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National Council of Churches Statement
At a News Conference with Hosts
Cuban Council of Churches
June 1, 1998, Havana, Cuba

Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Joan B. Campbell, NCC General Secretary

We would like to begin by thanking our hosts, the Cuban Council of Churches, whose churches, some of which are more than 100 years old, are deeply rooted in Cuban society.

By way of background, the NCCCUSA’s 34 member denominations include 52 million Protestant and Orthodox Christians in the U.S. Leaders of two of our largest member denominations - the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. - are in our group, and a third, from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is scheduled to arrive this afternoon.

The Cuban Council of Churches - which just celebrated its 57th anniversary - and the NCCCUSA are "sister" councils with a relationship that extends back to before the 1959 Revolution.

Several of us in this delegation have made repeated trips to Cuba over the past 25 to 30 years. We are excited about the increasing space that the Cuban churches have for the conduct of their own life and for their service to society. We are witnesses to a booming of faith in Cuba, especially during these past three to four years. Protestants now constitute more than 50 percent of the Christian worshipping community. According to the Cuban Council of Churches Studies Center, 300,000 Protestants worship regularly in Cuba, and 280,000 Roman Catholics.

The three congregations in which we worshipped yesterday - Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian - report a phenomenal growth. Pastor Raul Suarez at the Ebenezer Baptist Church told us that he had 20 persons in worship in 1990, now he has 300, and there are more than 20 trained facilitators of groups that meet regularly in each others’ homes for Bible study and prayer. Sunday mornings, Bible study groups for all ages - including for persons preparing for baptism - occupy virtually every corner of the church, classrooms, courtyard and offices. The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, who preached Sunday at the Presbyterian Church in Havana, commented that the Presbyterian Church in Cuba is among the fastest growing Presbyterian churches in the world. And, we learned, the membership of the Methodist Church in Cuba has tripled its membership in the past five years.

The churches’ service to the community also is growing rapidly. For example, there now are denominational and ecumenical programs of care for the lonely elderly, for construction of housing for the community at large whatever their religion, and so forth.

The growth and strength of the Protestant churches in Cuba today is an untold story that we encourage you, the media, to tell. However, in the words of one of the church leaders with whom we met yesterday, we are not na´ve concerning the intensity of discrimination, and, for a time, persecution, that Cuban Christians have endured during the past several decades.

We have heard from our Protestant colleagues how the Pope’s visit has benefited all Christians. Religious language has found greatly expanded space in the public discourse. We appreciate greatly the Pope’s ecumenical spirit, the fact that he met with 30 Protestant church leaders while he was here, and his welcome of all Christians to his public events.

We have had several intense conversations during these there days with the Cuban Council of Churches Executive Board, and with heads of CCC member denominations, about how we as a sister ecumenical council and as sister denominations can help further strengthen the role of the churches in Cuba. In the meetings that we expect to have later today with Cuban governmental authorities, we plan to express our appreciation for the opening of the past years and to urge that the church be granted even more space for witness and service to the society.

Among things we have heard during our visit that concern us are reports that some groups from outside Cuba, including from Latin America and from the United States, are trying to destablize and divide Cuba’s historic, ecumenical denominations. For example, we were told that some missionaries have been coming from outside Cuba, offering indigenous pastors and missionaries money, clothing and shoes in exchange for their loyalty.

We in the NCCCUSA intend to join with CCC in an indepth study of such intrusions that are threatening the well-being and reputation of the historic churches of Cuba.

We would like to conclude with a word about our visit to the Antonio Guiteras Holmes Polyclinic in Old Havana on Saturday. One of the ways that we as the NCCCUSA participate as partners with the CCC is in the area of humanitarian assistance. Over 42 shipments of food, medicine, medical equipment, school supplies and other goods valued at $10 million have been distributed by the CCC. When several of us were here last December, we visited the polyclinic and were advised of its needs. We promised to help, and on Saturday we delivered that help.

Our assistance to this polyclinic represents a new phase in our assistance, continuing more general assistance and now also targeting specific clinics and hospitals to help equip them for their work. We are working with the CCC to identify a second hospital for such assistance.

The details are in the news release, but let us tell you a story or two from our time at the clinic. The clinic director, Dr. Marta Salgado, told us that the clinic was down to its last 8 pairs of surgical gloves, which they were doing their best to hold together with tape. Every time we visit, we are impressed with the skill, commitment and compassion of the doctors and nurses, who do so much with their specially tuned clinical diagnostic skills and with the few medicines they can get, including natural medicines, despite a lack of equipment and medicines. Our contributions simply help them do the job they are trained to do and want to be able to do. Our shipment includes boxes and boxes of surgical gloves. We were moved to observe the joy of the doctors and nurses as they inspected the shipment of seven pallets of equipment and supplies donated through Church World Service, the humanitarian assistance ministry of the NCCCUSA, to the CCC. One pediatrician unpacked tiny oxygen masks and other equipment especially for use with children, and with tears in her eyes, kept repeating, For the children! For the children! Tragically, Dr. Salgado told us that a baby who was brought into the polyclinic last week died of asthma. The baby could have been saved with the breathing equipment that arrived in this shipment.

We are relieved that the U.S. has authorized the resumption of direct aid flights and are pressing hard that those flights actually be resumed as soon as possible. In December, we promised to redouble our pressure on the U.S. government to end the embargo, a pressure we have sustained over many years. We long for the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

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