Joy in Sabanilla
by Rob Weingartner
If spunk is a spiritual gift, Mercedes Cardenas Hodelins must have gotten in line several times.
A Presbyterian lay preacher in the Cuban town of Juan G. Gomez (familiarly called Sabanilla), Mercedes, slender and small at 87 years of age, has been a formidable force for the Gospel in her Presbyterian congregation since she was four years old. Many have observed that the impact of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba has been disproportionate to its relatively small size. That’s true of Mercedes, too.
Sabanilla is a town of about 5,000 people. At the church, Mercedes has seen pastors and seminarians come and go down through the years. She was ordained as an elder in 1952 and even attended seminary for two years, but she didn’t feel called to pastoral ministry. She finished two other degrees.
Serving as part of the Session that now leads this small congregation of 30-plus members, Mercedes is the driving force behind an outreach program that feeds 40-50 people every Sunday, serving many who are infirm, addicted, mentally challenged or alone. “God has wanted me to be here,” Mercedes affirms, “to help other people.” So the church members carry in the food each week (and water because their current building has none), and their guests balance plates on their knees in the tiny sanctuary. And throughout the week the members find other ways to encourage and help their neighbors.
I met Mercedes last week during a visit to Cuba with the pastors and some members of First Presbyterian Church in Valparaiso, Indiana. We all were amazed by Mercedes’ energy and joy, her love for the church and her commitment to serving her community in ways that make God’s love concrete in the lives of others. She took our breath away; she inspired us.
The Sabanilla congregation hopes to raise about $20,000 for a different building, one that will provide a larger sanctuary, a room for meals and Sunday school and a pastor’s apartment. We’re going to try to help them with that. How can we not try to come alongside a saint like Mercedes?
Mercedes is the Spanish word for “mercies.” Thank you, Lord, for showing your mercy so clearly through the life and faith of this remarkable woman!