Presented by Margaret Nell Johnston

National Summit on Cuba, June 11, 2005


First, a few words about the work I do and my interest and involvement in Cuba.    The Partnership concept has long been an effective mission outreach, bringing individuals and churches into a hands-on mission experience with a church body overseas.  The Presbytery of South Louisiana, the southern half of the state, began exploring such a partnership in the early1980s.  We elected to explore the possibilities with Cuba, to see how Christians lived out their daily lives under different socio-economic conditions.  By comparison, the USSR had just opened up to a few visitors and we were getting a glimpse of what had happened to the church under communism – the church went underground and the buildings were converted to other uses.


We completed our mutual agreement in with the Presbytery of Matanzas in 1987 and made our first trip in 1988.  Since then we have sent approximately 200 delegates  and have welcomed about 75 Cubans here.  We invited more but some were denied permission to travel.  The partnership is still growing, and as a matter of fact, we have a delegation of 19 youth and 5 adults returning home the 9th of June.


The comment I hear most often is, ”You mean there is a Christian church in Cuba?”  And I tell them “Yes, Christianity came to Cuba in fourteen hundred and ninety two when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  The country was under the Roman Catholic Church for the succeeding centuries, although not as strongly Catholic as the rest of Latin America.  Perhaps that is why they were open to the Protestant movement that began in the 1880s with missionaries and other assistance from the United States.  First came the “mainline denominations” and then others so that today there are more than 53 Protestant denominations in Cuba.  My experience has been with the Presbyterian Church but other mainliners closely paralleled our development at that time in history. 


The Presbyterian work became a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and it was only in 1967 that both partners agreed to autonomy for the Cuban church.  The ties were never really severed, and we continue to work under covenants at all levels.


The role of the church in those early days of the establishment of the Protestant churches followed the traditional role already played by the Catholics – emphasis on education with schools and universities, health care with hospitals and clinics and help to the needy at the lower economic levels of society.


Then came the revolution and all that changed.  The State took over those societal needs, putting priority on education, health, housing, jobs, subsidized food and other reforms. Some people recognized that the State was doing what the church had been doing  – feeding the hungry  and caring for the poorest – and they recognized the benefits.  Many were simply fearful and uncertain. When Fidel Castro announced that it was to be a communist revolution, church people were even more fearful than ever.  What would be the future of the church?  More than half the clergy and members alike left the country. This was true of the Catholics as well as the Protestants and even a small Jewish community. The churches never closed nor went underground, but they were greatly reduced in numbers.  Only a small faithful “remnant” kept them open so that worship was regularly offered.  Worship was confined to indoors, no outside gatherings or street ministry, and no access to the media. 


There was discrimination against Christians in jobs, promotions and choice of career. Students were guided into whatever profession the State needed for the good of society. With young children there were socialization problems with their peers if they did not wear the red kerchiefs of the communist youth party – the Pioneers.


In the mid-1980s several things worked together to improve State/Church relations:

the establishment of the Office of Religious Affairs within the Communist Party;

the visit of the Rev. Jesse Jackson – he was visiting Havana during a Martin Luther        King anniversary and as he walked from the University to the nearby Methodist church, Fidel and his entourage went with him, entered the church and remained for the service;

and the book by the Brazilian priest, Frei Betto, published in 1986, Fidel and Religion, in which Fidel speaks of the fine education he received under the Jesuits.


The most profound change came in 1990.  More than 50 clergy and laity met with Fidel and told him there was discrimination in society against Christians in various areas.  Fidel said that it was wrong and must stop, noting the contributions Christians were making to society.  The interview was taped and broadcast twice on nationwide television.  This opened the floodgates and people came back to church or began attendance for the first time.  The churches grew rapidly from this point on.


Other important developments were:   Fidel’s declaration in 1991 that Cuba was to be a secular state, no longer atheist.  In 1992 he allowed Christians to be party members, opening the way for three church leaders of high standing (a Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian) to be elected to the Parliament of some 500 members. 


Another change affecting the church was of an economic nature.  Beginning in 1989, with the fall of the eastern bloc countries, Cuba suffered enormous economic problems.  What came to be called “the special period” was a condition of wartime austerity in a time of peace. There were critical shortages of fuel for transportation, factories and homes, food shortages and budget cuts in services  to meet societal needs.


But it was a time for the people to find hope in the church, aware that their future lay not  in any political or economic system, but in trust in God.  And it was an opportunity for the church to pick up her traditional missional role of service and witness.  With this phenomenal growth came problems in education and nurture of the church people who were at times from 60-80% new Christians.  There were adults who had not attended church for decades, and they found the church changed in worship practices, etc.  Young people had never heard scripture read aloud or prayers said in the home.  Small children had never heard the Christmas story, or the Easter story. What they needed then, and still need, are Christian education materials geared to the realities of Cuba and expansion and repair to the church buildings.  This is where partnerships help immeasurably.


There is also a critical need for pastors and trained laity.  The seminaries have worked hard to overcome this deficit.  The one I know best is the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas,  founded in 1946 by the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians and still operated by them. The institution maintains a high standard of preparation so that graduates may  pursue higher degrees in religious institutions in Europe, Latin America and the United States.  They have established extension campuses and a network of workshops throughout the island in order to go where the people are.


One could say the church/state relations have gone from discouragement by the state to tolerance to encouragement and now to cooperation, especially in societal problems focusing on family concerns, adolescents’ guidance and housing for the aged.  Of several church service centers in Cuba, some also have very specialized outreach.  For example, the one at Varadero provides a holiday at the beach for children from oncological hospitals and the same for the elderly from all over the island.  In Cardenas the emphasis is on developing bio-gas, farming techniques, and food canning and preserving.  The Martin Luther King Center in Havana offers several services to the community and is the receiving/distribution point for the shipments from Pastors For Peace.  The seminary has a farm on campus to meet their own needs and the surplus goes to several nearby institutions.  They are in the process of expanding into cattle and hog raising to supplement the diet. The Cuban Council of  Churches, an alliance of 25 Protestant denominations, has five programs for community assistance and is the distribution point for large shipments of humanitarian aid.


A uniquely Cuban theology is hard to get a handle on.  They were not as caught up in liberation theology as were other parts of Latin America.  I recently asked a Cuban minister in high position how he would describe in a few words the prevailing theology of the church in Cuba.  He replied, “ I can do it in one word – contextual.”  In other words the church adapts by being creative and responsive to diverse needs and circumstances, often simultaneously.  It  focuses from time to time on specific doctrines such as the Trinity and the Holy Spirit as well as  stewardship of the earth, which would include preservation, the environment and distribution of resources.


The church in Cuba has been ecumenical from the earliest days of the Protestant presence and continues so today with many Cuban churchmen and women holding high office in such organizations as the World Council of Churches, World Alliance of Reformed Churches and several Latin American and Caribbean councils. This has the added benefit of bonding the church in Cuba with religious entities around the world in an enriching and strengthening way.


The charismatic movement is on the increase, spreading from the growing numbers of Pentecostals into some mainline denominations, the Methodists for one.


Another religion that has a significant number of followers is Santeria.  This non-Christian religion is a syncretic blend of African religious practices with Roman Catholic saints.  It arose from a slave background, became popular in the lower social classes, and its acceptance continues to broaden. Their meeting places are houses or “sacred places.”  Their belief system is monotheistic and includes respect for the earth and caring about family values.


In contrast, two examples of historical formality in worship are being developed.   A Greek Orthodox Cathedral was consecrated last October (Fidel attended the ceremonies) and a Russian Orthodox Cathedral is scheduled to be built soon.


The partnership concept continues to grow, even though the heart of it, exchange visits, becomes increasingly difficult under changing travel restrictions.  But we persevere, taking inspiration from the Cubans own example of courage and endurance.  We are more than rewarded by their love and trust.


When speaking of international partnerships, I often quote Livy, the Roman historian, who wrote about the time of Christ – words so true today, about 2000 years later – “We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.”   Let us all, to the best or our abilities, by whatever means are open to us, continue our efforts to build bridges of understanding and friendship between our peoples and eventually our countries.