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In Tense Times,
Contacts Are All the More Important,
February 9, 2004, NEW YORK CITY - Participants in a U.S. ecumenical delegation visit to Cuba in late January returned convinced of the importance of maintaining contacts with churches there, especially at this time of heightened tension between the United States and Cuba. For their part, Cuban church leaders asked their U.S. counterparts for pastoral accompaniment and prayers.
Led by National Council of Churches General Secretary Bob Edgar, a United Methodist, the 30-member delegation spent Jan. 22-28 in Cuba. Delegation members participated in events surrounding the consecration of the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Old Havana - a celebration led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (pictured, right), spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
They also met with Cuban and other Caribbean and Latin American church leaders for consultation on shared concerns, building on relationships that have been maintained since before the Cuban Revolution. They heard their Cuban counterparts' accounts of the ongoing hardships caused by the U.S.-imposed trade embargo and travel restrictions, and the anxieties raised by a rise in aggressive rhetoric on the part of the United States.
Noting U.S. and Cuban churches' long years of work together for a normalization of relations between their two countries and on church-to-church issues and joint humanitarian projects, Dr. Edgar reflected, "You don't have to love Fidel Castro to love the people of Cuba, and you don't have to love the government's way of operating to see that there are needs in Cuba.
"There is real poverty in Cuba, and that doesn't have to exist," he said. "If the United States changed its attitude toward that nation and gave it support rather than hostility, the quality of life for the people who live in Cuba could be improved. The Soviet Union changed because of the exchange of people and ideas, and I think the same will happen in Cuba."
NCC delegation members (several of them pictured, left, with the Ecumenical Patriarch) were among the some 2,000 people who came from around the world for the consecration of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Old Havana, the first new church to be constructed in Cuba in more than 40 years. They were able to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch to talk about the consecration and such critical issues as religious extremism and terrorism around the world.
Commented Debbie Hadjes Funti, a Greek Orthodox laywoman from New Orleans and NCC General Assembly delegate for the past eight years, "The opening of the new church was a historical moment for all Christians in Cuba." Billboards all over Havana welcomed the Ecumenical Patriarch to Cuba, and President Castro and other Cuban government officials were present for the consecration and related events.
Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, an Orthodox Christian who is the NCC's Associate General Secretary for International Affairs, observed, "Given the tensions that historically have characterized relations between religion and state in Cuba, for the church to be so publicly welcomed has to bode well for the future of religious freedom and practice there."
CONCERN FOR DETAINED DISSIDENTS ADDRESSED TO PRESIDENT CASTRO
In a Nov. 21, 2003, letter to Cuban President Fidel Castro announcing the forthcoming ecumenical delegation visit, the NCC expressed its humanitarian concern about the lengthy sentences given 75 Cuban dissidents in spring 2003. Dr. Edgar framed the concern in the context of the NCC's more than 40 years of work to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, and sought a meeting for the delegation with President Castro to discuss the matter.
In the letter, Dr. Edgar had urged President Castro to reduce the dissidents' sentences greatly or free them "as a sign of good will and desire to work toward reconciliation." Dr. Edgar said he had hoped such a sign of good will could have taken place in light of the Patriarch's visit. However, there was no reply from President Castro, and no meeting took place.
Said NCC General Secretary Edgar, "With Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998, great change took place. With the public ecumenical Protestant celebration in 1999, great change took place. And now with the Ecumenical Patriarch's visit, it's an opportunity for great change to take place."
MEETING WITH DENOMINATIONAL AND ECUMENICAL COUNTERPARTS
The NCC delegation spent Jan. 26-28 in a region-wide consultation hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches, focused on shared pastoral concerns of the church in the context of current U.S.-Latin American relations. Cuban and U.S. church leaders were joined by other Latin American and Caribbean church leaders for the consultation, which sought to develop plans for collaboration in mission and to seek ways to improve relations among their countries.
The Rev. Carlos Kamps, General Secretary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba and a member of the Executive Council of the Latin American Council of Churches, said, "The gathering was the result of an invitation to accompany our churches and people in a moment of crisis in our homeland, which is happening as a result of the world's worsening political and economic situation. But a crisis also brings new opportunities."
He told the U.S. church leaders that Cuba's churches need their pastoral accompaniment and prayers, and expressed appreciation that "the churches that have always been present with us remain at our side. The NCC has responded as it always has, willing to help the Cuban people."
The Rev. Kamps continued, "The Cuban church is ... a mature church. We are a church that has passed through a period when we at times had to walk alone, a period that we viewed as passing through the desert. But now our churches are full, people are coming to the church, there's a big awakening. God has given us this grace, this sign. We know what we need to do. And we need accompaniment from the other churches in that process."
NCC delegation members said they appreciated the opportunity to visit Cuba. Bishop C. Christopher Epting, Ecumenical Officer for The Episcopal Church, New York City, said, "The meeting was an opportunity for us to at least see a glimpse of the Cuban reality through the eyes of the Cuban church."
Said Ms Hadjes, "The most important task for us in the States is to start to understand the truth about Cuba, what the churches are doing here, what life is like in Cuba. Most of my views and perspectives have been shaped by media and government sound bites," she said, "and my life is busy in other directions, and Cuba wasn't really something I was paying attention to. But from now on I will be paying attention."
NCC DELEGATION MEMBERS
Heads of Communion who took part in the delegation were: The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (USA), Louisville, Ky.; Dr. Major Jemison, President, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Oklahoma City, Okla.; the Rev. Chris Hobgood, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Indianapolis, Ind., and Washington, D.C.; Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Los Angeles, Calif., and Presiding Bishop George Walker of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Hartford, Ct.
Other church representatives included Bishop Dimitrios, from Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., Ecumenical Officer, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, headquartered in New York City; the Rev. Martin Ritsi, St. Augustine, Fla., Executive Director, Orthodox Christian Mission Center, Eastern Orthodox; the Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, General Secretary, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Washington, D.C.; the Rev. Jhonny Alicea Baez, Latin America Desk, Reformed Church in America, Murrieta, Calif.; Bishop C. Christopher Epting, Ecumenical Officer, The Episcopal Church, New York City.
From state councils of churches: the Rev. John Boonstra, Washington Association of Churches, Seattle, Wash., a United Church of Christ minister; David Leslie, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Portland, Ore., a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Rev. David Anderson, Illinois Conference of Churches, Springfield, Ill. -- all executive directors, along with Richard Cline, Director of Refugees, Virginia Council of Churches, Richmond, Va., an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Rev. Fred Morris, a United Methodist who is Director for Latin American and Caribbean Relations of the NCC, also represented the Florida Council of Churches. The delegation also included the CWS Executive Director, the Rev. John L. McCullough, of Montclair, N.J., and the CWS Associate for Latin America and the Caribbean, Martin Coria, a Roman Catholic who lives in New York City.
Others traveling included Steve Horswill-Johnston, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.; Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America, Washington, D.C.; James Armstrong, Rollins College, and his wife, Sharon, Orlando, Fla.; Harry Fielding, Community of Christ Church, Orlando, Fla.; Anthropologist Dr. Sidney Greenfield and his wife, Eleanor, New York, N.Y.; Debbie Hadjes Funti, a long-time Greek Orthodox delegate to the NCC General Assembly, New Orleans, La.; United Methodist Stanley Campbell, Rockford, Ill., Urban Ministries, the Rev. Susanne Watson Epting, The Episcopal Church, Executive Director of the North American Association for the Diaconate, New York City; Joann McCullough (the Rev. McCullough's wife); Seyeon Boonstra Malott (the Rev. Boonstra's daughter); the Rev. Felix Ortiz-Cotto, Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Indianapolis, Ind., and John Wallace, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Indianapolis, Ind. Dr. Edgar and Dr. Kireopoulos work at the NCC's New York City headquarters.
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