Presidential order re-opens U.S.-Cuba religious exchanges
Written by Jeff Woodard
January 25, 2011

The CEO and executive director of faith-based humanitarian agency Church World Service (CWS) says the White House executive order this month to ease travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba for religious, educational and cultural exchanges signals "the beginning of a new era of relations between the U.S. and Cuba."

In a Jan. 18 letter to President Obama, the Rev. John J. McCullough expressed appreciation and "profound joy" on behalf of the agency and its 37 member communions and partner ecumenical organizations – including the United Church of Christ – in Latin America and the Caribbean, praising an order that allows remittances to religious institutions in Cuba that support religious activities.

"At this time of rapid growth among Cuban churches, your prescient and important action will finally allow U.S. churches and ecumenical institutions to accompany, support and mutually benefit from unrestricted fellowship with our Cuban church partners," McCullough wrote in the letter. "It will enable church relations that are more than just historic, but which are vital also to the well-being of our churches and the ministries we serve."

Since 1957, CWS has served as the primary agency through which the UCC gives support for disaster relief and recovery efforts.

Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister of Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries, noted that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the State Department rescinded general licenses that for many years had enabled religious denominations to take groups to visit churches in Cuba. Wider Church Ministries held the license for the UCC.

"We are happy that President Obama's executive order will facilitate more church partner visits between the U.S. and Cuba," said Rogers-Witte.

Mari Castellanos, policy advocate for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries Domestic Issues Program Team based in Washington, D.C., noted that the executive order also means that charter flights from the U.S. to Cuba now include all international U.S. airports.

"These may facilitate joint religious gatherings between the U.S. and Cuban faithful, as well as offer opportunities for theological exchanges," says Castellanos.

An executive order attains a goal with fewer obstacles, said LaMarco Cable, program associate for advocacy and education for Global Ministries, the common witness of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "For the church, this is great. We celebrate this as an opportunity for people to travel to Cuba."

However, Cable – whose work focuses on Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa – added that executive orders can have limits. "Passing a bill in the House and the Senate is the only way to enact permanent law. Executive orders can only be effective as long as that person is in office. So, it's bittersweet. There is still work to do as a church."

To McCullough, the timing of the order could not have been better.

"This is a critical time to open the doors to allow greater people-to-people engagement of all kinds and at all levels between the two countries," said McCullough, adding that the timing of the Executive Order coincided perfectly with a somber moment in which the nation reflected on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

McCullough also thanked the president in his letter for helping to foster an environment in which the Department of State is also more likely to grant visas to Cuban pastors and religious leaders for travel to the United States.

"I note in particular the ability of officials of the Cuban Council of churches to travel to New Orleans for the National Council of Churches-Church World Service General Assembly, and afterward to Washington, D.C., where they were cordially received by Mr. Daniel Restrepo in his National Security Council office," said McCullough.

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