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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It was the end of a long day of baseball under the late May sun in Santa Clara, Cuba, and Marilyn Santos found an unpainted, dented, wooden baseball bat among the shiny blue and black ones she had brought from the United States.
Baseball bats are hard to come by in Cuba; they cost six Cuban pesos, and most people earn about 19 pesos a month. So when she gathered the bats for the Sunday school children, she was surprised to find the addition.
The mismatched bat belonged to a boy named Andy, who decided he wanted to contribute, like the biblical widow, his mite to the donation.
Andy, about 11, volunteers with the Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba and had just attended a baseball camp hosted by a team of professional baseball coaches and Catholic leaders organized by the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, which oversees the association. The team's mission trip took them to three Cuban cities.
When Andy and his friends are not playing baseball or going to school, they are going door to door talking with people about Jesus and evangelizing the two generations of Cubans that were raised without religion under the communist regime.
Santos, director of mission education for Pontifical Mission Societies, told Catholic News Service from New York after the trip that the children often come to the Catholic Church out of curiosity and are baptized after working with the missionary group for a year or two. Some have even inspired their parents to be baptized.
The American group learned that evangelization is not easy work in a country where anti-religion sentiment is firmly embedded.
"We were watched and being recorded every single step of the way," Santos said.
She described how the police revoked the group's permission to use the government-owned baseball field when they arrived. The officers told group leader Enrique "Fidelito" Cabreras, founder of the association in Cuba, not to tell the Americans what had happened.
Cabreras responded, "I will tell them, because you're asking me to lie, and I'm a Christian," to which the police responded, "Do what you need to do, and we'll do what we need to do."
Cabreras is accustomed to such threats, Santos said. He has been brought before the communist government's Central Committee more than 20 times.
He has faced opposition within the church as well; he had asked the bishop of Camaguey three times to establish the association there, but the bishop denied the request because of a lack of funds.
When then-Bishop Adolfo Rodriguez Herrera of Camaguey finally agreed in 1991, Cabreras started with four young girls, one of whom was named Nataliz.
Nataliz, who came from a non-Christian family, was diagnosed with a brain tumor a few years later. Santos recounted several stories of the power of Nataliz's prayers: how she prayed to have her hair grow back for her "quinceanera," the coming-of-age celebration for girls turning 15 years old, and it did, and how the day before she died, Nataliz told Cabrera that she would offer her suffering for the association.
She promised that the organization would thrive there.
In the month after she died -- 1998 -- every Cuban bishop called Cabrera saying they wanted the association in their diocese. Within six months, the association was in every parish in Cuba, Santos said, and Nataliz's family even became Catholic.
Cuba and the U.S. re-established diplomatic relations in July after the Vatican hosted unpublicized meetings between the two governments. The Vatican had been opposed to the American trade embargo since the Kennedy administration imposed it in the 1960s.
In September, Pope Francis visited the island before his three-city tour of the U.S. The visit inspired Oblate Father Andrew Small, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, to organize the baseball-focused mission trip.
Father Small said he wanted to follow Pope Francis' example of "building bridges rather than walls" and continuing the Catholic tradition of using "any avenue possible to celebrate one another," including fish fries, schools and bingo nights, he told CNS from Rome.
As the most popular sport in Cuba and America's pastime, baseball is a natural connection among people, he said.
In response to the initiative, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, wrote, "It is good to know that the Holy Father's visit is added to the numerous initiatives of recent years that bring the United States and Cuba closer to one another and hold great hope for the future.
"We pray that in all aspects of life, including America's pastime of baseball that has been so enthusiastically embraced and is so skillfully played by the Cuban people, we can help each other to succeed and experience the goodness of the Lord."
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Editor's Note: The Pontifical Mission Societies of the United States is raising money to buy sports equipment for the children who work with Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba. Donations can made through the society's Missio app for smartphones.