Several delegates to the National Council of Churches visited Cuba late January to take part in the consecration of a New Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Old Havana. More than 2,000 Christians leaders worldwide gathered for the celebration, and realized the importance of maintaining contacts with churches in the small communist nation.
The 30-member NCC delegation, lead by General Secretary Bob Edgar, met with Cuban and other Caribbean and Latin American church leaders for consultation on shared concerns, building on relationships that have been maintained since before the Cuban Revolution.
The NCC delegation also spent Jan. 26-28 in a region-wide consultation hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches, focused on shared pastoral concerns of the church in the context of current U.S.-Latin American relations. Cuban and U.S. church leaders were joined by other Latin American and Caribbean church leaders for the consultation, which sought to develop plans for collaboration in mission and to seek ways to improve relations among their countries.
Upon hearing the Cuban churches’ accounts of the ongoing hardships caused by the U.S.-imposed trade embargo and travel restrictions, the U.S. counterparts offered their prayers and servitude.
Dr. Edgar reflected, "You don't have to love Fidel Castro to love the people of Cuba, and you don't have to love the government's way of operating to see that there are needs in Cuba.
"There is real poverty in Cuba, and that doesn't have to exist," he said. "If the United States changed its attitude toward that nation and gave it support rather than hostility, the quality of life for the people who live in Cuba could be improved. The Soviet Union changed because of the exchange of people and ideas, and I think the same will happen in Cuba."
Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, an Orthodox Christian who is the NCC's Associate General Secretary for International Affairs, observed, "Given the tensions that historically have characterized relations between religion and state in Cuba, for the church to be so publicly welcomed has to bode well for the future of religious freedom and practice there."
The Rev. Carlos Kamps, General Secretary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba and a member of the Executive Council of the Latin American Council of Churches, said, "The gathering was the result of an invitation to accompany our churches and people in a moment of crisis in our homeland, which is happening as a result of the world's worsening political and economic situation. But a crisis also brings new opportunities."
He told the U.S. church leaders that Cuba's churches need their pastoral accompaniment and prayers, and expressed appreciation that "the churches that have always been present with us remain at our side. The NCC has responded as it always has, willing to help the Cuban people."
The Rev. Kamps continued, "The Cuban church is ... a mature church. We are a church that has passed through a period when we at times had to walk alone, a period that we viewed as passing through the desert. But now our churches are full, people are coming to the church, there's a big awakening. God has given us this grace, this sign. We know what we need to do. And we need accompaniment from the other churches in that process."
Heads of Communion who took part in the delegation were: The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (USA), Louisville, Ky.; Dr. Major Jemison, President, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Oklahoma City, Okla.; the Rev. Chris Hobgood, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Indianapolis, Ind., and Washington, D.C.; Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Los Angeles, Calif., and Presiding Bishop George Walker of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Hartford, Ct.
Other church representatives included Bishop Dimitrios, from Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., Ecumenical Officer, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, headquartered in New York City; the Rev. Martin Ritsi, St. Augustine, Fla., Executive Director, Orthodox Christian Mission Center, Eastern Orthodox; the Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, General Secretary, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Washington, D.C.; the Rev. Jhonny Alicea Baez, Latin America Desk, Reformed Church in America, Murrieta, Calif.; Bishop C. Christopher Epting, Ecumenical Officer, The Episcopal Church, New York City.