I am currently taking a brief course, “Sub-Saharan African History to Colonialism,” to learn about such history “from many angles: anthropological, historical, geographic, cultural, and religious. From human origins through the populating of the continent, the great civilizations, the slave trades, to the beginning of European domination.” Offered by the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), the course’s instructor is Tom O’Toole, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.
Why does this Euro-American septuagenarian take this course? Foremost, I know virtually nothing about this history and want to know more. I also realize that I have various direct and indirect connections with Africa.
The most immediate precipitating cause is reading the discussion of the names of African and African-American intellectuals and historical figures that were discovered at Howard University by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and recounted in his book “Between the World and Me” and my realizing that I did not know virtually any of these people. This book also has prompted me to research and investigate my own notions of race, including my recent posts about statements from the American Anthropological Association about race’s non-scientific basis and historical and cultural background. Further posts about notions of race are forthcoming.
I learned more about one of these figures of African history this spring when my 10th-grade grandson wrote a History Day paper on Mansa Musa, who was a 14th century Emperor or King of Mali. Moreover, one of my sons knows more about this history from his having studied African history and Swahili at the University of Minnesota and from spending a semester in Kenya with a program of the National Outdoor Leadership School and then a week on his own living with a Maasai tribesman in that country.
Coates also legitimately castigates the U.S. history of slavery and its lasting impacts on our country. This has underscored my interest in the importation of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. This was part of Lawrence Hill’s fascinating novel “The Book of Negroes” (“Someone Knows My Name”), about which I have written. Moreover, I have visited Matanzas, Cuba and Salvador, Brazil, which were major ports of importation of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in those countries.
I have a number of friends from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana) and visited Cameroon on a mission trip from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. There I learned about the country’s having been a German colony (Kamerun) in the 19th century and then having French and British administration under League of Nations mandates after Germany was stripped of its African colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Forty-plus years later Cameroon became an independent country with the joinder of the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Yet life today in the country is still affected by the language and cultural differences from the French and British governance and less so by the previous 30-plus years of German rule.
I also have visited Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focused primarily on observing their magnificent wildlife and nature, but also the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during the years of apartheid. In addition, I had the opportunity to see and hear Mandela speak at a 2003 celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships held at Westminster Hall in London and to see him escorted through the Hall’s audience, only 10 feet from me and my wife, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
The visit to South Africa also included stopping at Cecil Rhodes’ Cottage and Museum at Mulzenberg overlooking False Bay and the Indian Ocean at the southwest corner of the country. (My interest in Cecil Rhodes, the Founder of the Scholarships, and his 19th century involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) stems from being a Rhodes Scholar who was “up” at Oxford, 1961-1963, and from my gratitude for being a beneficiary of his largess.)
While co-teaching international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, I learned about the International Criminal Court, whose initial cases all came from Africa, thereby prompting some resistance from African leaders who thought this was anti-African discrimination. (I have written many blog posts about the ICC.) Previously I had been a pro bono lawyer for two Somali men’s successful applications for asylum in the U.S.
Other indirect connections are provided by three Grinnell College classmates. One became a professor of African history. Another served in Africa with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, where he met his English wife serving in a similar British program and where they both frequently return to participate in a project of preparing and distributing audio textbooks for blind students. The third classmate, also in the Peace Corps, served in Mali, where he was involved in smallpox eradication. In addition, one of my Grinnell roommates from Chicago now lives in South Africa.
All of these direct and indirect connections with Africa provided additional motivation to learn more about its history. In a subsequent post I will attempt to summarize the key points of this brief exploration of African history.
On September 17 Cuba’s new Ambassador to the U.S., Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez, presented his credentials to President Obama.
Afterwards, Cabanas said he would be continuing to spread the truth about Cuba, promote new relationships and explain all remaining obstacles to normal relations between the two countries. “In particular we are going to work intensely to realize the decisions of the first meeting of the Bilateral Commission held last week in Havana.”
As discussed in a previous post, that meeting of the Bilateral Commission established an agenda in three tracks, with the first encompassing issues where there is significant agreement and the possibility of short-term progress. These include re-establishing regularly scheduled flights, environmental protection, natural disaster response, health and combatting drug trafficking. A second track includes more difficult topics such as human rights, human trafficking, climate change and epidemics. The third includes complex, longer-term issues like the return of the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. damage claims over properties nationalized in Cuba after the 1959 revolution and Cuba’s damage claims for more than $300 billion in alleged economic damages from the U.S. embargo and for what it says are other acts of aggression.
Last October Cabanas, then the Chief of Mission of the Cuban Interests Section, was in Minneapolis at the invitation of the Minnesota International Center. I had the pleasure of having a delightful Cuban lunch with him, his wife and others at one of the city’s Cuban restaurants, Victor’s 1959 Café, where he wrote his name on the wall. Afterwards, Cabanas, his wife and others came to my church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, to talk about our Cuban partnerships and various issues between our two countries. Our main partnership is with a church in the city of Matanzas, and when most of the Americans in the room indicated they had been in that city, Cabanas said it was the “home town” for both him and his wife.
We at Westminster and Minneapolis wish the Ambassador success in his diplomatic endeavors in our country.
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. 
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.
Before the start of the concert itself, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison from the Twin Cities made brief remarks. 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.
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.
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.”
 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.
 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.”
As mentioned in a prior post, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church for the last 12 years has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas Cuba and with the overall synod of that church for the whole island. As a result, many members of our church have visited our brothers and sisters in Cuba and some of them have visited us. We also have installed four clean water systems in Cuban churches and the ecumenical seminary in that city. In the process many of us at our church have become close to our brothers and sisters and advocates for a closer relationship between our two countries. We, therefore, are celebrating this great gift of reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba.
December 21, 2014 Sermon
The first such celebration was the sermon, “Is the Church Born at Christmas?”, just before Christmas Day and just after the December 17th announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.  Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, our Senior Pastor, said “Christmas is not merely about the birth of Jesus; it’s about the birth in our hearts of a new willingness to be God’s people who seek to restore creation, to work for justice, to strive for peace among the nations of the earth.” He then illustrated this point with the following words about this gift of reconciliation between the two countries:
“President Obama’s announcement this week that he’s ending the half-century quarantine of Cuba came as good news and prompted great joy. It’s the culmination of decades of patience and prayer, not to mention politics.”
“We should not underestimate the impact of the change; it’s akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The entire Western Hemisphere will see us differently. It will take time for Congress to end the embargo, but now it will happen. The Cubans will want to protect and preserve their way of life as much as possible, but now change is underway.”
“My phone rang within minutes of the announcement with people rejoicing at the news. The jazz pianist Nachito Herrera called to say he wants to play a gig here to celebrate and thank Westminster for its steadfast support of the Cuban people for so many years. We’re planning an event early in the New Year.”
“Presbyterians in Cuba – those who have access to email – began sending messages to us almost immediately, as well. For them it’s the coming dawn after a long night of isolation and hardship. They chose to be the Church when being the Church subjected them to suspicion or worse. They chose to be the body of Christ, the one born outside the circle of acceptability, and it was not without cost.”
“They’ve been a gentle, generous witness in the face of decades of hostility and exclusion. They built bridges while others constructed walls. They stayed the course for the sake of the gospel. They’ve been in a fifty-year season of Advent; Bethlehem has finally come into view.”
“Christmas came a little early for little town of Guanabacoa, just outside Havana, Cuba. Last month Westminster’s Clean Water team, working with local Presbyterians, installed a purification system there. That small congregation is now the sole source of clean water for the neighborhood. Emmanuel: God in our midst.”
Our team “brought back a letter from another church where they had installed a system last year. The was from a neighbor who is not part of the church. ‘Permit me to say,’ he writes, ‘That the water the church is offering the community is life and health for all of us…In this humanitarian act for our people it is clear the church wants to save lives, alleviate pain, and promote health.'”
“That’s what true Christmas looks like: good news of great joy to all the people. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but we know it when we see it.”
Concert Celebrating Renewed Friendship with Cuba
Our other celebration of this great gift of reconciliation is a concert with Cuban-American jazz pianist and Westminster amigo, Nachito Herrera, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis on Sunday, January 11th at 4:00 p.m.
ALL ARE WELCOME! COME AND ENJOY THE MUSIC AND CELEBRATION!
 An audio recording of the sermon and the bulletin for the service are available online.
The setting was the Presbyterian Clearwater Forest Camp and Retreat Center, which is 120 miles north of Minneapolis near Deerwood, Minnesota. In a beautiful 1,106 acres overlooking Clearwater Lake, the Center’s mission is to provide faith-building Christian programming, to provide effective facilities and services to support conferencing, to nurture active Christian community and to be the faithful steward of God’s creation at Clearwater Forest.
The passages from Acts were most meaningful for me. They discuss the community life in Jerusalem of the Jews who believed that Jesus was their Messiah. After spending much time together in the temple, they gathered together in their homes breaking bread and eating “with glad and generous’ hearts.” They also sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need.
Initially these passages said to me that this community of the first Christians was a distinct minority and needed one another’s company and support, spiritually and materially. The passages also suggest that this was a financially diverse group, thus creating a need for financial support of the poorer ones by the more affluent ones.
I also was reminded by the Acts verses of our brothers and sisters at our partner Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in Matanzas, Cuba. They are survivors of a former period of persecution and share their limited possessions with one another. On one of my trips their pastor told us that when he was unable to buy any toilet paper for our visit, he asked the members of the congregation to share whatever “TP” they had. We also bring over-the-counter medications from the U.S. to give to our partner church, which then acts as a de facto dispensary for its members and others in the neighborhood. Although our partner has its own church building that was constructed before the Revolution of 1959, newer Christian communities that do not have the money for church buildings meet in homes and are known as “house churches.”
These passages also remind me of the various utopian communities that have existed in the U.S. They shared their material resources often for religious reasons. At their best, they exhibit the same virtues of the early Christian communities discussed in Acts, but they have not been able to sustain themselves as long-term communities. At their worst, they are organizations for the self-aggrandisement of the founders of cults.
The above reactions saw the verses as relating to other times and places. On further reflection, however, I see the passages from Acts speaking to Westminster and other contemporary U.S. churches Our churches provide space and times for people of faith to gather together to renew their faith and lives and to seek forgiveness for their many failures, both individual and corporate. Moreover, just by being together in worship helps remind us all that we are not in this endeavor alone as we combat the dominant cultural emphases on materialism and secularism. Yes, we too are a minority and need support and encouragement from one another. Although we do not own all of our possessions in common today, we do respond to various calls for financial support of those in need.
Finally the retreat itself was the intentional creation of a short-term community of men. Many of us car-pooled to extend our time together on the two-hour rides to and from the Center. In our meals and times of general conversation we got to know one another at a deeper level than is usually possible when we pass one another on a Sunday in a congregation of 3,000. For example, several years ago at another men’s retreat, I became acquainted with someone for the first time and thereafter we developed a friendship.
“The Lord’s Prayer is something we repeat in all our worship, but when we pray, we repeat the words, but we don’t think about them. It is one of the most challenging things Jesus taught us. It is not a simple prayer. It is a commitment. It is a confession. It is a challenge for all of us and for His disciples at that moment.”
“’Our Father in heaven.’ We use a plural. It is not ‘my’ Father; it is ‘our Father.’ That means we have brothers and sisters. We are acknowledging that the people beside us here in the church are our brothers and sisters. Not only that, all persons in the world are our brothers and sisters. We all are His children. We have to think about and care about all of our brothers and sisters, like the big family of God. It is a commitment to think about, to care for, to be worried about all of our brothers and sisters. This is the first big challenge of this prayer.”
“’Hallowed be your name’ means God is holy for us, is very special for us and has a very important place in our life. We are confessing to God that He is very special for us and has a very important place in our life all the time. Too often we treat God as special only on Christmas and Easter. Do we really practice that? Do we just remember Him only when we have problems? This is very challenging.”
“’Your Kingdom come.’ The prayer goes deeper.We don’t go to the Kingdom. The Kingdom comes to us. It is also a commitment. As Paul says, we have to be collaborators or co-workers with God to make this world what He wants for us. We are committing to help Him, to be His hands and voice to help build this world. We are willing to take all the challenges in life to help Him, to sacrifice for Him.”
“’Your will be done.’ That is difficult. We often ask for what we want, not what God wants. When God does not do what we want, we often say God does not answer our prayer. Maybe His silence is His response to our prayer. We have to be open to the will of God. When you are planning your life for your future, God is laughing at you. He is the one who has the plans for our lives. We have to be willing to accept His plans for us.”
“’Give us this day, our daily bread.’ Again, the plural: ‘our’ daily bread. It does not say give me my daily bread. This means we have to be concerned about bread for all of our brothers and sisters here in Minneapolis and in my country and all over the world. Too many people die of hunger. Many people are needed to work for His kingdom. We need to be concerned about bread for all. We are committing ourselves to work not only for our personal bread, but for bread for all our brothers and sisters.”
“’Forgive us as we forgive others.’ This is also a very difficult challenge. We like to be forgiven, but we do not like to forgive. We thank God for his grace. But Jesus is teaching us to forgive, to understand why our brothers and sisters hurt us. We have to be willing to learn, to be open in love.”
“’Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Or ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.’ What are the temptations? What are the times of trial? They are in this prayer. We are asking God to liberate us from the temptation of not recognizing our brothers and sisters, of not recognizing that we are all members of the family of God. We are asking God to liberate us from the temptation of forgetting God, of not having God in the first place in our lives. We are asking God to help us from wanting to have our will be first, to help us forgive others. We are praying to God to liberate us from the temptation of indulging our own accumulation and not helping our brothers and sisters.”
“For all of us, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, let us remember we are committing ourselves in a very strong way to be His disciples.”
A previous post reviewed the recent U.S. State Department report on Cuban religious freedom while another post critiqued the views on that subject from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The following are comments prompted by three recent articles in Granma, Cuba’s newspaper, about religion in Cuba that are consistent with my experiences on the island and my conclusion that Cuba enjoys significant religious freedom and does not deserve to be criticized on this subject by the U.S.
The first article collects observations on that subject from Cuban religious leaders; the second reviews the recent meeting in Cuba of the Latin American Council of Churches; and the third reports on a visit to Cuba by the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
Religious Freedom in Cuba
The first article from May 9th asserts that “many specialists have noted the increase of religious expression in Cuban public life. The adoption into the Constitution of the secular nature of the state in 1992 facilitated religious freedoms, and two Popes and other eminent foreign religious leaders have since visited the country.” The article supported this assertion with interviews of several Cuban religious leaders.
No Anti-Semitism. At the Beth Shalom Temple in Havana’s El Vedado district, which I have visited, David Prinstein, vice president of the Jewish Community, confirmed that Cuba’s Jews were never persecuted. He said, “In the early days of the Revolution there was a distancing between different religions and the state; if you occupied a leadership position [in the state] you could not be religious, but there was no persecution.” His parents, he explained, were not “practicing Jews but my grandparents, who came to Cuba from Poland, fleeing the Nazis, always went to the synagogue.”
Currently, the Cuban Jewish Community has approximately 1,500 members. There are five synagogues in Cuba, three in Havana, one in Santiago de Cuba and another in Camagüey.”Although it is a small community in terms of numbers, it is strong in terms of what it does and the number of projects and programs in existence,” Prinstein confirms.
One challenge for Cuban Jews is adhering to dietary practices, given that they cannot eat pork, shellfish, scale-less fish, or web-footed poultry. They are assisted in respecting these regulations with allowances made for the only private butcher’s store in the country. “It was established in 1906, and was respected after the triumph of the Revolution,” notes Prinstein.
He also described relations between his community and the Cuban government as excellent. “Even before the [new] Cuban Migration and Travel Law . . ., we were always able to travel to international events to which we had been invited in Latin America, Israel and the [U.S.].”
A New church in Cuba. The Moravian Church began to function in Cuba at the end of the 1990’s. “We started out as a small group meeting together in a house, until we joined the Cuban Council of Churches in 2003 as fraternal associates,” said Armando Rusindo, one of its leaders, and in January 2013 it was registered with the government as an independent entity.
Now Rusindo believes there is “an awakening of faith among Cubans; something that can be noted by the number of people going to church.” Nevertheless, the churches need “to constantly demonstrate what religion can contribute to a nation, by our example, conduct, dedication, and service, derived from our beliefs.”
Cuban Islamic League. There have always been Muslims in Cuba, but for 500 years of history, there was no Muslim religious institution on the island, states Pedro Lazo, president of the Cuban Islamic League, which was officially established in 2007, although there were group meetings prior to that year. “We have been practicing since the 1990’s and we have never had a problem,” he affirmed.
The Islamic League enjoys good relations with all other religions. “Our statutes establish that these relations must be excellent, like those we must have with our neighbors, based on respect, fraternity and cooperation in all contexts.” Moreover, “Government authorities are in favor of people’s total and complete religious freedoms, as confirmed both in the Constitution and in its actions.”
The Martin Luther King Memorial Center. The Center, which I have visited, is a Christian-inspired ecumenical institution that was established in Havana in 1987.
Kirenia Criado Pérez, the director of the Center’s Reflection and Socio-Theological Training Program, believes that it “has helped break down a polarity that still exists in the minds of some people, that Cuban society is one thing and the Church another.” In her opinion, the Center’s social influence does not just come from Biblical, theological and pastoral training, but also from educational projects guided by the ideas of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire.
The Center also works in the area of solidarity, linked to Latin American movements, and is responsible for the Caminos publishing house. Moreover, it has been involved in building homes near the Center and elsewhere, especially after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
Criado believes that, along with other institutions, the Memorial Center has helped people understand that “the Church is another social actor and as such, is responsible for the transformation of reality.” This is especially important as Cuba is going through many changes. “Everyone is thinking about how to change the country, but not everyone wants to move in the same direction. The same thing is happening in the case of the churches. That’s why it is important to understand one another, converse and get rid of old preconceptions.”
Latin American Council of Churches
In early May Cuba hosted the General Assembly of the Latin American Council of Churches, which was founded in 1982 and which comprises 188 Protestant churches and denominations in every country of the region. Its objectives are promoting the unity of God’s people as part of the concept of mission and service to the world; stimulating member churches to unify diakonia (the call to serve the poor) and evangelization; strengthening capacity in advocacy and public, social and political participation of the churches and the Council; promoting reflection and theological dialogue; and training leadership on social issues of development and pastoral work.
The Assembly was attended by 300 religious representatives from 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Bishop Julio Murray of Panama, who was the outgoing president of the organization, said, “Even with so many difficulties due to the U.S. blockade, the churches came together in solidarity in such a strong way and said, “No, we are going to Cuba and we are going to do everything necessary to accompany our sister churches on the island,” in this concrete gesture of solidarity and ecumenicalism. According to Bishop Murray, “the task of the Church [in Latin America] is to continue strengthening as a sign of hope, particularly in the face of situations which resemble a tremendous economic bonanza, but where so many inequalities, inequities and exclusions can be seen.” Therefore, he said, we must “seek the justice that will lead to peace.”
Other participants in the meeting described its taking place in Cuba as a concrete gesture of ecumenicalism, the maxim which guided debates on the current regional situation and challenges for the future, particularly during a historic moment in Latin America.
The new president, Argentine-Ecuadoran Felipe Adolf, stated that being in Cuba was “a very concrete gesture that we wanted to make, in keeping with the maxim of the . . . Assembly: ‘Affirming an ecumenicalism of concrete action.'”
Federico Pagura, Emeritus Bishop of the Argentine Methodist Church, described the choice of Cuba for this meeting as very relevant, adding that the Assembly was a response to actions of the U.S. to prevent its happening, and blocking Cuba’s free relations with the continent and the rest of the world.
The representative of the Anglican Church of Peru, Jaime Sianez, said that by coming to Cuba he hoped to transmit “a message of hope, compassion and loyalty to our Cuban brothers and sisters.”
The Assembly concluded with the adoption of the Havana Consensus that acknowledged that Latin America and the Caribbean had many people (33%) living in poverty and(12.5%) in extreme poverty, a high maternal mortality rate, violence against women, including human trafficking, discrimination against indigenous and African-descendant people and a high number of young people.
Therefore, the Havana Consensus declared that the churches would ” continue working to promote and defend human rights and particularly sexual and reproductive rights, from a theological, pastoral and social [perspective], in the churches, ecumenical organizations and [civil society],” provide pastoral accompaniment to “communities [that] . . . suffer and are hurt by violence, intolerance and lack of justice,” encourage “the leading role of young people as leaders in our faith communities,” and “promote human rights and the eradication of all forms of discrimination, particularly against women, the elderly, the environment, indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, immigrants, lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex . . . and people with disabilities.”
Another concluding document of the Assembly was the Pastoral Letter of Havana voiced similar concerns. It also deplored the U.S. “blockade” against Cuba, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and the U.S. detention and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In addition, the Letter supported the self-determination of the people of Porto Rico and expressed solidarity with the cause of the families of the “Cuban Five” still in U.S. prisons.
World Communion of Reformed Churches
In February Jerry Pillay, the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, spent five days visiting the Cuban Presbyterian and Reformed Church.
He was impressed with that Church’s “numerous programmes [sp.] and projects to support and develop [their] communities.” In particular he praised the project “to supply purified water from taps on church premises” and the Matanzas seminary. (Many of these water projects have been installed by my fellow members of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.) “This water, Pillay said, “is made freely available to the community at large and literally hundreds of people come regularly to fetch water. Although the church is not allowed publicly to ‘evangelize,’ it is projects such as these that enable the church to impact the community with its Christian witness and message.”
Pillay observed that although “the [Cuban] government does not propagate religion, it certainly recognizes that it need the church and other religious bodies to develop the country. Thus they have come up with a number of laws and policies to improve this working relationship and to encourage the financial sustainability of religious bodies so that they are not forever reliant on foreign assistance.”
Pillay met with family members of the “Cuban Five” who are still incarcerated in U.S. prisons. The families “have not been able to visit them . . . because of being denied visas and [other permits]. . . . The pain, suffering and anguish of the families . . . have become a pastoral matter for the church in Cuba.” Therefore, Pillay said at the end of his trip he would “attempt to unite voices and place [this issue, the release of the four Cubans still in prison and ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba] on the agenda of the World Council of Churches, the World Lutheran Federation and other ecumenical organizations.”
The World Communion consists of “Reformed, Congregational, Presbyterian, Waldensian, United and Uniting churches” with 80 million members in 108 countries. They are “joined together in Christ, to promote the renewal and the unity of the church and to participate in God’s transformation of the world.” The World Communion “coordinates joint church initiatives for economic, ecological and gender justice based on the member churches’ common theology and beliefs . . . [and fosters] unity among our member churches and promote economic, social and environmental justice.”
The organization was formed in 2010 through the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. The World Communion and its predecessors have created the following important confessions and statements of faith:
the Belhar Confession that rejects any church doctrine that “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and colour” (1986);
the Accra Confession that declares Christians are called by biblical teachings to be advocates of social and economic justice (2004);
Pillay, the current President of the World Communion, is due to be its General Secretary next year. He is an ordained pastor in the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa and serves as its General Secretary. He also is on the boards of the South African Council of Churches and the National Religious Leaders Forum in South Africa. He holds degrees from the University of Durban-Westville and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
The criticisms of U.S. policies by the Latin American Council of Churches and by the leader of the World Communion, in my opinion, should not be seen as the expressions of anti-U.S. organizations, but rather as expressions of wide-spread opposition in Latin America and the rest of the world to these U.S. policies. As a U.S. citizen I share these opinions.