extended this feeling as he has repeatedly voiced his stance concerning the U.S-Cuban embargo.

Talking with these young adults added tremendous depth to my pilgrimage. My journey meant so much more to see the passion in their eyes and understand the hope in their hearts. There was so much joy, love, and kindness in their stories, reflecting the message presented by Pope Francis.

At 6:40 pm, the Pope spoke about hope to the young adult crowd of 5,000. Hope is hard work, but it is worth working for. It is the path of life and deeply within our faith. Meeting my new friends enlivened the Pope’s message. Though this was simply a moment—drawing from Pope Francis—it is memory and discernment, which makes the path of hope that we must follow.


When practicing my Spanish, my new friends told me poco a poco, little by little. Often times we forget that change is a process. We don’t realize a life changing moment when we are in it. Sometimes it takes some reflection and understanding to connect the dots.

Poco a poco my journey began to make sense and hold a deeper meaning. Yes, seeing the Holy Father was an incredible sight, but it was the context—the young Cubans I met, gaining an understanding of their livelihoods, and connecting it to the Pope’s message and that of my own Christian faith—that carried the most meaning for me.

Like my pilgrimage, life is a journey. It is what we take from these moments that offer the impact. It is exciting to think how people will take this experience and enact it in their own lives, community, and world. The Pope is reiterating the Gospel—Love God and love others. Love is an action. Now, more than ever, faith in action is needed. It’s coming poco a poco.

A Great Read for Eco-Stewards

September 13, 2015

by Vickie Machado, 2015 Eco-Steward Leadership Team Member

This summer I had to opportunity to review a new book Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, by Todd Wynward. It reminded me of the discussions and issues we tackle as Eco-Stewards. Below is my short book review. I hope you get a chance to check it out.


Todd Wynward ‘s Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, does an incredible job of weaving Christianity with environmentalism. Tackling issues like affluenza, over-consumption and climate change, Wynward goes beyond the notions of a collective creation care and takes a look at individual practices and underlying themes in relation to faith. How does one follow Jesus Christ, a teacher who traveled the region spending time with low society characters? More so—how do we as children, sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers live in the world but not of the world? How does one negotiate the realm of work, family life and spirituality? Drawing from his wilderness experience, Wynward advocates a return to the wild. He asks his readers to go cimarron, “a Spanish term for a slave or domesticated animal gone free.” He pushes his readers to re-evaluate not just life but the paths Christians embark on as he re-invigorates scripture stories and parables.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this book is that Wynward provides readers with conviction. This is not the fire and brimstone conviction but rather a grace-filled understanding of life. As Christians, we must continue to strive to love God and love our neighbors. With our rapidly expanding world, this means looking at our choices and evaluating our lifestyles, while still considering how to live in the world. Wynward does not condemn the sinner or the over-consumer, but rather recognizes we all fall a bit short in this world. At the end of the day, God’s love is delivered to us all.

Reflecting on Gainesville: 360 Degrees of Pig Frogs

April 21, 2015

by Jake Lawlor, 2014 Gainesville Eco-Steward

jakeIt’s been close to a year now since I headed down to Gainesville, FL with the rest of the Eco-Stewards crew, but I’ve found myself thinking back to it more and more these days as the 2015 visioning trip is in the works. I joined Eco-Stewards because of a recommendation from my boss at the time at John Knox Ranch, a Central Texas summer camp where I was filling a brand new position as Environmental Stewardship Director for the summer (great place – check it out if you’re ever in the area).

The Eco-Stewards group was comprised of an amalgamation of people from various backgrounds united in the common interest of Presbyterian Earth Stewardship. This offered a pretty unique opportunity for us all to meet and share ideas with people with similar interests, but different areas of expertise. Over the week, we got to experience some pretty incredible things, ranging from working on some organic farms to speaking with community members who were active in food systems sustainability, to learning about Florida hydrogeological systems with the Florida Springs Institute.


We stayed in a  local church (located at the corner of 22nd and 22nd – hilarious Gainesville design flaw in my opinion) full of nicely broken-in couches and lots of character. We helped cook and serve meals at the Gainesville Catholic Worker House, spent some time taking in the smells of freshly-grown sunflowers and strawberries at local farms, and enjoyed a week in the Florida sun. Not to mention the group’s close encounters with the alligators, giant tree snakes, and sea cows of the Florida swamplands, all the time serenaded by the omnipresent songs (snorts, really) of the Florida Pig Frog.


The week not only introduced me to some new ways of thinking about local food systems, but also familiarized me with the whole world of Presbyterian Environmental Ministries. As a unofficial-Presbyterian who had been working at a Presbyterian summer camp for a few years, I wasn’t fully aware that things like the Eco-Stewards Program, Young Adult Volunteers, or Presbyterians for Earth Care even existed. This great group of people at Eco-Stewards opened a whole bunch of new doors for me to consider in the next few years and were a pleasure to share time and space with.

In summary, this program both introduced me to loads of new people, experiences, and opportunities, and also helped me more fully conceptualize the true connection of food and faith. Furthermore, the broader connection of people and place. Connections like these will become increasingly important in coming years considering obstacles like urbanization, water shortages, and climate change. This one week spent analyzing food systems in Northern Florida won’t save it all, but it’s certainly a place to start.

Visioning in Montana: June 2015

March 2, 2015

This June, the Eco-Stewards Program will host a visioning retreat in Montana, the site of our 2011 program trip. Read more here to find out who is invited to help us vision the future of The Eco-Stewards Program…

The 2010 Eco-Stewards hike through the prairie of Eastern Montana.

The 2011 Eco-Stewards hike through the prairie of Eastern Montana.

Who? Past Eco-Stewards, Program Leaders & Steering Committee Members

Where? Montana (Luccock Park Camp & Greenwood Farm)

When? June 1-7, 2015

What? Since 2007, The Eco-Stewards Program has been a wonderful experiment working to combine faith with environmental stewardship. Realizing the importance of beginning each journey thoughtfully and prayerfully, we’ve decided to use this year as a way to discern our vision for the future by considering such questions as: What will be the focus and location of our programs for 2016, 2017 and beyond? What will be our role in the larger faith and environmental community? From June 1-7, we will meet to discuss the future aspirations, goals and intentions of The Eco-Stewards Program. We want to move into the future purposefully and sustainably. Together, we’ve decided to return to Montana (site of the 2011 Eco-Stewards Program) for this Visioning Trip. This event will be open to past Eco-Stewards, leaders and steering committee members in an effort to guide the program into the future. Check back for updates on our Visioning Trip.

What if I’m new to the Eco-Stewards Program? We hope you can join us for our 2016 program (details to come after this Visioning Trip.) In the meantime, please stay connected with us by signing up for our blog updates (see the right-hand sidebar) and joining our Facebook page (The Eco-Stewards Program). Better yet, introduce yourself over email by writing to Rev. Rob Mark at revrobmark@gmail.com.

Food for Thought: More Learning from Gainesville

February 22, 2015

jessrigelBy Jess Rigel, 2014 Eco-Steward

It’s been a while since I was blessed to travel to Gainesville to participate with the Eco-Stewards in a week of education, communion with nature and overall bliss. But since then, I’ve been pretty busy. Too busy in fact, to reflect much on how that trip helped shape my values around the sacred nature of earth care, and particularly, how it challenged my views surrounding food justice issues. As a Seminarian, I have spent the past several months learning and reflecting on academic aspects of theology, not necessarily practical ones. And though I am taking a class next semester focused on Food and Scripture (!!!), most of my theology classes deal little with land and food issues, if they do so at all.

However, during my Christmas break, I was given the opportunity to do some service work with my mother. My parents live in Florida, in a county a few hours south of Gainesville that is known for its food insecurity. My mother volunteers once a week with the local school district, packing bags of non-perishable food for each school’s homeless youth. Though these youth usually have shelter of some sort, it’s not a home, but rather a hotel, or a temporary stint in a relative’s house; and so on weekends, they receive supplemental food when the Federal school lunch and breakfast programs aren’t available to them.

For a few hours, I helped my mother stuff bags with 2 breakfasts, 2 main meals, fruit, and 2 snacks—most of which, because they must be both non-perishable and kid-friendly, have little to no nutritional value. I was helping to feed the working poor—those most traditionally vulnerable to diabetes, hypertension, and stroke—with Pop-Tarts, sugar cereal, fruit in syrup, and sodium-laden Ramen dinners. While I am not a food snob, and while I know any food is better than no food, I also know through the thoughtfulness of the Eco-Stewards Gainesville Program, that another, better means of providing food for hungry people is possible.

Our trip to the Gainesville Catholic Worker Hospitality House exemplified how programs attempting to thwart food insecurity can provide not just food, but nourishment, in a way that is community-focused, nutritionally-dense, and ecologically- sustainable. As our host and fellow Eco-Steward Daniel Loya explained, folks in Gainesville aren’t calorie-deficient—there are plenty of feeding programs throughout the city—they are nutrient deficient. Through partnering with local farms and home-cooking multiple meals a day, as well as serving, hosting, and sharing those meals with all who show up hungry for food and community, Daniel and his fellow Catholic Workers and volunteers are directly fulfilling Christ’s call to feed His sheep, as well as gaining strong relationships with those they serve, and with one another.

Eco-Stewards share a nutritional meal at The Catholic Worker House in Gainesville.

Eco-Stewards share a nutritional meal at The Catholic Worker House in Gainesville.

Another “feeding” program that focused on health and nutrition that we were blessed to visit in Gainesville was through the Alachua County School District. We visited a local elementary school, where we not only shared a nutritious and delicious lunch, but also learned about how the school has busied itself implementing both a USDA Farm to School Grant as well as their Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. We were told about how students have been exposed to new varieties of vegetables, such as “atomic red” and “purple dragon” carrots, and how through such exposure, they’re consuming more vegetables. We also learned about how the Alachua County School District is sponsoring family events, to get parents and grandparents on board about nutrition. The Alachua County Farm to School program even has a Farm to School Work Hub through Loften High School that gives students agricultural skills and lets them share the produce they grow with their fellow students through the school lunch program!

Eco-Stewards learn about the Alachua County Farm to School program.

Eco-Stewards learn about the Alachua County Farm to School program.

While neither of these programs addresses all the links between hunger and the empty calories that lead to health problems among too many of our nation’s citizens, they are drawing attention to the dichotomies of many well-intentioned food service programs, and making a positive, tangible difference in the Gainesville community. Furthermore, both the Gainesville Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and the Alachua County Farm to School program serve as beacons to other communities—giving us hope that we might model them and best meet the needs of the hungry who surround us, seen and unseen, no matter where we live.

Eco-Stewardship as Watershed Discipleship

August 1, 2014

By Vickie Machado


Entrance to Wild Goose Festival 2014.

In June, I was blessed to be in the presence of a troupe of magical carnival folk, a high desert wilderness priest from Taos, a watershed pioneer from California, a food justice activist with a contemplative soul and a lion’s roar from  PC(USA), and a mindful Catholic Worker from Gainesville. They are all part of the gaggle of goosers—my community of the Wild Goose Festival. This is my third year attending the Goose, and it continues to get better and better as I see familiar faces, meet new friends, and engage in thoughtful conversations about life, God, nature and society.

I made this pilgrimage as a contributor to the festival, meaning I had the upmost pleasure to be part of a workshop (Decolonize Your Mind First) and a panel discussion (Watershed Discipleship). While the issues of Food Justice embedded within Decolonize Your Mind First evoked memories of Gainesville’s Eco-Stewards Program, it was the panel on Watershed Discipleship that opened my eyes to the purpose and importance of the Eco-Stewards Program.


Folks gather at the Decolonize Your Mind First workshop.


Watershed Discipleship Panel

Created by visionary theologian Ched Myers, Watershed Discipleship is a bioregional approach to faith, which grounds our actions in our watersheds. With the reality of climate change, this movement realizes we are entering a “watershed moment that demands serious, sustained engagement from Christians.” We are called to care for creation as we recognize:

We won’t save places we don’t love

We can’t love place we don’t know

And we don’t know places we haven’t learned

Having studied bioregionalism, the notion of placing ourselves in a bioregion, watershed or ecotone, not only made sense to me but it seemed like a natural course of action. Of course, shaping our lives according to – or at least being mindful of – our natural environment is the most sustainable way to live. Not only is it more sustainable, but there is a certain fruitfulness that comes with it.

It is because of our call to care for creation that I see the importance of place-based programs such as Eco-Stewards. Our cultivation of how to learn, know and love places, not only aids our ability to save them, but it also provides ourselves with a spiritual foundation on which to connect to a place. It promotes ‘being’ and presence in a placeless society. In the past four Eco-Stewards’ trips, learning and experiencing how others care for their land has prompted me to further learn how and what I might do to care for my own region. We have been blessed with this Earth, it is up to us to care for it one watershed at a time.

Eco-Steward Reflection: “…like the manatees…”

June 11, 2014

By Colleen Earp

Eco-Steward Colleen Earp biking through Gainesville

Eco-Steward Colleen Earp biking through Gainesville

I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on the time I spent in Gainesville, so I’m really excited to share some of our adventures! I don’t know where to begin.

We toured a beautiful organic farman incubator kitchen, talked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers about fair labor conditions for farm workers, went to some really great coffee shops, and visited a ton of incredible places: Payne’s Prairiea community garden where you pick and you pay what you can, a farm to school program, a farmer’s marketthe Gainesville Catholic Workera microfarm, and a church yard community garden, biked 20 miles to the Alachua Conservation Trust to tour Forage Farm and talk about water issues with the Florida Springs Institute. We ate amazing local foods and learned about the connections between all of these places. There is some beautiful work going on in Gainesville, feeding the hungry and loving the earth. To top it all off, we hiked the Devil’s Millhopper and tubed the Ichetucknee. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few stops but it was a week of constantly amazing things.

And, of course, I would be remiss not to mention that tubing the Ichetucknee lead to swimming alongside manatees as they moved up the beautifully clear spring-fed river. Yep, I just dove in and swam beside these two incredibly beautiful creatures.

Keeping up with them is a lot harder than I would have guessed. They’re so big and slow and graceful, but also very strong. We floated so slowly down the river that I was surprised how hard it was to swim upstream. I was also just a little bit excited, so holding my breath long enough to be underwater, take pictures, and kick frantically without scaring the manatees was a challenge.


It was a really amazing week to come together with other people interested in the relationship between faith and environmental work. As we all reflected on how awesome the Eco-Stewards Program was, and how good it was to connect with this sort of building-less church that the program has created, it came up that these kinds of great experiences kind of carry us for a while. A week like this is fleeting, but so deeply moving. And in the face of the church being a complicated place for many young adults, it’s kind of important to find these beautiful things to sustain us while we sort out the tough stuff and figure it out for ourselves.

While deep in the throes of that conversation, Rev. Rob Mark, one of the trip leaders, piped in, “…like the manatees…” Yes, exactly like the manatees. So incredibly beautiful, and only with us for a very short time, but I think about it every day. Not just manatees. The whole week of connecting with the great things going on in Gainesville and the church.

Will that excitement wear off? Perhaps, just like the manatees kept swimming away up that clear, cool spring. But it leaves me with a sense of hope in what I am doing, and encourages me to keep seeking out the church in the world like this.