A Cuban Experience of Mission in Unity
Carlos Emilio Ham
The Presbyterian Church was founded in Cuba by Evaristo Collazo, a Cuban lay patriot who fought against Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. While living in Florida, USA, in political exile, he was converted to Christianity in the Reformed tradition. He returned to Cuba and founded the first Presbyterian congregation in Havana on June 26 1890. His wife Magdalena, together with the congregation, set up a school for poor children who could not afford to pay high school fees.
So from the very beginning Cuban Presbyterianism was marked by this rich heritage: patriotism and social commitment, with a strong participation of the laity and of women, and a special ecumenical orientation and engagement.
In 1898, Cuba attained its independence and constituted itself a republic. In place of Spain, the United States now became the dominating power.
At the beginning of the 20th century, with the support of US missionaries, the church developed rapidly, with the construction of many church buildings, schools and medical dispensaries, as well as Christian formation and church development programmes. The congregations were constituted as a presbytery of the Presbyterian Church USA, Synod of New Jersey. In the 1940s, Presbyterian and other Protestant leaders founded the Cuban Council of Churches and the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas.
From 1954, Fidel Castro waged a guerrilla campaign against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the end of 1958, Batista fled the country. On January 1 1959, Castro’s army captured Havana and the Cuban revolution came to power. From the beginning, bread and an honourable life for everybody were the great objectives. Land and housing reform laws were signed. An important literacy campaign, strongly supported by Protestant leaders, taught all Cubans to read and write.
Many Protestant pastors and Christians in general supported the revolution because they saw in it a way of solving structurally the great social needs of the Cuban people, such as education or public health, which were hitherto the responsibility of the churches and private institutions. In fact, some of them even fought against the Batista regime in the 1950s, for example, José A González, Frank País, Esteban Hernández, Rafael Cepeda, Raúl Fernández Ceballos, etc.
Theodore A Braun, in his recent book Perspectives on Cuba and Its People, analyses this period in a positive and constructive way: “…as Christians who remained in Cuba began to see the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed, the poor being lifted (all of it by the government, outside the aegis of the church), they were filled with surprise. Here was God fulfilling the prayers and aims of the church through the instrument of a secular “Cyrus’. But there was a big difference – the needs of all the people were now being solved by structural changes in society, not the needs of individuals by Christian charity. That raised a challenge for the church: What was its mission if there were no longer poor people to help? The answer came down to the basic hermeneutical calling of the church: to interpret what God is doing in the world and to join God there. Thus Christians began to have an increasingly active role in revolutionary society.”
Revolution in the revolution
When the revolution became more radical, instituting a programme of wide-ranging reform and nationalizing private companies, people started to withdraw their support and many left the country. A great number of these private companies were owned by North Americans and, as a result, in January 1961 the US government severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Three months later, following the abortive US- sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, the socialist character of the revolution was proclaimed and the United States declared an embargo against our people.
In response, Cuba developed closer relations with the communist states in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These states were officially atheist. This policy was also imposed in our country but, to be honest, in Cuba, unlike other atheist countries, there was no open persecution of religious people. There was, rather, a subtle persecution. Religious people could not study journalism, psychology, foreign affairs or any other profession in which they would influence the minds or the ideology of others.
From the point of view of the structure and mission of the church, we were free to preach and to teach, but only within the four walls of the sanctuaries. The evangelizing effort of going out and reaching the people as an organized church, to share the “good news” as it is conceived traditionally, was not permitted. During these years, the question was not how to preach the gospel as an organized church, but how to live the gospel creatively and with integrity as Christians, as a community of believers, and how to bear witness to the living Lord in such a way that people come and ask you about it.
I still remember that in our youth meetings at church we used to comment on how people referred to us as good workers and good students, but said it was a pity we were Christians. They could not understand that we were honest and hard working, not in spite of our faith, but precisely because of it. And I am expressing this here not because of our personal merits. It was a result of the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in spite of our material limitations. It was indeed hard, so in those years we suffered an exodus not only of Cubans from the country but also of Christians from the churches. The Presbyterian church, for example, lost 70 per cent of its pastors.
Our church today highly respects the minority of pastors that remained in the churches, under great pressures and in economic distress. I remember in the early sixties, when my father was studying theology in Europe, we were living with my mother’s relatives in West Virginia, USA. We returned to Cuba in 1962, during the famous missile crisis, “against the traffic”, due to my parents’ commitment to the people and the church in Cuba.
So the two important hostile factors that kept the church from carrying out its mission in unity during all those years were, on one hand, the pressures of the atheistic government and, on the other hand, the harsh realities of the US embargo, which hurt (and still is hurting) the Cuban population, including the churches, particularly the pastors. Just to have an idea, we need to remember that the Presbytery of Cuba (as it was called at that time), was organically part of the Synod of New Jersey, so when the US embargo was declared, the pastors and their families suddenly stopped receiving their salaries and were in great need.
Our church got its independence from the mother church in 1966 and one year later the Presbyterian-Reformed Church was founded. That same year we ordained our first woman minister (Rev. Ofelia Ortega) and extended our relationships to the world church. Our church became a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches, among other organizations.
The isolation of the Cuban churches imposed by the US embargo has been to a certain extent a blessing, positive and beneficial for the life and mission of the Cuban church. It obliged us to write our own biblical studies, our own hymns and our own biblical-theological reflections, as well as our own Sunday school curriculum. This has helped us to develop a stronger and more united Cuban leadership. In 1977 we wrote our own confession of faith, the only one in Cuba and among all the Reformed churches in Latin America and the Caribbean.
At this point we should also recognize the important role that the churches both in Cuba and the US have played in breaking down walls of hostility and building a bridge of reconciliation and love between both our countries, in spite of the resentment of our governments and even of the Cubans both in Cuba and abroad. We can’t write the history of the relationship between our two countries in the last forty years without taking this role into consideration, although we still have a long way to go.
The capacity of pastors and laypeople of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba to develop important positions of ecumenical leadership, both nationally and internationally, and at the same time to keep the unity of the church has always amazed me. I think that it has much to do with the notion of “unity in diversity”. While we might have our differences, when we do not think the same, we still respect and accept each other. Of course we have tensions and contradictions among ourselves, but the commitment to the unity of the body of Christ is sacred and therefore stronger than what divides us. We recognize, of course, that it is easier to preserve the unity of a smaller church like ours than a bigger one.
A six-hour meeting of 75 Cuban Protestant leaders with President Fidel Castro on April 2 1990 changed the course of our history. We spoke specifically about the negative effects on the population of the official state atheism, the issue of double standards, the need for access to the mass media for the proclamation of the gospel, the construction of new sanctuaries, etc.
Naturally the encounter did not come out of the blue. It was preceded by a series of events that contributed to the realization of the meeting itself, such as the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua (“Between Christianity and revolution there is no contradiction”, they used to say); meetings of Fidel Castro with Latin American liberation theologians; the visit in 1984 of the US presidential candidate, Rev. Jesse Jackson, who led Fidel Castro to attend a church service in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr; the book Fidel and Religion, in which Frei Betto interviewed Castro, a bestseller in 1985, etc.
As a result of the meeting, among other factors, the 4th congress of the Communist Party in 1991 changed its by-laws, allowing religious persons to become members. In 1992 a popular referendum was carried out, and the great majority of the population voted to adopt a secular constitution, Protestant pastors were elected members of the parliament, etc.
In 1989 the Berlin wall fell, marking the disintegration of the socialist system in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. As a result of this, our economy dropped drastically. Until that year, we used to import 16 million tons of oil per year. In 1992, we could only import 4 million (a quarter of the former amount!), which caused long blackouts, a drastic reduction in public transportation, food and medicines.
US policy not only remained hostile towards Cuba, but became tighter with the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (Torricelli Law) which prohibits US subsidiaries based in other countries from trading with Cuba. The Helms-Burton Act, which tries to internationalize the embargo, using legal sanctions to avoid foreign investments in Cuba in property formerly owned by US citizens, has received a strong reaction from the European Union and the world community.
Of course the economic depression that Cuban people are suffering does not depend on international factors only. The centralization of the economy in former times by the Marxist state, prohibiting private initiative, the failure of the socialist economy, not having, among other factors, the competition of the market which can be beneficial and creative, has also contributed to the crisis.
In the last twelve years, the drastic changes in the Marxist state, the Communist Party and the constitution of the nation, withdrawing its atheist character, the economic hardship, and the faithfulness and the mission in unity of the churches have allowed us to witness a tremendous religious revival. Now, the pews of many churches are filled with people seeking a word of hope and guidance. Denominations have had to train pastors and laypeople quickly and to make rooms ready in private homes for the newly converted.
People experiencing “emptiness” in their lives attend the churches, or practise other religions, to try to discover or rediscover a meaning for their lives. So one of the most important roles that the churches are called to play is to be a producer of meaning in the lives of the people, to teach them about the Bible, about that Jesus who transforms lives and societies, who teaches the real meaning of loving God and loving one’s neighbour.
This climate of openness and religious freedom was encouraged even more by the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998 and the Cuban Evangelical Celebrations the following year. In each case, four different masses and celebrations were organized with the participation of thousands of people and broadcast on radio and TV. Significant also in this regard were the visit of an ecumenical delegation that same year, led by Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and the more recent visit by Dr Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. This climate means that the churches no longer have to limit their mission to the sanctuary, but can – and should – develop it out in society. So indeed the churches are encouraged to bear witness not only in the Jerusalem of the church, but to the ends of the earth, as we read in Acts 1.8.
Challenges in mission
The Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba as part of the body of Christ in the country is facing new challenges to its mission in unity:
- How to develop holistic diaconal projects in collaboration rather than in competition?
- As we try to do mission in society, how to be an expedition more than an institution?
- How to be faithful and promote justice in a dual-currency economy (where one can hardly survive without the “hard” currency) as a church, and as church leaders who often have better financial possibilities than those around them?
- How to cope with the “invasion” of “missionaries” (some of them “mercenaries”), who come with lots of dollars to try to “purchase” souls and even pastors and to proselytize?
- How to handle the “charismatic movement”, which can be a blessing, but also creates many divisions?
- How to minister in the context of ideological confrontations and polarization, both internally and in relation to the Cuban exiles?
- How to preach and teach the importance of reconciliation in society, starting right there in the church between the different groups in the congregations: those who remained faithful, those who are returning, and those who come for the first time
- How to carry out mission in partnership with other churches and organizations abroad?
- How to cope with opportunism of both left and right?
- How to encourage the ecumenical spirit and commitment at a time when there is a reinforcement of denominationalism and apparently less ecumenical will or ethos?
These are some of the questions that challenge the commitment to mission and unity of the churches in Cuba today. The soil is ready for a fresh planting of the seed of the word of God. Not only that it is easier vis-à-vis the state, but also because it is more needed at a time when there is a readjustment of values in society. Our Lord Jesus Christ, before going to his Father, left his disciples the great commission:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.18-20)
These verses, which form the conclusion of the gospel of Matthew, confirm that mission belongs to the Lord himself, and that he shares it with us through the Holy Spirit. He co-missions us to work along with him – which is expressed symbolically by the vertical dimension of the cross – but the mandate refers also to the call to work for each other – which is represented by the horizontal dimension. In this way our ministry has been commissioned by our Lord in favour of his kingdom here on earth and with the full conviction of his permanent accompaniment.
The difficult and challenging times through which we are living in Cuba today are a “kairos”, offering opportunities to analyse and redesign the role of Christianity and to continue working for the benefit and the unity of our people. The church is not ours: it belongs to the Lord and its future depends on the future of our people. So even when our specific concern is the unity of the church, our greatest mission is to seek the unity of all the people, of all humanity, and even of all creation.