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NCCCUSA Delegation Encounters Cuban Church Life 

September 7, 2000, HAVANA, Cuba -- The National Council of Churches' delegation visit to Cuba Sept. 2-7 included immersion in the Cuban context, especially church life.  Delegation members participated and preached in Sunday morning worship at four Havana churches -- all of them fast growing and high energy, with "under 40s" comprising the majority of members.   

They also spent a morning at the ecumenical Matanzas Theological Seminary, undergoing a renaissance under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Ofelia Miriam Ortega, and held the first-ever NCC delegation meeting with Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega. 

Harassment of churches and Christians marked the first years of the Cuban Revolution.  Tensions began to ease in the mid-1980s, and in 1992 constitutional changes made Cuba a secular (formerly, atheist) state.  Remarked Dr. Ortega, “In the 1980s and 1990s, relations between church and state improved so much!” 

Indeed, faith has boomed in Cuba during the last few years.  Moreover, Protestants now constitute more than 50 percent of the Christian worshiping community in Cuba.  According to the Cuban Council of Churches Studies Center, 300,000 Protestants worship regularly in Cuba, and 280,000 Roman Catholics, though many more Cubans are baptized Catholics. 

Sunday morning, September 3, United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert of Nashville, Tenn., his denomination's ecumenical officer, preached at University Methodist Church, where the Gospel was given expression through drums, dance and drama, hymns of praise, and celebration of Holy Communion.   

Nearly 700 worshipers packed the sanctuary for the 9 a.m. service   the first of two services, and lasting nearly three hours.  About 30 congregants were awarded certificates for having completed the second in a three-part, year-long discipleship class leading to membership, and 10 others came forward to profess their faith in Christ. 

In his sermon, "Touching Lives," Bishop Talbert recalled how, as recounted in Mark 1:40-45, Jesus had dared to touch and heal a leper, and how a young pastor had touched his own life "in my early years, when my African American people were the untouchables, shunned and set aside as second class citizens." 

"Jesus touched someone, who touched someone, who touched someone, who touched someone  ... who touched me," he said, stretching his sentence across the generations.  "As you go out from worship, commit yourself to reaching out to touch the untouchable, created by God, and invite them into the community of faith." 

The Rev. Dr. Edgar, NCC General Secretary and an ordained United Methodist elder, preaching at the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Luyano, used Luke 5:1-11 as his text, and explored how we learn the most lessons, and catch the most fish, in the "deep, fast water." 

"We in the church are called to fish in the deep water," he said.  "God is calling all of us, not necessarily the smartest, quickest or richest, to be about building God's Kingdom.  The leadership is us.  God is choosing ordinary people like us to do the extraordinary things that need to be done in the world." 

Among worshipers at the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Luyano that Sunday were 15 members of a Houston, Texas, Presbyterian congregation, “here to live and work with other Christians,” Dr. Edgar reported.  “They weren’t here with the agenda of changing Cuba’s political system, but to see Cuba’s needs and share Cuban Christians’ commitment to Christ.  They return home as ambassadors of love and neighborliness.”   

Citing this as a model for the NCC and Cuban Council of Churches’ envisioned program of exchanges between U.S. and Cuban citizens, he said, “We would like delegations of Cubans to come to the United States to speak, teach, preach, sing, show there’s a rich religious tradition here in Cuba.” 

The Rev. Dr. Bernard Wilson, ordained in the Church of God in Christ and serving as Executive Minister at The Riverside Church, New York, preached at First Reformed Presbyterian Church.   He chose as his theme "A Missed Moment" and as his text, Luke 10:38.  "God creates moments for us," he told the standing room only crowd.  "God has given us this moment to bring our nations together.   The Cuban Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches are uniquely positioned to help us realize a moment of reconciliation and healing." 

Afterward, Dr. Wilson commented on the "Cuban feel" of the music and the professionality of the music leaders   a 16- and 17-year-old introduced as "the youngest in Cuba, maybe in the world."   During the service, two congregation members were sent off to seminary studies with a blessing.  Just before the general offering, congregants lined up to offer testimonies of thanksgiving, each then dropping a special "thanks offering" into a collection plate. 

And the Rev. Kermit DeGraffenreidt, Secretary-Treasurer of the Department of Overseas Mission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, preached on Jesus' "Last Supper."  "How disappointed Jesus must have felt when Judas, someone so close to him, betrayed him," he said.  "Some people, for money or power, will do anything."  The Rev. DeGraffenreidt emphasized "the importance of remaining faithful to God, to others, to ourselves." 

VISIT TO MATANZAS THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY 

Exposure to Cuban church life also included a morning at Matanzas Theological Seminary, where the Rev. Dr. Ofelia Miriam Ortega, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian formerly with the World Council of Churches, has served as President since April 1997.   

The seminary has remained open since its founding in 1946, even during the 1960s and 1970s when it had very few students.  These past few years, demand for pastors to serve Cuba’s growing churches, coupled with Dr. Ortega’s dynamic leadership, have packed Matanzas Theological Seminary’s rolls.  In fact, there now is a waiting list for admission. 

“The church growth we are seeing was unimagined!,” Dr. Ortega remarked.  “Many want to study here.  We can’t receive everyone.”  She went on to describe steps she is taking to expand capacity; for example, construction of a new dormitory and establishment of extension courses.  Currently, 93 students are resident, and 176 more are taking courses by extension in Matanzas City, Cardenas, Santa Clara and Havana.  Always ecumenical, the seminary now serves 15 denominations ranging from Pentecostal to Christian Reformed, Quaker to Lutheran. 

Matanzas Theological Seminary is in relationship with seminaries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and the United States.  Art and liturgy are central to the curriculum, as are an emphasis on an ecumenical theology, inclusiveness of all members of society and on faith “immersed in our context,” seminary faculty told the NCC delegation. 

Commented the Rev. Carlos M. Piedra Lopez of Redeemer Presbyterian Reformed Church, Matanzas, “The U.S. embargo against Cuba is bad, but there’s one blessing the churches have received during that time.  When we weren’t allowed to get books from elsewhere, we produced a lot of writing here.  We continue to need support to produce our own thinking in today’s changing context.” 

One of the most important aspects of the seminary’s mission, Dr. Ortega said, “is a very good relationship with the whole city.  The heart of this institution  beats together with the heart of the city and the heart of the people around.” 

Accordingly, Matanzas Seminary is active in the community.  Students are helping repair a local orphanage, volunteer at a local school for mute/deaf, and celebrate "liturgies of joy and hope" and Holy Communion with patients from a nearby AIDS center.  This past Christmas, the seminary choir was part of a Christmas concert in the Karl Marx Theatre and has prompted the local secular choir to include sacred music in its repertoire. 

MEETING WITH ROMAN CATHOLIC CARDINAL JAIME ORTEGA 

Wanting the NCC delegation to learn more about Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, the Cuban Council of Churches arranged an interview with Cardinal Jaime Ortega.  It was the first-ever visit to the Cardinal by an NCC delegation, although the Cuban Council of Churches has met with him several times.  "We are trying to emphasize what we have in common as the church of Christ, serving the Cuban people," said the Rev. Dr. Reinerio Arce, President of the Cuban Council of Churches. 

During the cordial, one-hour visit, Dr. Arce noted that in January, Protestants and Catholics had held two joint worship services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Conversation touched on issues of ministry as church in Cuban society, and Cardinal Ortega affirmed his church's opposition to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.  As the visit concluded, the Cardinal and then Bishop Talbert led the group in prayer. 

The Cardinal confirmed that the NCC delegation was the broadest visiting delegation with which he has met.  He has met individually with denominational leaders from Europe and the United States, and with the World Council of Churches' General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser. 

“I was pleased that the Cardinal welcomed us warmly,” Dr. Edgar said afterward, “and that in collaboration with the Cuban Council of Churches we were able to have this high-level opportunity to exchange views and ideas.”   

Dr. Edgar noted that U.S. churches, including the NCC and its 35 member denominations, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, are beginning to explore an “expanded ecumenical table.”  “We have many differences,” he acknowledged, “but we all share a commitment to the poor.” 

-end-

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