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.”

Email to President Obama Objecting to Covert or “Discreet” U.S. Government Programs Purportedly Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba

On January 7, 2015, I sent the following email to U.S. President Barack Obama with copies to Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Al Franken and Representative Keith Ellison.

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On December 17th I was overjoyed to hear the great news about your decision to embark upon a path of reconciliation with Cuba. That same day I sent you an email expressing my congratulations and thanks for this important decision. I also wrote the following blog posts to the same effect:

Now, however, I must express my profound disappointment in your Administration’s apparent decision to continue the covert or “discreet” USAID and other programs that purport to foster democracy and human rights on the island. It is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in October, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.” My blog post expands on these points: Rejection of Criticism of Cuban Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event and Arrests of Its Organizers (Jan. 6, 2015), .

Please, Mr. President, stop such programs as soon as possible. Instead, raise issues of democracy and human rights in direct meetings with Cuban government officials, as you have said your Administration would do.

Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba

On August 13, 2012, I sent the following letter regarding Cuba to U.S. President Barack Obama.[1]

Many of the United States’ policies regarding Cuba are not in our national interest and should be changed. I write specifically about (1) the U.S. embargo of Cuba, (2) the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (3) the U.S. denigration of religious freedom on the island and (4) our refusal to enter into negotiations with Cuba on the broad range of issues that have accumulated since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 without Cuba’s satisfying various U.S. preconditions.

1. U.S. Embargo of Cuba

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, in my opinion, is an out-of-date relic of the days of U.S. hostility toward, and fear of, the Cuban Revolution. Today Cuba poses no serious threat to the U.S. Cuba’s regrettable human rights violations are understandable and could be more successfully addressed in bilateral negotiations. Normalizing relations, including rescinding the embargo, would be in the economic interest of the U.S. by creating export and investment opportunities for U.S. businesses. Moreover, ending the embargo would be in the overall interests of the U.S., especially with respect to our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. This is examined more fully in my blog posts: “The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba,” (May 21, 2001); and “U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns  U.S. Embargo of Cuba,” (Oct. 25, 2011),

The U.S. should end its embargo of Cuba.

2. U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 (July 31, 2012), assert two grounds for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor:” (a) its being an alleged safe haven for certain ETA and FARC terrorists and U.S. fugitives; and (b) its alleged financial system deficiencies relating to money laundering and financing of terrorism.

Neither ground withstands serious analysis as shown by my blog posts: “Yet Another Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (Aug. 7, 2012) and “Additional Thoughts on the Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (Aug. 9, 2012).

The U.S. should rescind this designation.

3. U.S. Denigration of Cuban Religious Freedom

The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 30, 2012), had many positive things to say about the status of this important freedom in Cuba in 2011 that is confirmed by my personal experience with the subject. The report also has certain negative comments on the subject with which I do not disagree.

The resulting question, I believe, is “Is the glass half empty or half full?” I believe it is more than half full of this important freedom. The U.S. needs to remember that Cuban society and history is very different from the U.S. and humbly recognize that those differences do not mean that its religious freedom is fundamentally flawed.

My real complaint here is with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s unrealistic overstatement of the negative aspects of Cuban religious freedom and its continued placement of Cuba on its Watch List.

My views on this subject are fully explained in my blog posts, “Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom,” (Aug. 3, 2012) and “The Cuban Revolution and Religion,” (Dec. 30, 2011).

The U.S. should cease denigrating Cuban religious freedom and instead explore through respectful bilateral negotiations whether there are ways for the U.S. to assist Cuba in further expansion of such freedom on the island.

4.  U.S. Negotiations with Cuba

In addition to the issues discussed in this letter, there are many others that need discussion, negotiation and resolution. They include Cuban compensation for expropriated property in the Cuban Revolution, enhancement of human rights on the island, emigration and immigration between the two countries, the status of Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S., the continued U.S. imprisonment of four of the so called “Cuban Five,” Cuba’s continued imprisonment of Alan Gross, the status of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, exploration and drilling for oil in the Caribbean Sea between the two counties, Cuba’s re-entry into the Organization of American States and re-establishment of full diplomatic relations.

Perhaps such negotiations would be assisted by having the two countries agree to the appointment of a respected international mediator/conciliator to supervise the negotiations.

Cuba repeatedly has said that it is willing to engage in respectful negotiations with the U.S. on all issues. Most recently on July 26th (Revolution Day marking the 59th anniversary of the Cuban uprising against former President Batista), Cuban President Raul Castro in a public speech reiterated his country’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the U.S. as equals. He said no topic was off limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Cuba so as long as the U.S. was prepared to hear Cuba’s own complaints. (Assoc. Press, Cuban president Raúl Castro willing to hold no-limits talks with America, Guardian (July 26, 2012); Assoc. Press, Cuba–An Impromptu Invitation, N.Y. Times (July 27, 2012).)

The U.S. should accept Cuba’s offer to engage in broad-scale negotiations over all issues between the two countries.


[1] Copies of the letter were sent to Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Secretary of State; David Benjamin, United States Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism; Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; John F. Kerry, United States Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Amy Klobuchar, United States Senator from Minnesota; Al Franken United States Senator from Minnesota; and Keith Ellison, United States Representative from Minneapolis, Minnesota.