In a way, it was a fitting entourage led by a United Methodist bishop born in America and the Florida Conference director of Global Missions returning to her native country.
The two were part of a small group that marked the 130th anniversary of Methodism in Cuba with a trip to that island nation about 100 miles from the Sunshine State.
Florida's role in the Methodist movement there is significant.
|Bishop Ken Carter and others from the Florida Conference participate in worship under a tent with a mission group from the Methodist Church of Marianao as part of a 130th anniversary of Methodism in Cuba. Photo by Icel Rodriguez.|
Natives of Cuba who had relocated in Florida and converted to Methodism were the first to return and introduce the Wesleyan theology to the island in 1883. About 15 years later followed the first American Methodist missionaries, including some from Florida.
"I was honored to preach on the 130th anniversary of Methodism in Cuba, the 115th anniversary of Florida Methodist missionaries in Cuba and the 15th anniversary of the Florida Conference Covenant [Methodists United In Prayer] with Cuba," said Bishop Ken Carter in an email after his first visit to Cuba following his 2012 appointment to lead the Florida Conference.
The bishop preached sermons tying in the 275th anniversary of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience to groups from a large congregation in Marianao and a church in central Havana.
Joining him on the five-day trip in late May were Icel Rodriguez, Global Missions director; Mike Kennedy, the conference's Global Missions and Justice Committee chairperson; and Rev. Jaime Faberlle, senior pastor at Christ to the Nations, Orlando. The group met with the Cabinet and Council on Ministries of the Methodist Church and did some sightseeing in Havana, as well as attended worship services, Rodriguez said.
For Rodriguez, who hails from Santa Clara, Cuba, the trip was also meaningful on a personal level.
"My great-grandfather became a Methodist 115 years ago, when pioneer American missionary Sterling Augustus Neblett reached out to him with the good news of Jesus Christ," she said.
Her family remained true to that faith through the generations, she said.
The Methodist Church in Cuba faced some challenges during that time, however. Many worshipers left Cuba during the 1960s and '70s in the face of a Communist government that many found oppressive.
Church historians say Methodism has seen a strong revival in Cuba since the 1990s, when religious restrictions there were eased. Rodriguez said she learned the following while there:
• There are more than 350 Methodist churches and 600 missions in Cuba. As of late 2011, there were 32,000 members and 45,000 people in worship attendance.
• In the last 10 years, the church has grown by 10 percent each year, and more than 90 percent of communities in Cuba have some kind of Methodist presence.
• More than 60 percent are younger than 30.
• The church centers on evangelism, service and prayer, along with leadership training and theological education. The Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Havana this year celebrated its first class graduation, which had more than 40 pastors.
Carter said he was impressed with what he saw on the visit, which included participation in a house church.
"The Cuban Methodists have rediscovered how to form new communities of Christian disciples … and how to call forth the gifts of a younger generation," he said.
"They are open to the Holy Spirit, which includes engaging worship that leads to personal and social holiness."
He said he was grateful for the hospitality of Bishop Ricardo Pereira of Cuba. (Click here for a video of Bishop Pereira discussing the phenomenal growth of Methodism since 1999.)
"I also give thanks for the many Cuban pastors and leaders in the Florida Conference and for the sister church relationships that exist across our two regions," the bishop wrote.
Faberlle said he was honored to serve as the bishop's translator, and the visit was so moving that he plans to broach the idea of forming a sister partnership with a congregation in Cuba when the Christ to the Nations leadership team meets.
"I had never been to Cuba, yet had heard dozens of colleagues in ministry share about the move of God in the beautiful country," he said by email.
"The spirit of God is doing amazing things among our Cuban brethren in spite of difficult circumstances. … I was beyond encouraged by the ardent faith of our brothers and sisters and at the same time, challenged to intercede all the more for a similar move of God within the Florida Conference."
Rodriguez said Methodists in both countries benefit from sister partnerships, particularly when they visit back and forth.
In Cuba, she said, "the fire of the Holy Spirit is in them, and the passion of reaching out to the lost. … That is contagious to me."
The Florida Conference Global Missions ministry page shows about 180 United Methodist churches in Florida have partnered with a sister church in Cuba, which can mean travel and exchange of ideas or assistance with material needs signaled by the church leadership.
"I see many more years of a deep relationship and transformation for both parties [Florida and Cuba]," Rodriguez said.
For information about mission trips and sister districts in Cuba, click here.
Susan Green is the editor of Florida Conference Connection.