Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota has connections with Cuba that go back to the late 19th century. For most of this period (1890—2000), the connection has been indirect through our denomination (now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). The direct connections have been since 2001.

 Indirect Connections, 1890-1966

 In 1890 Cuban Presbyterianism started when a Cuban layman (Evaristo Collazo) asked the U.S. church’s Board of Foreign Missions for counsel and oversight for the school and worship services he and his wife Magdalena were holding in their home in Havana. That Board responded by sending Rev. Antonio Graybill, who held services, baptized forty adults, organized a congregation, ordained two Elders for the Session, and then ordained Callazo to the ministry and installed him as pastor. [1]

In 1904 the U.S. church organized the Presbytery of Havana with five pastors and seven congregations under the jurisdiction of the Synod of New Jersey. In 1930 it became the Presbytery of Cuba, but still as part of the Synod of New Jersey.

In 1946, the Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed Church joined with the Cuban Methodist and Episcopal churches to create the Evangelical Theological Seminary (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia or SET) in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. (In 2006 the Methodists withdrew from SET in order to establish their own seminary in Havana.)

In 1966 (five years after the Cuban Revolution), the overall governing body (the General Assembly) of the U.S. church approved an overture or motion by the Cuban Presbytery to be dismissed from the U.S. church in order to become an independent church. This overture came from the Cuban church’s recognition that it had to face on its own Cuba’s “new political, social and economic situation.” Cuba was now “socialist, shaken by a Revolution which left nothing untouched by its transformation,” and the Cuban church “had the responsibility of interpreting the Christian faith in its own environment.” One of Westminster’s former members, John Sinclair, then the U.S. church’s secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, played a key role in this change.

Indirect Connections, 1967-2000

At the inception of the independent Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed church, it had 3,082 members in 30 churches.

Immediately following its independence, the Cuban church adopted the U.S. church’s Confession of 1967 for its guidance, but started to develop its own theological reflection. The “Word of God became something nearer, more urgent, more vivid and more dramatic. The Church realized that God himself was involved in that revolutionary process which . . . led to the creation of a new society of greater justice for the people and of peace for society. The Gospel of ‘good news for the poor,’ of ‘freedom for the oppressed,’ and ‘sight for the blind’ came down upon us with all its prophetic implications.”

Ten years later, in 1977, the Cuban church adopted its own Confession of Faith to speak to Cubans’ contemporary situation. This Confession starts with “The Centrality of the Human Being Given in Jesus Christ.” It asserts that the “human being [is] the center of interest and concern of God” and, therefore, “of the Church of Jesus Christ.” The human being is an “econome” or steward of all things on behalf of God. “The human being is a social being and a free person. History is seen as “the Integrating Reconstruction of the Human Being, since the Human Being is being disintegrated by sin. . . . [and] the Kingdom of God [is] the Fulfillment of History.”

During this period, Westminster’s connections with Cuba continued to be indirect via its denomination. Here are some of the highlights of these events:

  • In 1985 the Presbytery of Long Island and the Presbytery of South Louisiana established contact and began visits to Cuban congregations in the Presbytery of Havana and the Presbytery of Matanzas respectively.
  • Also in 1985 the Cuban church invited agencies of the  PC(USA) to a consultation in Havana. They drafted a Mutual Mission Agreement that included procedures for forming ties between governing bodies of the two churches. The agreement was adopted by both General Assemblies in 1986.
  • In 1990 the Cuban church celebrated the Centennial of Presbyterianism in Cuba. Attending was a  Presbyterian delegation from the U.S.  Protestant Church leaders meet with Fidel Castro to discuss church-state relations. Castro asserts that religious groups were providing important support for the Cuban people in a time of great stress and should be respected. 
  • In 1995 the first Partnership Consultation was held in Havana, bringing together leaders of the Cuban church with staff of the U.S. denomination and representatives of the then four partner presbyteries: Long Island, Santa Fe, South Louisiana and Transylvania.
  • In 1996 the U.S. Presbyterian Cuba Connection was founded as an unofficial network of Presbyterians for interpretation, advocacy, and financial support of the life and mission of the Cuban church. That same year the leader of the U.S. church visited the Cuban church, participating in the October Conventions of the latter’s presbyteries.
  • In 1999 the Cuban Evangelical Celebration united the great majority of Cuba’s 49 Protestant Churches in a series of 19 municipal and four national public rallies, culminating on June 20 in the Jose Marti Revolution Plaza in Havana in a three-hour program of hymns, prayers, music, dance and a sermon attended by 100,000 persons, including President Fidel Castro and a number of government leaders.
  • In 2000 the Celebration of Mission Partnership in the New Millennium was held in Cuba bringing together  representatives of the U.S. church with an equal number of representatives of the Cuban church. A joint declaration of intention and commitment was adopted.

 Direct Connections, 2001- Present

During this period indirect connections similar to the ones previously mentioned continue, but now Westminster developed and strengthened its own direct connections.

In 2001 Westminster formed its Cuba Task Force to explore whether and how our congregation could have a more direct connection with the Cuban Church. (I was a member of this Task Force.) After a couple of exploratory trips to the island, we established a partnership in 2002 with Versalles Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas. In our written Covenant Agreement, for a set period of time, each congregation covenanted to pray for and with each other, to engage in Bible study together, to share our personal stories, to visit each other and to stand together against all that is unjust in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ. (This Covenant Agreement has been renewed several times.)

Since 2002, every year Westminster members have visited our partner congregation under several licenses from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Our visits typically include Sunday worship together, sometimes with our Spanish-speaking pastors delivering the sermon; attending meetings of its governing body (the Session); enjoying a fiesta at the church; having meals at the church and in the homes of members; visiting a school and medical clinic near the church; and staying in the church’s dormitory. The church also has printing equipment that prints materials for many of the Protestant churches on the island. (I have been on three such trips.) In more recent years some of Westminster’s high-school and college students have gone to our partner congregation to assist in conducting a Vacation Bible School for its young people and others from the neighborhood. (Our next trip to Cuba is this February.)

We also have hosted visits by Cubans from our partner and other Cuban churches and often helped defray the costs of their travel to the U.S. This coming June we are expecting the visit of a female member of the Cuban church to attend a national meeting of Presbyterian Women. In addition, last March we hosted a meeting of various churches and other organizations interested in Cuba with the First Secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. and in October with its Chief of Mission (or de facto Cuban Ambassador to the U.S.)

In 2002 we also formed a similar partnership with the governing body for the whole Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. In 2007, as part of its Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign, Westminster committed to make a substantial monetary grant over five years to the Cuban Synod to assist its education and development of ordained and lay leaders. These gifts have been made through the U.S. Treasury Department’s license to our denomination that permits certain transfers of money to Cuba.

Although Westminster does not have a formal partnership with SET (the ecumenical seminary) in Matanzas, we do have a close informal relationship. Today SET is an ecumenical institution for basic and advanced theological training of pastors and lay leaders of Cuban and other Latin American churches. It also is the home of the history of Cuban Protestantism and of the Ecumenical Movement in Cuba. In addition, SET is engaged in exchange programs with institutions in the U.S., Europe and the rest of Latin America. Situated on a hill overlooking Matanzas’ bay, it is one of the most beautiful places on the island with soft breezes usually flowing from the bay.

Since SET is in the same city as our partner congregation, our travelers to Cuba always visit the Seminary, and some of our financial grants to the Cuban Synod have subsequently gone to SET to assist in its education of church leaders. In addition, the current head of SET, Rev. Dr. Reinerio Arce, has visited Westminster several times and has delivered the Sunday sermon on at least one occasion. (This coming May or June he plans to visit us again with his yet unnamed successor as head of the seminary.)

Another way that Westminster carries out its Cuban ministry is keeping all members informed of our various activities on the island. All who go on mission trips, for example, commit to sharing their experiences with other church members. In addition, our church library now has many books about Cuba.

All of these direct connections with Cuba have prompted Westminster to become an active member of the Presbyterian Cuba Partners Network, a group of U.S. churches with Cuba partners. So too is Westminster an active member of the Presbyterian Cuba Connection that provides funds to the Cuban church under a general license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

As a result of this involvement, some members, including this blogger, have learned a lot about Cuba and its relations with the U.S. and have become advocates for improving those relations.

Nachito Herrera Concert at Westminster

As mentioned in a prior post, another example of our Cuba connections occurred this January 11th with a free concert at the church by Cuban-American jazz pianist Nachito Herrera.

Congressman Ellison
Congressman Ellison

Before the start of the concert itself, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison from the Twin Cities made brief remarks.[2] He said that President Obama’s December 17th announcement of the historic changes in the relationship of the two countries demonstrated the importance of persistence and hope for all who have been urging such changes for many years, as had most of the people in the audience. He congratulated us for having this persistence and hope. This lesson also was demonstrated, he said, by the current movie, “Selma,” which the Congressman recently had seen with his children. His parting injunction to us all: now we all need to keep the pressure on Congress to end the embargo and support the reconciliation.

Hart-Andersen & Herrera
Hart-Andersen & Herrera
Concert audience
Concert audience

 

Nachito was introduced by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, our Senior Pastor, who said our church has had a partnership with Nachito. We take things to his family in Cuba on some of our mission trips, and Nachito plays music at our church. Implicitly Tim was saying the church had the better part of that understanding.

To a capacity-crowd in our Great Hall, Nachito played Cuban music with great passion. He also told us that he was surprised and overjoyed by the December 17th news of the historic change in the two countries’ relationship and wanted to celebrate this important change by sharing his music with Westminster, which he regarded as part of his family. He also was very happy with the U.S. release from prison of the remaining three members of the Cuban Five, and in recognition of this event he returned his “Free the Cuban Five” button to two members of the Minnesota Cuba Committee.

Prof. August Nimtz, Jr., Aurora Gonzalez, Frank Curbelo & Nachito
Prof. August Nimtz, Jr., Aurora Gonzalez, Frank Curbelo & Nachito

Nachito concluded the concert by saying that he and his wife (Aurora Gonzalez) recently had become U.S. citizens and by playing a beautiful jazzy rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

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[1] This historical sketch of Presbyterianism in Cuba is  based on a summary of that history by Dean Lewis, a Presbyterian minister with long involvement with Cuba.

[2] Ellison is the Co-Chair of the House’s Progressive Caucus, which on December 17th released a statement that said the following: “Congress must lift the trade embargo and normalize travel between our two nations, which are only 90 miles apart. The Congressional Progressive Caucus looks forward to working with President Obama and members of Congress who want to stabilize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Confessions of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

Westminster Presbyterian Church

As discussed in a prior post, a regular feature of worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is a congregational recitation of an Affirmation of Faith.

One of the sources of such affirmations is the collection of creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA]. These documents state the PCUSA’s and individual members’ “faith and bear . . .  witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.”  (Book of Order § F-2.01.)

“In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do. These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Reformed Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers.” (Id.)

“These confessional statements are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.” (Id. § F-2.02.)

Central to the Reformed tradition in these statements “is the affirmation of the majesty,  holiness, and providence of God who in Christ and by the power of the Spirit creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love.” (Id. § F-2.05.) The following “other great themes of the Reformed tradition” shine forth in these statements:

  • “The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;
  •  Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God;
  • A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; and
  • The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.” (Id.)

The current Book of Confessions contains the following confessions and statements of faith;

  1. The Nicene Creed, which was adopted by the first ecumenical council in Nicaea (Isnik in today’s Turkey) in 325.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed, which first appeared in a letter from a council in Milan to the Pope in 390, but which had antecedents.
  3. The Scots Confession, which was written in 1560 by six leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
  4. The Heidelberg Catechism, which was written by the theological faculty of the University of Heidelberg in 1563 at the request of Frederick III, the Elector of the Palatinate.
  5. The Second Helvetic Confession, which was written in 1561 by Heinrich Bullinger, a Swiss Protestant theologian.
  6. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which was written in 1647 by the Westminster Assembly of the Church of England.
  7. The [Westminster] Shorter Catechism, which also was written in 1647 by the Westminster Assembly of the Church of England,
  8. The [Westminster] Larger Catechism, which also was written in 1647 by the Westminster Assembly of the Church of England,
  9. The Theological Declaration of Barmen, which was written in 1934 by theologian Karl Barth and other leaders of the German Confessing Church who were opposed to Hitler.
  10. The Confession of 1967, which was adopted in 1967 as a modern statement of the faith by one of the churches that merged into the PCUSA.
  11. A Brief Statement of Faith—Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which was adopted in 1983 by the PCUSA.

Moreover, the Book of Confessions is never closed, never completely in the past. Additional confessions can be added although “the process for changing the confessions of the church is deliberately demanding, requiring a high degree of consensus across the church. Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine. . . . The church affirms  . . . , “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.” (Book of Order § F-2.02.)

The PCUSA currently is considering adding the 1986 Confession of Belhar by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa. It emerged as a witness of Christian faith against the sins of racism and focuses on major themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice.

The Confession of Belhar was approved by the General Assembly of the PCUSA in 2010 and recommended to the presbyteries for their vote. Inclusion in the Book of Confessions requires a vote of two-thirds of the presbyteries and a subsequent adoption by another session of the General Assembly. The initial vote on this recommendation failed to obtain the necessary 116 votes of the presbyteries by only eight votes. Therefore, as of now, it has not been included.

For me, these confessions are evidence of God’s interventions into history, which is never finished. They arise in particular historical circumstances and reflect the concerns of those circumstances. They are never complete expositions of God and Christ, who are beyond complete human understanding and declarations. Moreover, most of these confessions are the work of assemblies, like legislatures, and thus include compromises like legislative compromises.