Two Shores, One Heart – Reflections on pilgrimage to Cuba

Two Shores, One Heart – Reflections on pilgrimage to Cuba

Solidarity and Acompañamiento in Cuba

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  2 Corinthians 5:17-21. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Cuban Council of Churches, the Evangelical Seminary of Theology, the Pentecostal Christian Church and the Memorial Center Martin Luther King, Jr., warmly hosted the delegation of Global Ministries from October 2nd-6th, 2015.  This delegation was composed by:

20151002_172622.jpgFrom the U.S. the visitors were the following: Rev. Julia Brown Karimou; President of the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the USA and Canada and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, Rev. Dr. James Moos; Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in the USA and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, Rev. Angel L. Rivera-Agosto; Area Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean of Global Ministries, Rev. David Gaewski; United Church of Christ Conference Minister of New York, Rev. Catherine Myers Wirt, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Regional Minister for Oregon and South Idaho, Rev. John Vertigan, United Church of Christ Conference Minister of Florida and Rev. Juan Rodríguez, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Regional Minister of Florida.   

And for the Cuban representatives: Rev. Eliseo Navarro; President of the Christian Pentecostal Church, Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico; President of the Cuban Council of Churches, Rev. Carlos Emilio Ham; Principal of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology and Rev. Raúl Suárez Ramos, Director of the Memorial Center Martin Luther King, Jr.  The delegation was also received by Caridad Diego Bello; Director of the Religious Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

According to the program planned by both parties, the visiting delegation held institutional encounters with Cuban organizations, where they learned of thier work, as well as holding an exchange on the following themes:

  • The Cuban reality, the actualization of the social and economic model, diplomatic relations and the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, the challenges of the recent visit of Pope Francis to Cuba, to the U.S. Congress and to the General Assembly of the United Nations.  Also, we remembered the historical relations between our Churches, the Cuban Ecumenical Movement and the historic Protestantism from the U.S. 
  • The U.S. delegation participated in joint services at the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Varadero, province of Matanzas and the Central Corps from the Salvation Army in La Havana. 

We celebrated and gave thanks to God for over 30 years of accompaniment and solidarity between us.   It is our hope that the dialogue between our churches and ecumenical organizations will contribute to open an intentional and serious dialogue to restore diplomatic and normal trading exchanges among Cuba and the United States of America. 

Dancing with memories

Cathy Myers Wirt – Day 1

We all managed to arrive in Miami in time for a late dinner together.  Around the table sat persons with long standing relationships and strangers, and all of us bound for Cuba.  Some of us had been to Cuba 1, 2, 3 times.  Others of us had been scrambling with reading to get some sense of context for a place we know only from infrequent news media coverage, generally coverage that emphasizes events deemed important to the United States foreign policy and not information about lives of common people in Cuba.

Avion.jpgWe ordered our meals, learning about travel arrangements and the outline of our schedule, and got to know our waiter.  When we told him of our destination, he smiled the smile of someone who loves a place.  “I´m Cuban!” he said with joy.  With each swing by our table he added another piece of information or asked more questions.  Curious, engaged, loving a place he had been only infrequently.  After dinner, and the news that we were to be in the lobby at 3:30 A.M. to catch our shuttle to the airport for the 4 hour check in window, we scattered quickly to hotel rooms we would sleep in for only a few hours. 

On my way to my room, not trusting my cell phone to wake me after only 3.5 hours of sleep, I stopped by the front desk and asked for a wakeup call from the woman behind the desk.  “Oh, so early”, she commiserated.  Each time I say the phrase, “I am going to Cuba”, I stop and listen to it echo, as I had never, ever thought I would go to Cuba.  She I pulled out my new phrase, “I´m going to Cuba in the morning”.  She smiled that same large smile of the waiter.  “I´m from Cuba!”  “Where are you going?, how long will you stay?….”  The open faced friendliness captured me, and I told her where we would go, and with each name of a town she would nod and smile and sigh.  “You will LOVE it!  It is so beautiful.”  Next she called over a young man who was just back from carrying luggage for a guest.  She proclaimed and pointed at me, “She is going to Cuba!”  He moved quickly to the desk.  “You are so lucky.  Where are you going? The questions began all over.  “You will need breakfast.  I will get you take out breakfast for the morning.  It´s not problem.  There will be long waits.”

Headed up the elevator, I reflected on the instant relationship the word Cuba brought me from three young adults.  These are not people who lived the October Crisis of the 1960s.  These are the people who see hope and future and smile with wide face when the say the word, “Cuba”.

In a moment of crystal recall a deep seated memory came back full force.   I was 5 years old in Kindergarten class in the October of the “crisis”.  My classmates and I were being tutored in hiding under our desks in case the bombs began to fall on our school.  My five year old self did not understand bombs or hiding or why our teacher seemed so scared all of the sudden.  My friend next to me poked me and made me laugh.  The teacher sprinted across the room, drew her arm back, and slapped me full across the face.  I had a mark on my face in the shape of her hand an hour later when my father picked me up from school.  I can still hear the voice she used as an echo of memory, “This is NOT funny.  We could all die!”

My memory of fear, these hotel staff with memories of joy and anticipation for a stranger{s journey danced together as I lay down for my short nap before the trip to the airport. 

The dance of generations

David Gaewski – Day 2

Joel best described this moment in Cuban history when he told us that his son recently danced in a Romeo and Juliet Ballet both in Berlin and New York.  He then said that this young man does not fully grasp how this was made possible.  Joel’s father, Raul, was also present during this conversation that took place at the Centro Memorial de Martin Luther King Jr., of which Raul—a Baptist minister–  is the founder.  Raul spoke with great emotion about his time as the Executive Director of the Council of Cuban Churches as well as an elected member of the Cuban Parliment.  Joel said, “My father sees my son’s career as an achievement of the past fifty years in Cuba.  My father grew up very poor.  My son could not have received the education and training without the social reforms in this society.”  “But my son,” Joel said, “does not understand that without the struggles of my father’s generation, a poor boy from Cuba would not have danced in Berlin and New York.”

20151002_155255.jpgBoth Joel and Raul emphasized that this is a pivotal moment for Cuba.  Both ministers, they particularly see this time through the lens of the church.  They spoke both of the Protestant and Catholic churches and they had both words of praise and criticism for each.  They emphasized that the visit of Pope Francis was important, but they added that visitors from our friends in Global Ministries is equally important to them.  They spoke of their hope for partners to accompany them as Cuba turns another page in its fascinating story.

Pastor Armando spoke with us earlier today.  He is a Moravian minister.  I was impressed (and to be very honest initially cynical) of the great confidence he has in the evolving future of Cuba and its “normalization” process with the United States.  He said, “Governments have their goals.  And then people have their hopes and dreams.  And then God also has a plan.  And they don’t always agree with one another.”  But Armando is so certain that the education and cultural development that has taken place in Cuba, despite the serious struggles along the way, has created a people with a firm foundation upon which only good things will come from the opening of relations between our two countries.  So emphatic was his optimism that I started to question my own cynicism.  Is my skepticism an example of cultural imperialism?  Do I secretly believe that my world view is superior? 

At the end of this day I am thinking about Joel’s son dancing at Lincoln Center and I think maybe Armando is right.  But then, if the dancer is unaware of the hardships that made his career possible, maybe Armando is wrong.  This was my first day in Cuba.  I look forward to listening and learning more.

That they all may be one

Jim Moos – Day 3

I have often said that while programs are important, relationships are everything; successful programs are built upon the foundation of trusting, mutual relationships.  That perspective has been affirmed on this trip.  Several times over the last two days we have heard how much Global Ministries’ solidarity with the Cuban church has meant to our brothers and sisters here, and how important this visit is to them. 

The Cuban church representatives we have met with believe that this is an important moment in the history of their country.  There are changes in Cuba’s economic structure with the opening of a limited amount of private enterprise, and the diplomatic progress is being made between the Cuba and the U.S.  That progress is, from my perspective, still very fragile, at least from the U.S. side.  Even so, there is a feeling that the country is at something of a crossroads. 

At a meeting this morning with the Cuban Council of Churches, long-time ecumenist and justice activist Rev. Raúl Suárez spoke of three meetings that have taken place between Cuban, American and Canadian ecumenical bodies over the years.  There was a 1983 meeting to evaluate the past, a 1988 meeting to discuss the present state of affairs, and a 1991 meeting to talk about the future.  Rev. Suarez invited a discussion on whether or not a 4th meeting should be held. 

A rich conversation ensued in which the prophetic role of the church was discussed at length; it was pointed out that prophetic witness has elements both of affirmation and critique.  In the Cuban context, aspects of the revolution including universal health care and education are strongly affirmed by the church and there is a desire to carry those advances into the future.  There has also been space for the Cuban church to speak critically about imperialism, multi-national corporations and environmental abuse.  It was later said that Rev. Suarez once gave a speech in parliament in which he called Castro to task and strongly condemned the death penalty; the death penalty got frozen in Cuba. 

A suggestion was made that a 4th international, ecumenical meeting be held and that it have prophetic witness as its theme.  The suggestion was well received and there will be more conversation.  Whatever decisions are ultimately made, the good news is that Global Ministries and Cuban partners are deeply committed to a relationship marked by solidarity and mutuality. 

One aspect of mutuality that needs further dialogue is the sharing of gifts in both directions.  American churches are generally anxious to bless others, but are not transparent about our need to receive blessings in return.  Clearly, our churches can be blessed greatly by the grace that is present in our Cuban partners; we need to explore that further how that might happen and move forward together. 

An afternoon visit to the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas had a similar affirmation of relationship.  In this case, the relationship has been incarnated in the presence of Global Ministries’ missionary Carmelo Alvarez.  While Carmelo has done outstanding work teaching on Pentecostalism at the seminary, the work has as its basis a relationship of mutual love and respect.  The correct order is to build a relationship and then see what shared work can come out of it, not to begin a project and in hopes that a relationship will develop.  Solid relationships between partners can hold through leadership transitions and the stress of disagreement. 

Jesus prayed, “That they may all be one.”  While we come out of different contexts and minister in very different situations, I must believe that Jesus is pleased at the way his prayer is being answered in the relationship between Global Ministries and our Cuban partners.  More can be done, but I think we are moving in the right direction.  

This is not the same Cuba

Julia Brown Karimu – Day 4

This is not the same Cuba I visited in 1978 or the same Cuba I visited in the mid-eighties.  The old automobiles are still rolling along on the streets of Havana, yet; there is something new about them.  The old cars look better than they looked in 1978.  Cuban engineers have found a way to make parts for the old cars and today they looked like beautiful antiques.  But beyond the cars, there is a new sense of openness in the social life and fabric of the country.  Although I have been to Cuba twice, I was not prepared to find this new Cuba, which reminds of a story shared with us by one of our Cuban’s friends.  A group of university students from the United States came to Cuba on a study tour.  The students received an orientation prior to leaving the United States. They arrived in Cuba about 9:00 p.m. and upon checking into the hotel, several of the students went for a walk.  Upon returning from the walk, there was another debriefing and one of the students asked, “When are we going to arrive in Cuba?”  This story represents the contrast between one’s perception and orientation to the reality.

Many come to Cuba with different agendas.  Today, Cuba is seen by many fundamentalist churches as a new frontier for evangelism, yet the church has been present through-out the revolution and remains strong.  One of the challenges facing our partner churches in Cuba with the potential removal of the embargo is the possible negative impact it will have on the culture because over 70 percent of the population was born under the effect of the embargo.

Today was spent in a mutual exchange as we shared our different realities and challenges.  It gave us an opportunity to deepen our understanding of one another.  Upon sharing much information about our two denominations and Global Ministries, one of the church leaders said, “I have listened to your history and current challenges, but I thought migration was a key issue faced by the United States”.  How did we leave that issue out of our presentation and how significant to have it pointed out by our Cuban brother!  At the conclusion of this discussion, the president of the council said that he knew of Global Ministries prior to the visit of the delegation, however; now he knows Global Ministries.

Our Cuban church partners asked our congregations to continue to advocate for the ending of the embargo.  The end of the embargo has the potential to bring life to both countries.  There have been major medical discoveries in Cuba that United States’ citizens may benefit and vice versa.  It is our hope that we may live as the neighbors God calls us to be.

Impressions of Cuba

Juan Rodriguez – Day 5

For years I’ve had ‘impressions from the distance’ about life in Cuba and its political and economic history. In my mind Cuba was a country disconnected from the developing world whose people were controlled by an inflexible socialist government lacking human spirit and religious freedom.  As part of a Global Ministries delegation that visited Cuba, October 2-7, 2015, I now have a new ‘impression’ of life in Cuba and of the ecumenical leaders of the Church in Cuba who warmly welcomed us with dignity, respect and openness.

The ecumenical leaders of the Council of Churches of Cuba, the Christian Pentecostal Church of Cuba, the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Havana and the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas (our four Global Ministries partners in Cuba) all possess a clear understanding that they are free to think theologically, to form religious and social organizations and to participate in government as persons of faith. They are also clear that all organizations must align with “the values of the Cuban revolution” which call for commitment to community, equality and justice.

On October 6, 2015 our delegation met with Caridad Diego Bello, the Chief of Religious Affairs for the Cuban government. As a high level official she appreciated the opportunity to converse with us as long time ecumenical partners and made sure we understood that the normalization of diplomatic relationships between our respective governments represents an opportunity for our respective ecumenical leaders to explore possibilities for broader collaboration as ecumenical partners.

After a brief visit, I do not claim to be an expert on Cuban culture and socioeconomic reality or to offer deep historical, sociological or theological analysis, but I did leave Cuba with a ‘favorable impression’ … and hope.  Our Cuban ecumenical partners spoke of the “healing of memories”. We discussed the deep social and spiritual wounds of our respective nations as a result of the Cuban revolutionary process of the last half century and of the need to seek healing and reconciliation. We commented on the renewal of relationship with former enemies of the USA such as Viet Nam, Germany and Japan.

We prayed for openness by all to the healing that our faith can bring and for the capacity to realistically embrace the opportunities of the ‘new day’ before us.