National Council of Churches logo represents the church 
as ecumenical ship, serving the world

NCC Continues Its Pastoral Support of Elian's Grandmothers
NCC Remains "On Call" to Further Help to Reunite Elian with His Father, Grandparents

January 28, 2000, NEW YORK CITY – "The National Council of Churches has not pulled back from its commitment to Elian Gonzalez’s grandmothers and their mission," the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, NCC General Secretary, said today.

"The grandmothers’ goal of winning their grandson’s return to his father is a goal the NCC has shared since the Council got involved in early December," he said. "Indeed, we become more convinced every day that this little boy should be reunited immediately with his biological father and closest family members in Cuba."

Dr. Edgar reiterated his satisfaction that the NCC-facilitated U.S. visit of Elian’s grandmothers had achieved two goals – offering them the opportunity to speak firsthand of their love for Elian and helping to arrange their visit with Elian. The grandmothers’ ultimate goal – to take Elian back to Cuba with them – is yet to be realized, and the NCC remains "on call" to help, he said.

As their government’s official presence in the United States, the Cuban Interests Section is assisting the grandmothers with their itinerary during their remaining days in the United States following their visit with Elian. "This is what any citizen seeking help with a matter in another country would hope for from their government," Dr. Edgar said.

The NCC continues to provide pastoral presence and support for the grandmothers in the person of the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the NCC’s immediate past general secretary. She was co-chair with Dr. Edgar of the NCC delegation that hosted the grandmothers.

How the NCC Got Involved in Elian’s Case

The National Council of Churches was approached for help in the Elian Gonzalez matter in early December by the Cuban Council of Churches – with whom it has a multifaceted relationship that began before the Cuban revolution and includes humanitarian aid, work for normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations and advocacy for greater freedom for Cuban Christians to worship, witness and serve.

Alarmed that the United States was not returning the boy quickly and automatically to his father and that a fundamentally humanitarian concern was becoming increasingly politicized, the two Councils proposed that they serve as the intermediaries in the physical return of Elian to his father. The Cuban government agreed to the plan and U.S. officials quietly expressed interest.

But when several weeks passed without movement -- and when the INS postponed a late-December hearing in Elian’s case until late January and when members of Congress began to propose a measure to grant U.S. citizenship to Elian -- the Cuban Council of Churches asked the NCC to visit Elian’s father and extended family in Cardenas, Cuba. A central concern was that while Elian’s Miami relatives had many spokespersons and advocates, the immediate family in Cuba had few.

Dr. Campbell and the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, the NCC’s Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, accompanied by an NCC Communication Department staff member, made the trip Jan. 2-5, met the family and shared their impressions with both U.S. and Cuban government officials.

As that NCC team was en route back to the United States on Jan. 5, the INS announced its ruling that Elian should be repatriated, by Jan. 14, to his father. But further delays prompted the two church councils to support yet another "project" – the grandmothers’ visit to the United States. (Because of the father’s concern for his own physical safety should he make the trip, and his fear of legal entanglement, the grandmothers – among Elian’s primary caregivers -- offered to come on the family’s behalf.)

NCC’s Pastoral Concern for Elian’s Grandmothers, Elian, and Family

Dr. Edgar today said he remains committed to the statement he made on Jan. 8, which reads in part:

"The longer this whole process drags on, the more disconnected this small child becomes from those who have raised him and who love him. Using delaying tactics to prevent this child from going home is unseemly and it isn't fair to use him as a pawn in a political dispute.

"As a former Representative in Congress, I will use the knowledge gained through 6 terms to discover if a logical and compassionate solution can be found. This is a time when people of good will should focus on the needs of one little boy rather than on how he can be useful for some other purpose.

"I'm hopeful that this tragic situation can have a positive effect. Throughout the generations, children often have pointed the way to a new way of looking at things. The Bible says that "a little child shall lead them." Elian Gonzalez could be the catalyst for a changed relationship between the peoples of Cuba and the U.S. His safe return should mark a commitment to finding ways to be more caring and generous with each other."

Accordingly, the National Council of Churches shares the grandmothers’ anguish and concern about legislative efforts in Congress that serve to further delay Elian’s return to his father. Elian’s paternal grandmother, Mariela Quintana, on Jan. 21 said, "Nobody outside has the right to make him (Elian) an American citizen. He was born in Cuba, lives in Cuba, he’s a Cuban. No one, even Congress or the President, can change his status."

Christians in both Cuba and the United States – along with leaders in both countries’ governments -- have expressed their appreciation for the efforts of the two ecumenical councils for reconciliation in a situation that has divided a family; kept Elian, a little boy who has just lost his mother, from grieving and healing properly in the bosom of his immediate family, and exacerbated tensions between the U.S. and Cuba.

"Ultimately," Dr. Edgar commented, "it is the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba that will make unnecessary the perilous crossing by boat that cost the lives of Elian’s mother and 10 others, and that puts extraordinary economic pressure on ordinary Cubans."

Dr. Campbell, who first met Elian’s grandmothers on Jan. 3, has been in close contact with them ever since. She has been alongside Mrs. Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez, Elian’s maternal grandmother, virtually every step along the way since she and the others from the NCC flew to Havana Jan. 20 to pick the grandmothers up for the U.S. visit.

She, along with Dr. Edgar and the Rev. Bolioli, were present for the grandmothers’ meeting with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22. Along with NCC Communication Director Randy Naylor, and the Very Rev. Oden Marechal, President of the Cuban Council of Churches, those three were part of the long afternoon of negotiations (Monday, Jan. 24) at the Tamiami Airport – negotiations by phone with the Miami relatives and INS officials that failed to win the Miami relatives’ agreement with the grandmothers’ request that they be able to visit Elian at a neutral site.

"The Cuban Interests Section’s vice consul waited outside the room until those negotiations were completed," Dr. Campbell noted. "By the time he was admitted, the grandmothers already had decided to go to Washington, D.C., to press their case with members of Congress – just as it was the grandmothers who had insisted on coming to the United States in the first place."

Dr. Campbell described the grandmothers’s concern to be sure to say and do the right things for Elian’s sake in their visit with him. She urged empathy for the grandmothers’ anxiety as they looked forward to the long-awaited visit in the context of a constant barrage of media, helicopter rides, shouting crowds and heavy police presence. She praised the grandmothers’ strength, courage and articulate expression of their love for Elian and their desire to take him home with them.

Furthermore, Dr. Campbell, a devoted mother and grandmother herself, was the only person from the NCC to go with the grandmothers Wednesday afternoon into the house where they met with Elian. She said the grandmothers told her afterward that it felt like visiting a loved one in a hospital or prison – all of a sudden, it seems, "time’s up" and you have to leave.

Editor’s Note – A Word in Response to Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Following the grandmothers’ visit with Elian, Sister Jeanne expressed the opinion that Elian should remain with his Miami relatives. What is the NCC’s view on her statement?

We are very appreciative of the extraordinary efforts that Sr. Jeanne undertook in offering her home as a safe, comfortable, inviting and neutral environment in which the grandmothers could spend a precious two hours of supervised visitation with their grandson Elian. She was a kind and gracious host. We were surprised when she chose to step out of her assigned role of neutrality. We would not have wanted her to publicly support our cause and assumed that she would not support the other side in this question. As an academic and head of a university we thought that her reflections would be based on research and not anecdotal information. It had been our hope that the kindness and generosity offered prior to and during the visit would have given her a helpful and significant role in the ongoing resolution of this issue. We regret that Sr. Jeanne, in choosing to state her opinion after exercising the role of neutral host so admirably, has in her action further fueled the fire of controversy and eliminated herself as a neutral facilitator in any future discussions on this matter.

2. Who paid the grandmothers’ travel expenses?

During the NCC-hosted part of the grandmothers’ visit, all but one flight was paid for by private donations. The Jan. 22 roundtrip flight (New York-Washington-New York) was paid for by the NCC at a cost comparable to commercial air tickets ($3,100 for seven passengers). The grandmothers stayed in a private residence in New York City, as did the Rev. Oden Marichal, President of the Cuban Council of Churches, who accompanies them. The Cuban Interests Section took on responsibilities for the grandmothers’ travel costs beginning with their return on Jan. 26 from Miami to Washington, D.C.

3. The NCC’s work to facilitate the reunification of Elian Gonzalez with his father and grandparents in Cuba has received much publicity. How is the Council assisting other families who wish to be reunified?

The Council, its member communions and their congregations help to resettle thousands of uprooted people in U.S. communities every year. For example, in 1999, we assisted more than 6,700 newcomers representing more than 30 nationalities. In general, about 80 percent of these cases are ones in which families are reunified. We are concerned for all families everywhere who are separated by conflicts between governments. We pray for them and work for their reunification in many ways.

In recent years, our U.S. resettlement caseload has included approximately 2,000 Cubans annually. We are authorized to assist those Cubans who come to us through the U.S. Department of State Resettlement Program or the Department of Justice Cuban/Haitian Program. Decisions about who will be accepted for resettlement in the United States are made by the U.S. government, not by the NCC. Decisions about who will receive exit permits from Cuba are made by the Cuban government, not the NCC. Working within legitimate U.S. government programs, the Council makes great efforts to assist Cuban refugees and has done so for decades. No doubt there are people in the Cuban American community who oppose our stand on the Elian Gonzalez case who were themselves assisted by the Council.

While we must abide by the decisions of government in our resettlement work, we are advocates for a more humane U.S. immigration policy. As a U.S-based organization, we participate in legislative discussions and public forums to carry the message of welcome and refugee protection to Congress and others.

Further, as a faith-based organization with global concerns, we cherish our relationships with Christian councils and other church bodies in more than 80 countries around the world, including Cuba. Because our unity in Christ is a tie that transcends geo-political boundaries, we and our church partners often find that we can build on church-to-church contacts even when our respective governments have differences. We pray that our work on the Elian Gonzalez case, which we undertook at the encouragement of the Cuban Council of Churches, might help to build such a bridge of good will. For many years we have been working for normalization of relationships between the U.S. and Cuba, which among other things, would ease the plight of the many Cuban families who are now separated.

-end-

 Contact: NCC News

NCC Home Page
NCC News Service Index