Next Steps In Their Relationship Tops U.S., Cuban Churches' Agenda
September 7, 2000, HAVANA, Cuba -- The Cuban and U.S. national ecumenical councils met in Cuba Sept. 2-7 to consider "what's next?" in their relationship that has held fast for more than 40 years and that, most recently and publicly, helped lay the groundwork for Elian Gonzalez's return to his family in Cuba.
Invited and hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches, an eight-member National Council of Churches delegation packed 12- to 15-hour days with visits to four overflowing Havana churches and the dynamic, ecumenical Matanzas Theological Seminary; a polyclinic; a center for children and adults with Downs Syndrome, and the Latin American School of Medicine.
They held a cordial, first-ever NCC delegation meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, had two intensive working sessions with Cuban church leaders, met with representatives of both the Cuban and U.S. governments, and delivered 1,500 Church World Service "Gifts of the Heart" School Kits for primary school pupils in Cardenas, Elian's hometown.
Three NCC delegation members also met privately with Elians father, grandmothers and great-grandmother and stopped by Elians school, but in respect for Elians privacy, chose not to interrupt his class.
We hugged Elian by remote control, quipped the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, NCC General Secretary, who led the delegation. We could see he was happily returned to his family and that was enough for us. We were glad to learn his life finally is getting back to normal.
The Cuban Council of Churches last December sought help from the National Council of Churches to ease Elian Gonzalezs return to his father. An NCC delegation visited Cardenas in early January and hosted Elians grandmothers when they came to the United States later that month, then kept pressing through all the cases twists and turns for Elians return home.
"I felt the visit to Cardenas brought full circle to our involvement," Dr. Edgar added.
The NCC delegation visit to Cuba culminated with the signing of a joint declaration, in which the NCC and Cuban Council of Churches reaffirmed their commitment to continue to serve as links between the peoples of Cuba and the United States, transcending borders "in order to serve as an instrument of justice, reconciliation and unity."
They pledged "to work towards supporting each other in our common mission as Councils;" to continue delivery of medicine and other humanitarian aid; to launch a new project of exchange among U.S. and Cuban citizens -- including a program for dialogue and reunion of Cuban families -- and to increase pressure for normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, for which the NCC has called repeatedly since 1968.
"The embargo should be lifted now," Dr. Edgar said at the delegation's closing news conference. "This should not be left to a future administration. We don't need any more negotiations. The reasons for the embargo have passed. The United States has relations with countries around the world with which we have differences. Lifting the embargo is important for both Cubans and Americans. We call on President Clinton to act and work with the Congress to make it happen now."
"We are glad the National Council of Churches accepted our invitation to come to Cuba to talk together about how we can work in the future," said the Rev. Dr. Reinerio Arce, President of the Cuban Council of Churches. "We met our goals. The NCC delegation received a broad exposure to Cuban church and society, and our joint declaration is significant. This has been a very good moment for us to know each other."
"The NCC and its humanitarian response ministry, Church World Service, have been involved in Cuba for many years, providing educational and humanitarian assistance," commented Dr. Edgar. "We felt it was important to bring a high-level delegation to look at what our future relations should be.
"No year is more important than this year to see a new relationship built to move us into the future," Dr. Edgar said. "We hope the Elian Gonzalez case can show us that a little child can lead us into that new future."
The NCC delegation included both church leaders and two persons from the private sector Dr. Leroy R. Perry, Jr., a sports doctor and chiropractor who has treated many prominent athletes and celebrities, including Cuba's Olympics track and field champion, Alberto Juantoreno, and Jay Rodriguez, a Presbyterian layman who is President of the Hafif Family Foundation in Claremont, Calif., and former Vice President for Corporate Relations of NBC-TV.
Their inclusion signals a new approach in the National Council of Churches toward building partnerships between churches and the private sector for meeting human need in the United States and around the world, said the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, NCC General Secretary, who led the delegation. Dr. Edgar, an ordained United Methodist elder who joined the NCC's staff January 1, previously served as President of Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology and U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania's Seventh District.
Other delegation members were United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert of Nashville, Tenn., Ecumenical Officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops; the Rev. Kermit DeGraffenreidt, Secretary-Treasurer of the Department of Overseas Mission of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, New York, and the Rev. Dr. Bernard R. Wilson (Church of God in Christ), Executive Minister of The Riverside Church, an "interdenominational, interracial, international" congregation of 2,500 in New York.
Also, the Rev. Oscar Bolioli (Methodist), Advisor to the Executive Director of Church World Service, the NCC's humanitarian response ministry, and Mr. Richard Augsburger (Mennonite), Director of the Emergency Response and Material Resources Office of Church World Service. Carol Fouke (United Church of Christ), NCC media liaison, accompanied the delegation.
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