Pope Francis Reminds Us To Welcome, Protect, Promote and Integrate Refugees and Other Migrants

In 2019, Pope Francis on at least three occasions reminded everyone of the Biblical injunctions to welcome, protect, promote and integrate refugees and migrants. Here are his words on those occasions.

April 30, 2019[1]

The first was on April 30, 2019 when the Pope published his lengthy and moving message for the upcoming 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019.  Here is what he said.

  • “The most economically advanced societies are witnessing a growing trend towards extreme individualism which, combined with a utilitarian mentality and reinforced by the media, is producing a ‘globalization of indifference.’ In this scenario, migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking have become emblems of exclusion. In addition to the hardships that their condition entails, they are often looked down upon and considered the source of all society’s ills. That attitude is an alarm bell warning of the moral decline we will face if we continue to give ground to the throw-away culture. In fact, if it continues, anyone who does not fall within the accepted norms of physical, mental and social well-being is at risk of marginalization and exclusion.” (Emphasis added.)
  • The “presence of migrants and refugees – and of vulnerable people in general – is an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society. That is why it is not just about migrants. When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow; in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well regarded nowadays.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “’Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!’ (Mt14:27). It is not just about migrants: it is also about our fears. The signs of meanness we see around us heighten ‘our fear of ‘the othe,’ the unknown, the marginalized, the foreigner… We see this today in particular, faced with the arrival of migrants and refugees knocking on our door in search of protection, security and a better future. To some extent, the fear is legitimate, also because the preparation for this encounter is lacking” (Homily in Sacrofano, 15 February 2019). But the problem is not that we have doubts and fears. The problem is when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even – without realizing it – racist. In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other, the person different from myself; it deprives me of an opportunity to encounter the Lord.” (Emphases added.)
  • “’For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?’ (Mt5:46). It is not just about migrants: it is about charity. Through works of charity, we demonstrate our faith (cf. Jas 2:18). And the highest form of charity is that shown to those unable to reciprocate and perhaps even to thank us in return. ‘It is also about the face we want to give to our society and about the value of each human life… The progress of our peoples… depends above all on our openness to being touched and moved by those who knock at our door. Their faces shatter and debunk all those false idols that can take over and enslave our lives; idols that promise an illusory and momentary happiness blind to the lives and sufferings of others.’” (Emphasis added.)
  • “’But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight’ (Lk10:33). It is not just about migrants: it is about our humanity. Compassion motivated that Samaritan – for the Jews, a foreigner – not to pass by. Compassion is a feeling that cannot be explained on a purely rational level. Compassion strikes the most sensitive chords of our humanity, releasing a vibrant urge to ‘be a neighbor’ to all those whom we see in difficulty. As Jesus himself teaches us (cf. Mt9:35-36; 14:13-14; 15:32-37), being compassionate means recognizing the suffering of the other and taking immediate action to soothe, heal and save. To be compassionate means to make room for that tenderness which today’s society so often asks us to repress. ‘Opening ourselves to others does not lead to impoverishment, but rather enrichment, because it enables us to be more human: to recognize ourselves as participants in a greater collectivity and to understand our life as a gift for others; to see as the goal, not our own interests, but rather the good of humanity.’” (Emphasis added.)
  • “’See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father’ (Mt18:10). It is not just about migrants: it is a question of seeing that no one is excluded. Today’s world is increasingly becoming more elitist and cruel towards the excluded. Developing countries continue to be drained of their best natural and human resources for the benefit of a few privileged markets. Wars only affect some regions of the world, yet weapons of war are produced and sold in other regions which are then unwilling to take in the refugees produced by these conflicts. Those who pay the price are always the little ones, the poor, the most vulnerable, who are prevented from sitting at the table and are left with the ‘crumbs’ of the banquet (cf. Lk 16:19-21). ‘The Church which ‘goes forth’… can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 24). A development that excludes makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. A real development, on the other hand, seeks to include all the world’s men and women, to promote their integral growth, and to show concern for coming generations.” (Emphases added.)
  • “’Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all’ (Mk10:43-44).It is not just about migrants: it is about putting the last in first place. Jesus Christ asks us not to yield to the logic of the world, which justifies injustice to others for my own gain or that of my group. ‘Me first, and then the others!’ Instead, the true motto of the Christian is, ‘The last shall be first!’ ‘An individualistic spirit is fertile soil for the growth of that kind of indifference towards our neighbors which leads to viewing them in purely economic terms, to a lack of concern for their humanity, and ultimately to feelings of fear and cynicism. Are these not the attitudes we often adopt towards the poor, the marginalized and the ‘least’ of society? And how many of these ‘least’ do we have in our societies! Among them I think primarily of migrants, with their burden of hardship and suffering, as they seek daily, often in desperation, a place to live in peace and dignity.’ In the logic of the Gospel, the last come first, and we must put ourselves at their service.” (Emphases added.)
  • “’So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God’ (Eph2:19). It is not just about migrants: it is about building the city of God and man. In our time, which can also be called the era of migration, many innocent people fall victim to the ‘great deception’ of limitless technological and consumerist development (cf. Laudato Si’, 34). As a result, they undertake a journey towards a ‘paradise’ that inevitably betrays their expectations. Their presence, at times uncomfortable, helps to debunk the myth of a progress that benefits a few while built on the exploitation of many. ‘We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved. They are an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community.’” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Dear brothers and sisters, our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. Yet these verbs do not apply only to migrants and refugees. They describe the Church’s mission to all those living in the existential peripheries, who need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. If we put those four verbs into practice, we will help build the city of God and man. We will promote the integral human development of all people. We will also help the world community to come closer to the goals of sustainable development that it has set for itself and that, lacking such an approach, will prove difficult to achieve.” (Emphases added.)
  • “In a word, it is not only the cause of migrants that is at stake; it is not just about them, but about all of us, and about the present and future of the human family. Migrants, especially those who are most vulnerable, help us to read the ‘signs of the times.’ Through them, the Lord is calling us to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference and the throw-away culture. Through them, the Lord invites us to embrace fully our Christian life and to contribute, each according to his or her proper vocation, to the building up of a world that is more and more in accord with God’s plan.” (Emphasis added.)

September 29, 2019[2]

The second was the Pope’s Homily at Holy Mass on September 29, 2019 (the actual 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019).

The Pope said, “The Lord upholds the stranger as well as the widow and the orphan among his people. The Psalmist makes explicit mention of those persons who are especially vulnerable, often forgotten and subject to oppression. The Lord has a particular concern for foreigners, widows and orphans, for they are without rights, excluded and marginalized. This is why God tells the Israelites to give them special care.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the Book of Exodus, the Lord warns his people not to mistreat in any way widows and orphans, for he hears their cry (cf. 22:23). Deuteronomy sounds the same warning twice (cf. 24:17; 27:19), and includes strangers among this group requiring protection. The reason for that warning is explained clearly in the same book: the God of Israel is the one who ‘executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing’ (10:18). This loving care for the less privileged is presented as a characteristic trait of the God of Israel and is likewise required, as a moral duty, of all those who would belong to his people.” (Emphases added.)

That is why we must pay special attention to the strangers in our midst as well as to widows, orphans and all the outcasts of our time. In the Message for this 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the theme “It is not Just about Migrants” is repeated as a refrain. And rightly so: it is not only about foreigners; it is about all those in existential peripheries who, together with migrants and refugees, are victims of the throwaway culture. The Lord calls us to practice charity towards them. He calls us to restore their humanity, as well as our own, and to leave no one behind.” (Emphases added.)

“Along with the exercise of charity, the Lord also invites us to think about the injustices that cause exclusion – and in particular the privileges of the few, who, in order to preserve their status, act to the detriment of the many. ‘Today’s world is increasingly becoming more elitist and cruel towards the excluded:’ this is a painful truth; our world is daily more and more elitist, more cruel towards the excluded. ‘Developing countries continue to be drained of their best natural and human resources for the benefit of a few privileged markets. Wars only affect some regions of the world, yet weapons of war are produced and sold in other regions which are then unwilling to take in the refugees generated by these conflicts. Those who pay the price are always the little ones, the poor, the most vulnerable, who are prevented from sitting at the table and are left with the ‘crumbs’ of the banquet.’” (Emphases added.)

“It is in this context that the harsh words of the Prophet Amos (6:1.4-7) should be understood. Woe to those who are at ease and seek pleasure in Zion, who do not worry about the ruin of God’s people, even though it is in plain sight. They do not notice the destruction of Israel because they are too busy ensuring that they can still enjoy the good life, delicious food and fine drinks. It is striking how, twenty-eight centuries later, these warnings remain as timely as ever. For today too, the ‘culture of comfort… makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people… which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference.’” (Emphasis added.)

“In the end, we too risk becoming like that rich man in the Gospel who is unconcerned for the poor man Lazarus, ‘covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table’ (Lk 16:20-21). Too intent on buying elegant clothes and organizing lavish banquets, the rich man in the parable is blind to Lazarus’s suffering. Overly concerned with preserving our own well-being, we too risk being blind to our brothers and sisters in difficulty.” (Emphasis added.)

Yet, as Christians, we cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty, to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those who do not belong to ‘our’ group. We cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people. We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond. Let us ask the Lord for the grace of tears, the tears that can convert our hearts before such sins.” (Emphasis added.)

“If we want to be men and women of God, as Saint Paul urges Timothy, we must ‘keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Tm 6:14). The commandment is to love God and love our neighbor; the two cannot be separated! Loving our neighbor as ourselves means being firmly committed to building a more just world, in which everyone has access to the goods of the earth, in which all can develop as individuals and as families, and in which fundamental rights and dignity are guaranteed to all.” (Emphasis added.)

Loving our neighbor means feeling compassion for the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, drawing close to them, touching their sores and sharing their stories, and thus manifesting concretely God’s tender love for them. This means being a neighbor to all those who are mistreated and abandoned on the streets of our world, soothing their wounds and bringing them to the nearest shelter, where their needs can be met.” (Emphasis added.)

“God gave this holy commandment to his people and sealed it with the blood of his Son Jesus, to be a source of blessing for all mankind. So that all together we can work to build the human family according to his original plan, revealed in Jesus Christ: all are brothers and sisters, all are sons and daughters of the same Father.”

“Today we also need a mother. So we entrust to the maternal love of Mary, Our Lady of the Way, of so many painful journeys, all migrants and refugees, together with those who live on the peripheries of our world and those who have chosen to share their journey.” (Emphasis added.)

December 25, 2019[3]

On December 25, the Pope delivered his annual Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and to the World) message to the assembled faithful, pilgrims and others in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

The Pope prayed,  “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life.  It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries.  It is injustice that forces them to endure unspeakable forms of abuse, enslavement of every kind and torture in inhumane detention camps.  It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.” (Emphasis added.)

The Prayer concluded with these words, “May Emmanuel bring light to all the suffering members of our human family.  May he soften our often stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love.  May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence.”

“Through our frail hands,” the Pope concluded, “may He clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick.  Through our friendship, such as it is, may He draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may He bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.”

Conclusion

Thank you, Pope Francis, for eloquently and persistently reminding everyone of why we should welcome, protect, promote and integrate refugees and other immigrants.

Other Christian leaders have issued similar statements supporting refugees and migrants.[4] Leaders of other religious traditions, especially Judaism and Islam, are invited to add their voices in comments to this blog post.

All of these theological words also are relevant to the ongoing debate in the U.S. about whether state and local governments should consent to refugee resettlement, as discussed in previous blog posts,[5] and should be used to encourage the remaining 16 U.S. states to join the 34 other states that already have so consented.

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[1] Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019, Holy See (April 30, 2019).  Pope Francis since at least 2013 annually has composed messages for the annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees. (E.g., Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018, Holy See (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] Homily of Pope Francis, Holy Mass on the Occasion of World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Holy See (Sept. 29, 2019).

[3]  Pope Francis, “Urbi et Orbi” Message of His Holiness Pope Francis, Holy See (Dec. 25, 2019); Pope at ‘Urbi et Orbi’ prays for the suffering children of the world, Vatican News (Dec. 25, 2019); Momigliano & Povoledo, Pope Francis, in Christmas Speech, Urges Nations to Tend to Refugees, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2019);  Reuters, Pope Defends Migrants, Calls for Peace in Christmas Message, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2019); Assoc. Press, Pope Offers Hope Against Darkness in Christmas Day Message, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2019).

[4] E.g., PCUSA, Reflection and Prayer for World Refugee Day; Refugee Outreach, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table Urge Governors in 15 States to Accept Refugees (Dec. 11, 2019); An open letter regarding refugee resettlement from Minnesota’s Catholic and Lutheran bishops (Dec. 27, 2019).

[5] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Sets 18,000 Quota for New Refugee Admissions to U.S. for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 4, 2019; U.S. Senators Oppose U.S.Reduction in Refugee Admissions for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 11, 2019);Latest U.S. Struggle Over Refugees (Dec. 11, 2019); Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees (Dec. 14, 2019); Updates on States’ Consents to Refugee Resettlement (Dec. 16, 2019); Tennessee Consents to Refugees Resettlement (Dec. 20, 2019); Another Update on States’ Consents to Refugees Resettlement (Dec. 30, 2019);  U.S. State and Local Governments’ Justifications for Consenting to Resettlement of Refugees (Dec. 31, 2019).

 

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: 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.

 

Affirmations of Faith at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church Chapel

Another important part of the worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is the congregational unison recitation of an Affirmation of Faith. This is usually done on the second and third Sundays of each month.

There are many sources for such an affirmation: the Bible and confessions and statements of faith from the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and from other denominations.

Here are three examples of such affirmations.

On September 9, 2012, the following passage from Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians was used:

  • “Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Amen. (Col. 1:15-20)

On September 16th we recited the following New Creed of 1968 from the United Church of Canada:[1]

  • “We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church:  to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

On October 14th we used the following passage from the 1983 Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): [2]

  • “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve. . . . With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[1] The United Church of Canada is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada with nearly three million people in over 3,500 congregations. The United Church was inaugurated on June 10, 1925 when the Methodist Church, Canada, the Congregational Union of Canada, 70 per cent of the Presbyterian Church of Canada and the General Council of Union Churches entered into an organic union.

[2]  The Brief Statement of Faithwas prepared in 1983 at the time of the creation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America with congregations in every state and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, whose churches were in Southern and border states. The Brief Statement was intended to unite the new merged church with one agreed upon statement of faith.