1998 NCC News Archives
"More Space" for the Churches
News/Feature About the NCC/CWS Delegation Visit to Cuba May 30-June 2
HAVANA, Cuba, June 2, 1998 While in Cuba May 30-June 2, a National Council of Churches delegation sought repeatedly to reinforce and expand the historic Protestant churches "space" for mission and service.
Meeting With Cuban President Fidel Castro: The delegations final appointment during its three days in Havana was with Cubas President Fidel Castro. He hosted the NCC and Cuban Council of Churches leadership Monday evening (June 1) for a six-hour, wide-ranging conversation that started around a conference table and concluded over dinner.
"We congratulated Cuba on the tremendous growth of the churches here," NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell reported afterward. "We are obviously encouraged not only by the strength of the churches but also by their energy. The President affirmed that growth and said he would encourage more.
"We said to him that it is very important for the churches to be able to be partners with government, working to care for the sick and the elderly, addressing prostitution and other social problems, and building housing," she continued. "The President talked about the importance of the church being of service to the society, and affirmed there be a space in Cuban society for the churches to play that role."
The U.S. and Cuban church leaders spoke with President Castro about the need for new churches in new residential developments, and he affirmed that would be possible with financial assistance from churches outside Cuba.
President Castro expressed evident enthusiasm for a major international ecumenical gathering in Cuba. Leaders of the Cuban Council of Churches earlier had described to their NCC colleagues their hope of arranging a pre-millennium conference late in 1999. President Castro urged it be held as soon as possible, and pledged the Cuban governments full cooperation.
"We take this proposal seriously," Dr. Campbell said, "and already have begun having conversations about how we might make that happen, perhaps in summer 1999."
The NCC delegation spoke repeatedly of its support for the Cuban Council of Churches, and shared their concern at reports that some groups from outside Cuba, including from Latin America and the United States, are trying to destabilize and divide Cubas historic, ecumenical denominations.
"For example," Dr. Campbell said, "we were told that some missionaries have been coming from outside Cuba, offering Cuban pastors money, clothing and shoes in exchange for their loyalty. Our point in bringing this up as people from the United States is that this situation is created not within the Cuban church but by intervention from outside, some from the United States. Our concern is with those from our own country who intervene and create this problem for the churches in Cuba."
Commented the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), "The experience all of us have had is of the integrity, growth and strength of the Cuban church. We want to encourage our colleagues worldwide who seek to share the gospel of Christ to support these churches and not try to undermine them."
Worship in Havana Churches: The Protestant churches in Cuba report a phenomenal growth, especially during the past three to four years.
"Several of us in this delegation have made repeated trips to Cuba over the past 25 to 30 years," delegation members said in a statement released June 1. "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. At the same time, 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."
According to the Cuban Council of Churches Studies Center, 300,000 Protestants and 280,000 Roman Catholics worship regularly in Cuba.
The CCCs member churches, some of which are more than 100 years old, are deeply rooted in Cuban society. The CCC just celebrated its 57th anniversary. The NCC (with 34 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations comprising nearly 52 million U.S. Christians) and the CCC are "sister" councils with a relationship that extends back to before the 1959 revolution.
The Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations in which delegation members worshipped on May 31 all reported an exponential growth.
.The Methodist Church in Cuba has tripled its membership in the past five years. The Rev. Kirkpatrick commented that the Presbyterian Church in Cuba is among the fastest growing Presbyterian churches in the world. "My impression is theres been a real growth and revival of the Protestant churches in these past 10 years," he said. "As people who believe that the growth of the church is helpful for any society, we rejoice."
The Rev. Raul Suarez of the Ebenezer Baptist Church said he had 20 persons in worship in 1990, now he has 300, and there are 23 trained facilitators of "base community groups" that meet regularly in each others homes for Bible study and prayer.
Sunday mornings, Bible study groups for all ages occupy virtually every corner of the church, classrooms, courtyard and offices. The adjoining Martin Luther King Jr. Center houses an ecumenical community ministry that is building 60 housing units and has an active program for children, youth and the elderly.
The Rev. Dr. Joan Campbell, NCC General Secretary, preached the Pentecost Sunday sermon at Ebenezer. "Pentecost is an encounter with the early church and its struggle to be faithful," she said. "It wasnt an easy time to be a Christian.
"But Pentecost is not just about ancient times, it is about us today. We come here, North Americans and Cubans, people whose countries to not speak to each other, people whose leaders have never had a conversation. In the Spirit, we understand one another. We have different languages, cultures and histories, but we are related by the blood of Jesus
"We have gifts to exchange. You know how to be a Christian where it is neither easy nor popular. We live in a country where it costs very little to be Christian. Your witness strengthens our faith."
Positive Reviews Following the Popes Visit: The NCC delegation heard from their Protestant colleagues how the Popes visit in January has benefitted all Christians. "Religious language has found a greatly expanded space in public discourse," they remarked. "We appreciate greatly the Popes 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."
Meetings With Cuban Council of Churches, Denominational Leaders: In a series of meetings with the Cuban Council of Churches Executive Committee, staff and Studies Center and leaders of CCC-member denominations, the NCC delegation:
- Promised to increase humanitarian aid to Cuba and to redouble efforts to end the embargo "that has brought so much suffering. We will lobby against the Helms bill and in favor of the Rangel bill, because it allows not only for aid but also for trade," the delegation affirmed. Commented the Rev. Dr. Albert Pennybacker, NCC Associate General Secretary for Public Policy, "The Helms bill does not allow trade and will have the effect of frustrating aid even though it purports to be a humanitarian aid bill." Added the Rev. Kirkpatrick, "While we believe humanitarian aid is important, the most important is for the Cuban people to be able to purchase in ordinary markets the medicine and food they need to care for the people." Noted the Rev. Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett, General Secretary, United Methodist Board for Church and Society; "I become the student when I come to Cuba. I listen, see and then return to the halls of Congress and to the White House with first-hand information. I am working to demythologize the myths that have been created around Cuba, and I am working to defeat the Helms legislation."
- Agreed to join with the CCC Studies Center and Puerto Rican churches in a study process proposed by the CCC that will lead up to a December 1-4, 1998, conference in Cuba. The topic for discussion will be "Mission and Missionaries in Light of the Centennial" of the war between the United States and Spain and the U.S. invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Commented the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the NCCs humanitarian aid ministry, Church World Service, "I believe this will be an important dialogue because it opens new ways of collaboration."
Besides Drs. Campbell, Fassett, Pennybacker and Kirkpatrick and the Rev. Bolioli, the NCC delegation to Cuba included Bishop McKinley Young, Ecumenical Officer for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who joined the group midday Monday. NCC Communication staffer Carol Fouke accompanied the group.
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