Even though it's been a little more than a year since the United States and Cuba rebuilt diplomatic relations, the United Church of Christ and Global Ministries have kept up ecumenical partnerships that go back decades. Now, with interest in the island country 90 miles south of Miami growing in the United States, it seems the perfect time to encourage UCC members to experience a deeper understanding and closer connections to the people, and church partners, in Cuba.
"There was a time when almost nobody kept communication with the island. Now, after the President´s declaration, everybody wants to spend some time traveling there," said the Rev. Angel L. Rivera-Agosto, Global Ministries Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Global Ministries, as a witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada and the United Church of Christ in the U.S. has been an invaluable resource to keep relations with Cuba even in times of stress between the two nations, both denouncing the injustice of the economic blockade as well as advocating for establishing new relations between Cuba and the U.S."
In 2017, the UCC relationship with Cuba will grow on three fronts: through continued participation in the UCC Cuba Study Seminar, with a resolution adopted by Southern Conference UCC in June and soon to be forwarded to General Synod for consideration, and with the launch at General Synod of an 18-month Global Ministries Initiative focused on Cuba and six other countries in the Caribbean.
"Cuba just doesn't play by our rules," said the Rev. Tom Warren, pastor of Peace UCC in Greensboro, N.C., and organizer of the UCC Cuban Study Seminar, which has been taking hundreds of interested members to Cuba for more than 30 years. "While standing up to the American empire, Cuba has engaged in acts of revolutionary preservation, keeping a watchful eye on those who dissent or challenge the prevailing post-1959 order. While Cuban civil society has loosened up over the years, it has done so with great care and reluctance. This slow and careful change will continue into the future, with its leadership always working hard to preserve the essence and foundations of the Revolution. Cuba will determine the boundaries of its openness and the extent that it is willing to engage with western powers."
Warren, who has been to Cuba three times and spent more than a month on sabbatical there in 2009, has a sold-out excursion planned for January 2017 and is already taking names for the 2018 study seminar.
"As our friends have told us again and again, life in Cuba is difficult. But as perhaps we are finding out in America, life under a ruling wealthy class is almost unbearable. We live in pharaoh's economy where the only command is to 'Make more bricks!' (Exodus 5: 16), not much of a vision. And as our holy scripture testifies, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.' (Proverbs 29:18) Cuba lives by a vision: a vision of independence and a people-centered order. This vision comes with a cost - and responsibility. When the UCC Cuba Study Seminar travels to Cuba, we do so in a spirit of solidarity; solidarity with their vision, solidarity with their struggle for a social order based on justice, solidarity with their determination to pursue and live their lives on their own terms."
The Rev. Jerry Rhyne, associate moderator of the Southern Conference was with Warren on the 2016 trip in January.
"In preparation for the Cuba seminar study we were asked to read a book by Rev. Ted Braun 'Perspective on Cuba and its People.' After reading the first chapter I was so depressed that I set it aside," said Rhyne. "Eventually I picked it up and finished it and became intrigued with this country and the people I knew so little about. A few days into the tour while having lunch with Connie Larkman and others, she asked what I would take away from my experience in Cuba. My response was immediate. After studying and visiting Cuba I am led to believe that the U.S. blockade of Cuba is immoral and unjust treatment of a country and its people. When I return home I plan to begin working on a resolution to the Southern Conference and then to General Synod 31 asking the UCC to advocate for and petition the United States to lift the blockade/embargo of Cuba." The resolution was adopted by the Southern Conference and preparation is being made to send it to GS 31.
"The trade embargo has placed an enormous burden on the Cuban people, and lifting it is a top priority of our partners," said the Rev. Jim Moos, executive minister of Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries. "It is heartening to see many people across the life of the United Church of Christ advocating that it be lifted; they are responding to the voice of the Cuban people and to the gospel of reconciliation."
Global Ministries partners, the Cuban Council of Churches, the Christian Pentecostal Church of Cuba, Matanzas Seminary, and the Martin Luther King Center, which promotes Christian social responsibility and change in the Havana area, have been actively engaged in cultivating relationships between faith communities in both countries. UCC churches in the South have also partnered with the B.G. Lavistida Christian Center in Santiago de Cuba, which has assisted churches with social responsibility and social justice since 1995.
"Our Cuban partners long to renew and deepen the ties that bind us together," said Moos. "At the same time, they are clear that the relationship must be marked by mutual respect, with each side recognizing the integrity of the other. There can be no political or ecclesial imperialism."
"The new and emerging relationship with the United States has great possibilities for both nations, but only if it is done with the utmost respect and understanding for our different histories and unique visions of the future," said Warren. "American tourists who travel to Cuba expecting a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner will be sorely disappointed...or perhaps pleasantly surprised. Cuba is different and we can benefit greatly by experiencing - and supporting - that difference."