Written by Connie Larkman
As President Trump mulls over rolling back changes in the United States' relationship with Cuba, there are hundreds of people in the United Church of Christ advocating a move forward toward normalizing relations between the two countries.
In fact, many in the UCC who have spent time in Cuba are looking forward to welcoming friends from the island nation to the U.S., the Southern Conference of the UCC and to General Synod in Baltimore at the end of the month.
The Reverends Gisela and Elmer Lavastida, longtime supporters and friends of the UCC Cuba Study Seminar, leaders of the Second Baptist Church EL Salvador in Santiago and founders of the B.G. Lavastida Center for Christian Service, are progressive pillars of the Christian community in Cuba. They are coming to this country the week of June 19 at the invitation of their hosts in the Southern Conference, the Rev. Jerry Rhyne, minister of church affairs of the Southern Conference, and the Rev. Tom Warren, pastor of Peace UCC in Greensboro, N.C., and director of the UCC Cuba Study Seminar.
Rev. Elmer Lavastida, Rev. Gisela Lavastida, Rev. Glenna Tillery Shepherd, and Rev. Tom Warren.
These special guests will spend a few days at the UCC Southern Conference Annual Meeting, June 22-24 in Virginia Beach, Va., preaching at Peace UCC, and attending a Cuban dinner fundraiser that will support a Youth Work Camp (sponsored by Peace UCC) that will take place July 8-16 in Santiago. After General Synod the couple heads to Pleasant Hill, Tenn., and Pleasant Hill Community Church UCC, pastored by Cuba Study Seminar alum, the Rev. Glenna Tillery Shepherd, for a program there July 7-9 on the Uplands Village campus.
"With the Lavastidas at both the General Synod and the Southern Conference Annual Meeting, we have the opportunity to further grow in our understanding of the Cuban reality, current and historical Cuban-U.S. relations, and the mutual joys and challenges that the Christian church is facing in these tumultuous days," said Warren. "The Cuban church has much to teach us about persevering, and thriving, in difficult times."
"We are elated at the possibility of this exchange with the wide family of the UCC in the USA," said Rev. Elmer Lavastida. "In a time of so much fragmentation and violence, the historical example of the UCC during a 60-year period, which means two generations ago, leads our American continent (North, Central and South) as a powerful beam of light for the ecumenical movement."
Rev. Jerry Rhyne and Rev. Elmer Lavastida.
Rhyne is also elated the Lavistidas will be at General Synod when the UCC's governing body take up a resolution in support of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba: Bring down the Wall in the Caribbean.' He is the author of the resolution, brought by the Southern Conference, and said the idea for the resolution came to him while in Cuba in 2016, as a participant in the Cuba Study Seminar.
"The Lavistidas presence here will give us an opportunity to hear first-hand about their life and history," he said. "Their presence at General Synod will give them an opportunity to share their story and perspective with a wider audience. And their presence with the Resolution Committee will allow them to answer questions and offer their story and reflection on Cuba that is not always expressed in national media."
"We are honored to have them in our midst with all the faithfulness, wisdom, and tenacity that they bring to our very important denominational meeting," said Warren. "We are especially excited to have the Rev. Gisela Lavastida with us as she was the first woman ordained in the Cuban Christian context and continues to be a powerful inspiration to many Cuban women, both within and outside the church. Her status as an ordained woman has continued to be a source of inspiration and challenge to the Cuban church. She is a sister in the struggle for women's equality which our United Church of Christ has been waging for many years."
B.G. Lavastida Center for Christian Service
"At this critical moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, our coming together voices a strong will of two peoples that believe in solidarity and peace as the only ingredients of the survival of humanity," said Rev. Elmer. "And we will not only express desires, but engage in specific plans and projects."
One of those projects: a Youth Work Camp to Santiago that Peace UCC is leading in July. The team from North Carolina will be working on a building expansion project for the Lavastida Center, where participating youth will work side-by-side with Cuban youth and Lavastida Center staff members, while having plenty of time to learn about Cuban history, the day-to-day joys and struggles of life in Cuba, and to visit some of the tourist destinations in the historically rich Santiago area.
Next January, the UCC Cuba Study Seminar will continue its 30-plus years of engagement with the Cuban people during a 15-day cultural immersion trip. More information on this is available by contacting Rev. Tom Warren. These opportunities, along with the Cuban component of the Global Ministries Caribbean Initiative, reveal the depth of commitment and growing solidarity that the United Church of Christ has with the people of Cuba.
"Our trip a year ago to Cuba led by Pastor Tom was impressive and an eye-opener," said Knowlton Foote, a participant in the 2016 Cuba Study Seminar. "President Trump will announce his decision on U.S.-Cuba relations in a week or two. It does not look positive. But I am reminded of the wonderful quote by Rev. Ted Braun after his meeting with Fidel Castro in June 1998: 'I was struck anew by the major role the church can play when nations fail to work well with one another.'"
"With all of these ongoing and newly initiated programs related to Cuba, it is with bated breath that we await the promised policy changes toward Cuba coming from the Trump administration," said Warren. "President Trump has said he will turn back many of the openings and new agreements that were instituted by President Obama. Such regressive policy-making will only set back and further antagonize U.S.- Cuban relations. While the severity of these changes is yet to be known, the United Church of Christ will remain engaged with the Cuban church and its people regardless of changes in U.S. policy. We have been, and will continue to be, bridge builders with both the Cuban church and the Cuban people as a whole."
As Rhyne said, "It is hopeful that our actions as a people of faith will further the cause for renewed diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and Cuba."