Reunion commemorates 25 years of Study Seminar bridge-building delegations
"Vote for Freedom," read the bumper sticker on a Neon sedan in the Tennessee parking lot. "Lift the travel ban to Cuba."
That sentiment dominated the 25th anniversary reunion, June 25-27, of 62 persons who have traveled to Cuba with the UCC Cuba Study Seminar led by the Rev. Ted Braun. Altogether more than 400 persons have participated in the tours.
Braun, who served 18 years as pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd UCC in Carbondale, Ill., now lives at UCC-related Uplands Retirement Village in Pleasant Hill, Tenn., where the reunion was held. Pleasant Hill (Tenn.) Community UCC, located on the Uplands campus, co-sponsored the event. Forty- one church members, including the pastor, the Rev. Tom Warren, have been to Cuba.
"I think it's very exciting that people are still concerned about Cuba," said the Rev. Elice Higginbotham of New York City. "But it's incredibly sad that the U.S. embargo against Cuba is still in effect."
Instituted in 1962 during the Kennedy administration, the economic embargo was an attempt to make living conditions so bad for ordinary Cubans that they would overthrow Fidel Castro. Relaxed by the Carter administration, it was reestablished during the Reagan years, and tightened in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
For 12 consecutive years, the United Nations General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly for an end to the four-decades-old embargo. In November 2003, only three nations—the United States, Israel and the Marshall Islands—opposed the motion.
Braun first traveled to Cuba in 1979 on a UCC tour that Higginbotham led at the invitation of the Ecumenical Council of Cuba.
"Practically everyone in this room can say that Ted Braun took them to Cuba," she told the group. "But I'm the only one that can say that I took Ted Braun to Cuba," she added with a laugh.
"It was so exciting to see what was happening in Cuba as an alternative way to organize society," said Braun, "that I thought, ÔMore people should find out about this.'" When he learned that the UCC had no plans for more such tours, Braun decided to lead his own, with the blessing of the UCC's former United Church Board for World Ministries.
"We have a well-rounded program that we've organized ourselves," Braun explained, "one that's completely licensed and legal. In our two weeks, we not only meet with church people in churches and in homes, but we also have an introduction to Cuba's health, education and welfare programs as well as cultural events, such as the National Chorus and the ballet."
Embargo affects reunion
The event's two main speakers from Cuba, the Rev. Elmer Lavastida and the Rev. Gisela Perez, were not permitted to come. The two are husband and wife co-pastors of Second Baptist Church in Santiago de Cuba, the sister church of the Pleasant Hill congregation. In April, they had received word from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that their visas had been approved.
But when the current Bush administration tightened the embargo on June 1 (see related story), including travel restrictions, the promised visas never arrived.
The remaining two speakers were Karen Wald, a journalist and author of "Children of Che: Child Care and Education in Cuba," and Lisa Valanti, founder and president of the U.S.- Cuba Sister Cities Association and associated for many years with Pastors for Peace. The duo more than filled the gap with their passion, their enthusiasm and their breadth of knowledge about life in Cuba.
Wald has been reporting on Cuba for 30 years, living there for 20 of them. "The Bush administration doesn't want anyone to see that a poor, little nation can have national health care as a right, universal education and a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent," she said.
Valanti held the audience spellbound as she described having her right arm twisted behind her back and her shoulder dislocated by a U.S. border official. As part of a Pastors for Peace caravan, she was trying to cross into Mexico to deliver powdered milk, Bibles and bicycles to Cuba.
Calls to action
The event concluded with a strategy session as to next steps. High on the list were to work to end the embargo, to visit Cuba and urge critics and skeptics to visit Cuba and to pray for those in both governments who could change U.S.-Cuba policy.
Both Valanti and Wald encouraged people to try to start sister-city relationships. "This really helps to break down stereotypes," Valanti said.
In honor of Braun, the group presented him with nearly $3,000 to establish a Cuba book fund at Pleasant Hill Community UCC. The fund will provide three Spanish-language books—a Bible dictionary, a concordance and a book on preaching—for each new graduate of Matanzas Seminary in Cuba. This year's class had 24 graduates.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder, Editor Emeritus of United Church News, visited Cuba in 1998 with the Cuba Study Seminar.
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To learn about the UCC Cuba Study Seminars, contact the Rev. Ted Braun, P.O. Box 330, Pleasant Hill, TN 38578; 931-277-5135; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The next seminar is scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 15, 2005.
To learn about the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association, contact Lisa Valanti, president, 320 Lowenhill St., Pittsburgh, PA 15216; 412-563-1519; e-mail USCSCA@aol.com; website USCSCA.org.
To contribute to the Matanzas Seminary book fund, send checks to Pleasant Hill Community UCC, P.O. Box 167, Pleasant Hill, TN 38578, earmarked "Cuba Book Fund."