Florida leaders say Castro’s retirement will have little impact on church, covenant



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Florida leaders say Castro’s retirement will have little impact on church, covenant

March 3, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0807}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

Three members of the Florida Conference with close connections to Cuba believe Cuban President Fidel Castro’s retirement will mean little politically in the short term.

They also say the church will persevere, regardless of what happens.

Methodists in both Cuba and Florida have had a special relationship for more than a century, made even stronger with the signing of the Cuba-Florida Covenant in 1997. Through the covenant both Cuban and Florida Conference churches have pledged to pray for each other, exchange work teams, offer training and discipleship, and develop other key initiatives to foster an ongoing and deepening relationship between Florida Conference congregations and those in Cuba that have formed “sister” relationships. Hundreds of laity and clergy have made caravans to Cuba during the past decade.

Members of First United Methodist Church of Lutz, Fla., help members of El Bon Methodist Church, their sister church in Cuba, prepare land in the back of the Cuban church for a sports day for children. More than 250 children and adults from the community attended the outreach effort, which was one of the many cooperative ministries that took place during the Florida church’s caravan to Cuba last January. The black T-shirts were brought by caravan members. Photo courtesy of Renee Kincaid. Photo #08-0763.

Renee Kincaid, a Cuban native and Tampa resident serving as secretary of the covenant’s task force, says regardless of whatever official designation Castro will have, while alive he will remain “a domineering figure; though in the background, he will be still very influential.”

“For the past 49 years of Fidel’s Revolution, Castro has been more than a president, more than a government official, to the Cuban people,” she said. “He has been worshipped as an icon, someone whose beliefs and actions are taken as sacred, not to be doubted or questioned. The island has been isolated from receiving the impact and influence of ideas and concepts of different ways of life, other than the socialist way. The system has been very determined and successful in providing daily indoctrination, always with Fidel’s ideas and harangues as the Cuban people’s purpose for existence.”

Cuban native Rinaldo Hernandez, president of the Florida Conference Hispanic Assembly and a former pastor in Cuba, said he does not feel Castro’s resignation will bring any visible changes to Cuba’s “policies and freedoms.”

“The Cuban communist system is built upon a very strong repression apparatus,” he said. “All this time after Castro’s illness was publicly announced, they have been preparing for the next stage: the continuation of the regime under the leadership of Raul Castro. We Cubans jokingly say to each other, ‘Esto es más de lo mismo (this is more of the same),’ expressing the cynicism of the Cuban people before the possibility of radical social and political changes in the island.”

The Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of the Florida Conference’s mission and justice office, agrees little will change for Cuba in general in the short run. Long term, Rankin says, the island might experience an evolution of changes not unlike the China model, with an opening of economic opportunities for the private sector while, politically, the government retains control.

“Whatever happens, the government must provide economic relief for its people, with the improvement of basic services and the reduction of the notorious shortages,” said Rankin, who lived in Cuba as a child while his parents were missionaries there. “The economy has been at 30 percent production, with people holding on to useless jobs and averaging $30-per-month salaries. That has to change.”

He says the U.S. government’s policy toward Cuba must also change.

“U.S. policy has been in place since 1960 and the imposition of the U.S. embargo since 1961,” he said. “Castro has survived numerous attempts on his life and outlived 10 U.S. administrations. It’s time for a change of policy that strengthens the Cuban economy and encourages the Cuban government to change toward democratic reform.” 

Affect on Cuban church

Considering the impact Castro’s retirement will have on the church in Cuba, Kincaid says, “God only knows.”

“We know that His will is perfect,” she said. “When the system was at its worst, God left a remnant of believers in Cuba to keep His light glowing. Throughout this atheistic regime, God has sustained His church in Cuba marvelously alive and in revival. He will never leave or forsake His church.”

Members of Bayshore and Hyde Park United Methodist churches in Tampa visited their Cuban sister churches, Niquero and Guanito Methodist churches, respectively, in October 2007. Here, caravan members help with children’s Sunday school at Niquero Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Renee Kincaid. Photo #08-0764. Web photo only.

Hernandez says that revival has been taking place since the 1990s.

“As a result of that experience they have set the goal ‘Cuba for Christ,’ ” he said. “To fulfill that purpose, they have established house churches and missions all over the island, and nothing would prevent them to continue doing so.

“ … The regime ‘house churches’ are a somehow innocuous form of freedom for Cubans who are allowed to worship in private homes; meanwhile, they are not allowed to build new places of worship.”

Hernandez believes the Cuban church will continue to “press on to their goal with or without Fidel being in power.”

Rankin agrees and says there has been a “liberating trend” between the government and the churches since 1992, one he believes will continue. 

“Churches are allowed to openly meet in their places of worship; however, no outdoor public meetings and demonstrations are allowed,” he said. “Protestant churches aren’t given permits to construct sanctuaries; yet, they are permitted to organize house churches in private homes.” 

How Florida United Methodists should respond

Kincaid says United Methodists in Florida must first and foremost “respond with prayer to God Almighty.”

“As before Castro’s resignation, now and always, we need to place our hope in Jesus Christ alone,” she said. “As with the Babylonian exile, Cubans may be experiencing God’s justice. We all must continue praying for His mercy.”

In addition to prayer as “the best thing we can do here in light of recent events in Cuba,” Hernandez says Florida United Methodists must support the Cuban church “in every way possible for them to continue to impact the Cuban people, bringing Cubans to Christ and offering hope in the name of Jesus to a nation in emotional despair and economic huge deprivation.”

Rankin says Florida Methodists must also continue to pray for freedom of the government and expression in Cuba and the freeing of political prisoners. 

What’s in store for Cuba-Florida Covenant

In 2007, 25 caravans of more than 140 travelers from Florida visited sister churches in Cuba. Likewise, all Florida Conference districts are organizing caravans to Cuba this year.

The Rev. Rick Cabot, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Lutz, Fla., talks with children attending a sports day at El Bon Methodist Church in Cuba. The outreach effort was coordinated by the two churches during the caravan the Lutz church made to Cuba last January to work with El Bon, its sister church. Photo courtesy of Renee Kincaid. Photo #08-0765.

“The covenant’s main purpose has, and will continue to be, to strengthen our Christian relationship with our brothers and sisters in Cuba through prayer and visits,” Kincaid said. “We continue to encounter restrictions and barriers in our travels, but we continue to go and be blessed in this God-given ministry. At all covenant meetings, the joy of the Lord is experienced, without allowing the spiritual war.”

Hernandez points out that Castro “has been out of sight and taking very little responsibility in political decisions since July 31, 2006,” and during that time “the country has been operating normally in terms of visits and relationships of Cubans with foreigners.”

He says restrictions by the Cuban and U.S. governments on travel still apply, with the addition of a recent decision by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs banning religious visitors from using a tourist visa.

“In the recent past, when visitors had some difficulty getting the religious visa, they had the option of buying a tourist visa in a third country. Not anymore,” he said.

Rankin contends the U.S. government should change its current policy limiting travel to Cuba.

“The restrictions have only hampered the freedom of people of faith to visit their sister churches,” he said. “Our prayer is that these changes will permit more Florida United Methodists to visit their sister churches and for Cubans to visit Florida.” 

Hernandez believes Florida United Methodists should continue what they have been doing since the Cuba-Florida Covenant was signed: being “a blessing to the Cuban Christians and allowing the Holy Spirit to bless them through the strong witnessing of our Cuban partners in mission.”

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant based in Nashville, Tenn.




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