On February 23-25, 2009 I visited Cuba at the invitation of Bishop Ricardo Pereira Diaz for the purpose of making a visit to the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban government to discuss the covenant between the Methodist Church in Cuba and the Florida Conference. The government had had several conversations with Bishop Pereira regarding its concerns about the covenant, and it wanted to meet with both of us since neither of us were the original signers of the covenant.
Our meeting took place on Monday, February 23rd. Bishop Pereira and I met with Mrs. Caridad Diego, head of the Office of Religious Affairs, and two of her assistants. It became clear early in the meeting that the government had already made some decisions, and the purpose of the meeting was to inform us that changes would have to be made in the structure of the relationship between our two churches.
From the government's perspective, the covenant has accomplished its purpose and has come to an end. At the same time, the government affirms the international relations of Cuban churches, and it understands the historic roots of relationships, such as the one between our two Methodist bodies. We were told more than once that the Cuban government wants Florida Methodists and Cuban Methodists to continue our relationship, but we should no longer use the word "covenant," and we should expect some changes in the way our relationship will proceed in the future.
My interpretation is that there have been incidents which have come to the attention of the government which have caused concern to the government. When government officials have asked the Office of Religious Affairs why United Methodists in Florida are in Cuba, they have been informed that there is a "covenant" between the two groups. I think the word "covenant" has the connotation of a special privilege, and the government is announcing that there will no longer be a "covenant" because there will be no special privileges enjoyed by our two churches, although we will be permitted to have a relationship equivalent to the relationships between other Cuban churches and their partners outside the nation.
What should we expect? I do not know. Bishop Pereira and I think that in the future there will be fewer visas granted to United Methodists and that visits and gifts of money will have to be arranged and controlled through the office of Bishop Pereira. He will be asked to meet with the Office of Religious Affairs to learn the expectations of the government regarding future contacts between our two churches. Probably our visits will be handled in a way similiar to the visits of United Methodist Volunteers in Missions.
The good news is that the government has affirmed that it favors a continuing relationship between the Methodist Church in Cuba and the Florida Conference. We are eager to discover the government's expectations and to begin to have visits between members of our two churches once more.
While I was in Cuba, I met with the board of the church to hear about the life and mission of the Methodist Church in Cuba and about the wonderful work accomplished by districts and congregations from Florida. The church is well-organized and vibrant. It has 121 temples or public buildings for worship, but a new 800 seat facility is being built as the 122nd temple. There are 750 missions and 1600 house churches. (Missions have about twelve or more members and a pastor, and they may become churches in the future.) A key feature of the life of the churches is holding prominent baptismal services to celebrate the new life of new disciples of Jesus Christ. Worship continues to be a high priority of the churches; not only are they intentional in having joyous music, but they are also intentional in continuing the use of historic Christian liturgies to ground the church in the larger Christian tradition and Methodist heritage. A strong missional focus of the churches is outreach to persons with needs, including alcoholics, the deaf, the blind, others with disabilities, and people with financial crises. I assured the board of the love of the United Methodists in Florida, and we prayed for the faithfulness and fruitfulness of both of our churches.
Bishop Pereira and his spouse invited Mr. Jonathan Farrar, the head of the Mission of the Interests Section of the United States (our virual consulate), and his spouse to a luncheon. We had a good discussion of religous affairs in Cuba and the life of Cuban society. I was very impressed by Mr. Farrar and also his spouse, who is very active as a volunteer in church ministries to the poor.
I visited the site of the new Methodist Evangelical Seminary in the historic section of Havanna. The building had been used by the government for decades, and it had deteriorated. The church has made much progress in reviving the building and beginning this new school. The seminary is designed to meet the needs of students who are already serving as pastors. While the Methodist Church continues to have a legal connection to the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, its energies are being dedicated to this school, which will be designed to better meet the needs of the Methodists in Cuba. Dr. Fletcher Anderson, a member of our conference, is living at the new seminary and teaching courses in Hebrew and in Methodist history. It was a joy to visit with Fletcher, one of the great servants of Jesus Christ and of our church. I also enjoyed being with the Rev. Roberto Chaple, my translator, and a teacher of Old Testament in the new seminary.
The Methodist Church in Cuba is grateful for the gift of $72,000.00 from United Methodists in Florida following the devastating hurricanes of 2008. Progress in reconstruction is proceeding, but, as usual, it will takes years before the recovery is complete in the most hard hit areas. Our gifts are being used primarily in Camaguey and Holguin. They are helping rebuild churches and to provide food and mattresses to victims of the disaster. One of the significant ministries of their disaster effort is to care for families where children died in the storms. Thanks to all who contributed to this fund.
I believe that God has blessed the relationship between our two churches. Strong friendships in Christ have been developed between the members of our two churches. We share a common heritage and a common committment to advancing the cause of Christ in our region of the world. We look forward to continuing our relationship as we make adjustments in its structure. Most of all, let us continue to interceed for our brothers and sisters in the Methodist Church in Cuba and in the Republic of Cuba.