|United Methodist delegation explores challenges in Cuba
Oct. 24, 2006
By Linda Green*
HAVANA (UMNS) — U.S. policy has made it difficult for the United Methodist Church and other faith groups to work with their Cuban counterparts in mission and ministry.
A delegation representing the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns received a special license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department to visit Cuba Oct. 7-12. The group went to develop relationships with the Cuban Methodist Church and to provide a witness to the importance of relationships — both Methodist and ecumenical — to the life of the church in Cuba and its people.
The nine-member delegation "went to Cuba to dramatize the importance of ecumenical relationships and the way in which our churches can play a significant role for change in the country," said the Rev. Larry Pickens, the agency's top executive. "It is a critical time, particularly in relation to the reality of our need to be connected to the Methodist Church of Cuba."
That church and the country's entire religious climate have undergone significant changes, he said, and the United Methodist Church is making "inroads into its relationships with churches in Latin America and the Caribbean."
The delegation went to learn about the history of Methodism in Cuba, discover the challenges facing the church there, and explore possibilities for shared mission and ministry.
Delegation members met with representatives of the Cuban Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Cuban government and the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, and they explored ecumenical and peace relationships. The group also visited the country's medical school and a school for the mentally challenged.
Although Cuba is primarily Roman Catholic, the Methodist Church there is growing. Of the country's 11 million inhabitants, 17,000 are members of the Methodist Church of Cuba, and more than 70 percent of those members are 30 years old or younger.
Part of the commission's mandate is to advocate for the establishment and strengthening of relationships with other living faith communities and to further dialogue with people of other faiths, cultures and ideologies.
"We have a concern about the Christian Cuban community, and part of our mandate is to have conversations all over the world," said Dalila Cruz, a delegation member from Dallas. "We wanted to see how we could be helpful in developing better relations between our two countries and in engaging in communications between the churches in the United States and the church in Cuba."
The lack of communication between the U.S government and the Cuban people is disheartening, she said. Democracy "is used as a club" by the U.S. government instead of "being able to reach out and work with and help the people," she said. The group also was disconcerted by the absence of freedoms in Cuba that are taken for granted in the United States, she said.
The United Methodist Church has consistently voted for an end to the U.S. government sanctions against Cuba. In a 2004 resolution, the denomination's General Conference petitioned President Bush and Congress to lift the economic embargo against Cuba and to seek negotiations for resuming normal diplomatic relations.
Last April, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and leaders of the Methodist Church in Cuba signed a statement of solidarity and cooperation that healed a short-term breach in relationships. The agreement, reflecting a "spirit of reconciliation and unity," recognized the long history of collaboration between the Cuban Methodists and the mission board and expressed regret for a "rupture" last year. At issue were misunderstandings over a decision by Global Ministries' directors to close out several designated funds that related to ministries in Cuba.
An 'exciting' church
Delegation members said they appreciated witnessing the spirit of the Methodist Church in Cuba through the local congregations. "For those who say the church is dead, people need to come here to see that the church is very much alive," Cruz said. "It brings a new spirit, it brings hope, and it certainly brings joy to our hearts. As we worshipped together, it was refreshing."
Cruz described Cuba as "ripe" to be a model for the world in terms of evangelism. The church has committed pastors and energetic leaders.
Alissa Bertsch, the United Methodist campus minister at the University of California-Los Angeles, said she is often told by young people that church is irrelevant and boring. She was pleased that young people in Cuba don't have that idea.
"The church here is exciting," she said. "People want to be there. Even if the church building does not have walls, they were going to gather no matter what. This is something that our (U.S.) churches can have."
The clergy members in the delegation preached in Methodist churches in and around Havana on Oct. 9 and they shared their own faith stories with the congregations. "I found this to be an overwhelming experience as I come to understand the Methodist Church in Cuba," Pickens said.
After the revolution
Born in 1883, the Cuban Methodist Church was a mission of the Florida Annual (regional) Conference. In 1959, it was the largest Protestant denomination, but membership plunged following the country's 1959 revolution, which brought a communist government into power.
Led by Fidel Castro, the government nationalized all church educational institutions, except seminaries, and ordered that atheism be taught in schools.
The United States has continuously tightened the economic reins in an effort to bring down the Castro government. In 1992, ships that traded with Cuba were barred from using U.S. ports, and the United States limited humanitarian aid to that country.
As a result of the Cuban government's stance toward the churches and its worsening relations with the U.S. government, many missionaries left the island. By 1962, all Methodist missionaries had departed, along with many church members.
In 1963, the United States imposed regulations for churches financially supporting the work of their counterparts in Cuba. Since the early 1990s, United Methodist Volunteer in Mission groups have become an avenue for local churches and annual conferences to provide support for the Methodist Church in Cuba — support that has included the restoration and repair of church buildings and parsonages.
The Methodist Church of Cuba became independent in 1967 and launched outreach programs to Latin America with an evangelistic thrust that included literacy programs, development and health care.
According to literature and leaders of the Methodist Church in Cuba, the denomination "rekindled" its fire in the 1980s and developed a characteristic of "total dependence on God, even regarding the most insignificant issue." More than 90 percent of the current membership entered the sanctuaries during the last 19 years.
Today, the Cuban Methodist Church has 121 sanctuaries and more than 700 mission churches, a pastoral staff of 210 and a membership of 17,000. Some 30,000 people have a relationship with the church and its different ministries.
Hope for the future
The delegation observed the need for church buildings for the congregations because worshippers assemble in homes, backyards and makeshift structures. They crowd these structures because the Cuban government does not permit the Methodist Church to build new churches but instead forces them to focus on maintaining existing structures.
Bishop Gaspar J. Domingos of West Angola said he was delighted to be a member of a delegation investigating the ecumenical work in Cuba. He found "great progress" and openness in the work of the Methodist Church in Cuba.
"I hope that our visit here would strengthen the ties of friendship with the church and institutions we visited," he said, "and that the ecumenical work can progress even more."
Pickens said the delegation's visit brought hope for the future, particularly in talking about life in the country after Castro. "It is going to be the church that will play a significant role shaping that future."
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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