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Background on the Cuban Council of Churches 

The Cuban Council of Churches was founded May 28, 1941, at the First Presbyterian Church of Havana.  Cuba has 50 Protestant denominations, 25 of which are Cuban Council of Churches members -- 22 as full members, three as observers.  These churches, some of which are more than 100 years old, are deeply rooted in Cuban society.  An additional 11 ecumenical bodies, including the Student Christian Movement, also are members.   

The Cuban Council of Churches’ program includes a Youth Department, Women’s Department and 15-year-old Medical Commission, working to organize donations of medicine and establish health programs to meet needs precipitated by the economic crisis in Cuba.  The wide-ranging working of the Council’s Studies Center includes dialogue with people of other faiths, including the widely popular AfroCuban religions – which many Christians view as diabolic.  The Council’s Executive Committee includes pastors, lay people, theologians and professors from a wide range of affiliations, including Presbyterian Reformed, Pentecostal, Quaker, Reformed and Nazarene. 

Council’s Spring 2000 Assembly Marked “A Turning Point” 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ spring 2000 Assembly marked “a turning point, not to break with our past but to respond to the challenges of the present,” said the Rev. Dr. Reinerio Arce.  He himself was elected the Council’s President by that assembly after serving as Studies Center Director and as Professor of theology at Matanzas Seminary.  “The Council’s theme is ‘United to Serve.’  We are looking for ways to preach the Gospel in the new situation in Cuba,” he said.   

This “new situation” includes the rapid growth in church membership, especially in the Pentecostal churches; the Cuban churches’ increasing involvement in social service, and the Cuban society’s increasing respect for the churches.   

Ecumenical Councils’ Involvement in the Elian Gonzalez Case 

The latter was boosted most recently by the churches’ advocacy for Elian’s return to his father.  “People who used to refuse to speak to me because they know I am with the church now do,” Dr. Arce commented.  “They say, ‘Congratulations, thanks’ for what the Council has tried to do in the case of Elian, working together with the NCC to try to help solve the tragedy of this small child. 

“Cubans in Cuba, whatever their politics, agreed Elian should be with his family in Cuba,” he continued.  “The ‘Elian problem’ was more than a political problem.  It was a human problem.  Through the Elian story we have thought again about the problems of family and the importance of family.   At a December rally for Elian’s return, many pastors spoke and made a connection to Christmas – and it was on TV.  The Cuban Council of Churches and the NCC have gained a lot of positive image and respect of the Cuban people.” 

Already last year, the Cuban Council of Churches initiated an “ecumenical planning process” aimed at making the Council more responsive to the needs and expectations of the churches.  “We are asking member and non-member churches and their members, and our partners abroad, how they see the Cuban Council of Churches.  At the same time, we have a commission working on the theological and biblical basis of the church in our context. 

“The Council’s spring 2000 Assembly said one logistic is the restructure of the Council, and the Assembly agreed to restructure over the next two years.  So next year we will present a plan.  It won’t be an intellectual thing by a couple of top people, but something that originates from the churches at the very grassroots.  We have to find the things that unite us and work with those to accomplish our mission as churches in Cuba.” 

U.S., Cuban Churches: Agenda for Collaboration 

The U.S. and Cuban churches have an important role in the process of reconciliation between their two governments, Dr. Arce says, “and in reconciliation between Cubans in Cuba and in the United States.  Cuban society, as every society, is in transformation.  Cuba’s churches are struggling to make social justice more and more a reality.” 

Dr. Arce called on U.S. churches to work for an end to their country’s embargo against Cuba.  “It’s damaging the Cuban people,” he said.  “The churches in the United States have been in solidarity with us, helping us solve some problems that are a consequence of the blockade – donating medicine, for example.  But the main thing is to try to do something to end the blockade. 

“We need also to do concrete things to accelerate reconciliation between our governments and people,” he said.  “We’ve had few relations between our people in the last 40 years.   As churches we have to speak about our relations after the blockade, how we are going to work together.  It will be a totally different situation.  There will be masses of tourists and hundreds more parachurch groups coming to proselytize.  We have only the beginning of them now.  These people come from the United States with a lot of money and they divide the churches.  Some big Pentecostal churches have been divided by this already.   How can we work with the U.S. churches, not to stop them but to have a common policy so it doesn’t damage the Cuban churches?   That’s my passion,” he added, “these questions around the mission of the church.” 

“Cuba’s mixed economy – mixing dollars and pesos – is confusing values, especially in the young generation,” Dr. Arce continued.  “The Cuban Adjustment Act stimulates illegal immigration to the United States.  Young people are leaving because they don’t see economic opportunity in Cuba.  Prostitution and drugs are becoming social problems – not like in Santo Domingo, but had none before.   

“So in the Cuban Council of Churches we are dealing with problems of  values especially among young people.”   

“I am a theology professor, and I am concerned about the preparation of our pastors.  We have to integrate theological schools across the Caribbean, together with friends in the United States.  We have to work more on the unity of the Caribbean churches.” 

More About Dr. Arce 

“I was born a Presbyterian,” he says.  “My name, Reinerio, is from my great uncle, a Presbyterian pastor, who died young.  My great grandfather inaugurated Baptist work in Cuba.  So I’m a good Presbyterian with a little bit of Baptist.” 

He studied psychology at Havana University, then theology at Matanzas Seminary and was a leader in the Student Christian Movement and World Student Christian Federation.  Ordained in the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba, he holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Tubingen, Germany, where he studied for six years under the renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann.  Dr. Arce returned to Cuba in 1993 to teach at Matanzas Seminary and directed the Cuban Council of Churches’ Studies Center for five years before becoming the Council’s president (top staff) on March 31, 2000. 

“Some felt that as a theologian, I was ‘too theoretical’ to head the Council, but others felt we needed a theological perspective in this new situation of the church in Cuba,” he commented.

The NCC and Cuba