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Conference celebrates 10th anniversary of Cuba-Florida Covenant

Conference celebrates 10th anniversary of Cuba-Florida Covenant

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference celebrates 10th anniversary of Cuba-Florida Covenant

May 28, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0679}

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

Methodist believers from Cuba and the Florida Conference are just 90 miles apart geographically, light worlds apart politically and economically, but powerfully one in the Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Dr. Rinaldo Hernandez (left) and then Florida Conference Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson hold copies of the Cuba-Florida Covenant they’ve just singed during the Cuba Methodist Annual Conference in Havana in June 1997. Photo by Hubert E. Floyd. File Photo #06-370. File photo: Aug. 8, 1997/Florida United Methodist Review.

Ten years ago they came together to officially and spiritually reunite themselves toward serving the cause of Christ through the Cuba-Florida Covenant. Scores of caravans and changed lives later, the Florida Conference prepares to celebrate the first decade of the covenant and look ahead to many more years of partnering with a vibrant island of believers.

Through the covenant churches in both countries pledged they will:

* Pray for one another and develop a common study of Scriptures;

* Engage in the interchange of people as work teams, preachers, laity, caravans, study teams, professors, teachers and choirs;

* Respond to the priorities of the Methodist Church in Cuba;

* Build relationships between districts and churches in the Florida Conference and the Methodist Church in Cuba for mutual support and encouragement;

* Support the Advance Specials of the Methodist Church in Cuba;

* Enable the training of pastors and lay people for the equipping of Cuban disciples; and

* Mutually share the history, current events, culture and spirituality of both churches.

That pledge has made a difference to Methodists on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Nearly 140 Florida Conference churches have participated in the covenant, connecting with about two-thirds of the approximately 230 Methodist churches in Cuba. Hundreds of laypeople and clergy have made caravans to Cuba to serve and worship among their sisters and brothers there. They’ve given Cuban Methodists resources to rebuild sanctuaries, musical instruments, Sunday school materials and clothes, according to the Rev. Jacquie Leveron, chairwoman of the covenant task force from 2001 to 2006 and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Deltona. She said there has also been plenty of “hugs, prayers, tears” and love to go around.

Florida United Methodists, she says, have helped relieve Cuban Christians of the isolation they have faced for many years. “All of a sudden Christians from a completely different culture come to lavish them with love,” she said. “This lifted the self-esteem of the church in general.”

The impact has been mutual. Florida Conference leaders say Florida United Methodists have been blessed by the vibrancy of worship and spiritual renewal they find in Cuban churches and the faithfulness the Cuban people express, despite the challenges of living in Cuba today.

Century-old relationship: persevering despite adversity

The two nations’ partnership in the things of God was initiated long before the covenant was signed, however. In 1873 the Florida Conference sent a missionary to Key West to start a ministry among Cuban refugees living there. Two Cuban lay pastors returned to Cuba in 1883 to evangelize and plant congregations. From 1883 to 1968, when Cuban Methodism became independent, one bishop served both conferences.

In 1959 when President Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government, later converting the nation to communism, there were 53 U.S. missionaries in Cuba and a growing number of Cuban ordained clergy. One year later, 9,000 Cubans professed Methodist Christianity. By the end of 1961 all missionaries had left, and 95 percent of the ordained Cuban clergy found sanctuary in the United States, mostly in Florida. Churches were suppressed from all activities except worship in designated houses of worship. In January 1961 the United States broke relations with Cuba, and travel between the two nations has been hindered ever since.

Nothing, however, was able to hinder the ministry that had begun and the tremendous revival to Cuban Methodism during the late ’80s and ’90s, the fruit of which continues to multiply today.

The Rev. Dr. Rinaldo Hernandez, who served as president of the Florida Conference Hispanic Assembly and as a pastor in his native Cuba for 24 years, said the atheist Castro government did all it could to separate the Cuban church from its brothers and sisters in Florida.

Cuban Methodists worship at a Methodist church in Pilon/Mota, Cuba, with members of Keystone United Methodist Church in the former Tampa District. The Tampa group visited its sister churches in Cuba's Sierra Maestra District in the fall of 2005. Photo by Carolyn Smith. File Photo #05-0155. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0279/April 21, 2005.

“More than that, they did all they could in order to erase Christianity over the face of the island,” he said. “They even prophesied that by 1970 there will be no church in Cuba. Today, there are more churches in Cuba than before the (1959) revolution. You don't mess with the Holy Spirit!”

In 1992 Hernandez was appointed a missionary from Cuba to the United States “in order to let our brothers and sisters here know about the testimony of survival and revival of the Cuban Methodist Church,” he said. “As a part of that effort, I was able to visit 18 states, including Florida, speaking in churches, universities and community groups about the experience of the church in a communist country and the need for us to be Christ’s body on both sides of the Florida Straits.”

At the Cuban General Conference In 1995, the Revs. Francisco Gustavo Cruz and Roy Rodriguez assumed leadership of the Methodist Church in Cuba as co-bishops. That same year, Cruz, now retired, recalled how then Florida Conference Bishop Hasbrouk H. Hughes Jr. “was moved by God to renew the relationship with the Methodist Church in Cuba through a mutual covenant.”

Cruz said Hughes, now retired, invited him and Rodriguez to meet with the Florida Conference Hispanic Assembly, then under the direction of the Rev. Aldo Martin, in Coral Gables that November.

“There, the seed of the Cuba-Florida Covenant was planted and began to sprout in the hearts of Cuban and Florida Methodists,” he said.

Cruz was elected as the singular bishop of the Methodist Church in Cuba at its 1996 Annual Conference. That same year the late Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson was elected bishop of the Florida Conference, and Cruz said Henderson “warmly embraced the covenant concept that had been germinating.”

Hernandez, who helped write the covenant text, was a member of the team that signed the document 10 years ago in both Havana and Lakeland. He did so as a representative for Cruz, who had suffered a massive stroke.

“Starting with the signing of the covenant, a process of mutual visits and exchanges followed,” Hernandez said. “In November of 1997 all of the eight Cuban district superintendents at the time and lay leaders representing their districts came as a delegation to the U.S. to visit our sister districts. I had a wonderful opportunity to share with United Methodists in Florida through district rallies and visits to local churches across 15 days.”

The next step was to establish sister-church relationships between Cuban and Florida churches in districts where a covenant relationship was already in place. United Methodist pastors and lay leaders then began visiting Cuban districts and local churches, which, Hernandez said, eventually “led us to a movement in which every month caravans from Florida have visited Cuban churches.”

Hernandez says both covenant parties have been extraordinarily blessed as a result: “The Cuban churches have experienced the friendship and Christian love of their Florida brothers and sisters, and the Florida caravans have experienced a legitimate renewal of their faith experience just by witnessing the movement of the Holy Spirit among the Cuban churches.”

Covenant’s impact on both sides of the Florida Straits

Retired Bishop James Lloyd Knox’s relationship with Cuba began long before the signing of the covenant. He and his wife, Edith, and their children served as missionaries to Cuba in 1959 and 1960. Knox led four churches and was chaplain of the Methodist school in Santiago de las Vegas. Edith, a registered nurse, operated a small clinic in a church in the poorer section of town. After returning to the United States and serving for eight years as coordinator of the Florida Methodist Spanish Ministry, Knox retired in 1996 and returned to his native Florida to discover the formation of the covenant.

Knox was the second chairman of the covenant, succeeding retired Cuban Bishop Armando Rodriguez. During Knox’s tenure he said everyone worked hard to build sister relationships.

“The covenant has made our Florida churches aware of the tremendous spiritual revival that has swept Cuba,” Knox said. “We have learned of their great discipleship. And now the Cuban church feels less isolated. Lay and clergy from both conferences have been blessed by mutual visits to each others’ churches.”

Renee Kincaid, a Cuban native who lives in Tampa and is a member of Bayshore United Methodist Church, said she feels it was a privilege and a call from God to have been invited to participate in the covenant near its inception. Kincaid has served as secretary of the covenant’s task force for the past seven years

“This ministry has become my ‘retirement work,’ service to the Lord for which he prepared me from my birth in Havana, Cuba,” she said.

Kincaid said God has provided all the resources needed “for what he wants accomplished,” but acknowledges “with everything that has to do with kingdom service, it’s a burden; we’re still dealing with the results of 48 years of separations, restrictions and bondage of my Cuban brothers and sisters.”

The Rev. Rebecca Mestre (right) and members or Jovellanos Methodist Church in Cuba’s Matanzas District send the Rev. Jackie McMillan, then pastor of Clearwater United Methodist Church, back to Florida with their blessings and prayers during the final days of a caravan she took to Cuba in 1998 with members of her district. “Spiritually, it was an incredible experience for me,” McMillan said. “The whole trip was that incredible blessing from God.” Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jackie McMillan. File photo: May 1, 1998/Florida United Methodist Review.

With the challenges, however, have come blessings, she added.

“It’s pure joy when we can share his love and worship him together as one,” she said. “As the Florida covenant participants visit with Cuban brothers and sisters, the love of Christ makes it evident that each cares and prays for the other, regardless of geographical distances and government decisions. They can touch, see and feel our love.

“So many people tell us that as they have gone to visit different churches in Cuba, there’s always someone who will point out, ‘Oh, yes, that was given to us by our sister church’ or ‘that happened because our sister church prayed with us and God made it possible.’ ”

She said the responses from people who visit Cuba are virtually the same. “When Florida visitors return from visiting their sister churches in Cuba, their first expression is, ‘Nothing you could have said would have prepared me for the emotional and spiritual experience I had in Cuba. I will not be the same again,’ ” she said. “The covenant team never gets tired of hearing the same words over and over again.”

The Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, superintendent of the North Central District, said her involvement with the covenant began after she was appointed a district superintendent in June 2000, when she made her first visit to Cuba.

“My time spent in Santa Clara and Cienfuegos was heartwarming and renewing,” she said. “I experienced a church that was energized and excited about winning souls for Christ; I experienced a church whose total dependence on God described their ongoing relationship with God; I experienced a church that, regardless of the mountains and valleys, they knew that God would provide.”

“I believe that this covenant has had a great impact on Florida,” she added. “This covenant has opened our hearts and minds and doors to the Holy Spirit; it has allowed us to be in prayer for one another as we seek God’s guidance for the church.”

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the conference’s Connectional Ministries office, agrees and said the covenant has had an impact on both Cubans and Floridians. Burkholder was able to witness the covenant’s impact in Cuba firsthand while recently attending the Cuban Methodist Church’s General Conference.

“The covenant has provided the opportunity for members of both churches to experience and better understand what it means to be brothers and sister in Christ as members of a universal church,” she said. “Certainly, the passionate worship of the Cuban churches has challenged us to consider what ‘passionate worship’ means for us.

“We in Florida are challenged by the risks and sacrifices that are made by Christians in Cuba, and hopefully encouraged to come to grips with what it really means to be stewards of our resources. They do so much with so little, we cannot help but be forced to reflect on what is really important as disciples.” 

The Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of the conference’s Global Mission and Justice ministry, said his earliest memories are grounded in Cuba, where his parents served as missionaries. In 1996 he returned there for the first time in 36 years and has traveled there numerous times since.

“We’re not talking about a one-way street,” he says of the covenant. “Oftentimes a relationship is more around financial sharing of funds or resources from a wealthier church to a poorer church. That does happen, but the real foundation of the covenant is truly a partnership. Both partners are giving to each other, in different ways. We say to every church in Florida, ‘Don’t get caught up in the money. Concentrate on the relationship.’ ”

One creative example of such concentration, Rankin noted, is a cluster of churches from Boca Grande that sponsored a summer camp for a cluster of Cuban churches.

“The Cubans always give their partner churches spiritual strength and resources far beyond what most of our churches have experienced here. That sort of trumps the financial side,” Rankin said. “ … For people of faith who simply cannot acquire resources or are living in very oppressive conditions and are totally stripped of everything, the last thing that cannot be taken from them is their faith in God. That’s where the mystery happens. Somehow, the reliance on God produces incredible power, even in the form of miracles you and I would never conceive would happen.”

In part, Rankin said, the Cuban Methodist revival of the late ’80s and early ’90s hinged upon some of these miracles.

“Straightening of legs, fixing of teeth, brain tumors removed — I’m taking about real physical stuff,” he said. “Of course, the spiritual healings are the major part; people coming to Christ in droves, dozens and hundreds, many young people. The church in Cuba became what I call an irresistible church. People would go to the churches for the gimmick or the show, but would get caught up in the teaching and so forth.”

The other enduring fruit of the Cuban revival is the committed discipleship. “There’s a very systematic process of a new believer across a year,” Rankin has observed. “By the time they reach baptism they are already grafted in the life of the church, not just sitting in the pew. Churches that are visiting there are learning how to engage in these practices. We have learned so much from the churches in Cuba on evangelism, outreach and sustainable discipleship.”

Governments’ impact, challenges ahead

So, 10 years later, has the covenant accomplished what it set out to do? Partially, Hernandez and the others said.

“The Cuba-Florida Covenant is a relationship of mutuality,” Hernandez said. “ … We both have riches to offer to each other (material and spiritual); we both have strengths to offer to each other. We have the chance to challenge political structures on both sides of the Florida Straits. We have the chance to be the Body of Christ and to live in harmony and mutual support. But this relationship has faced and is facing a lot of challenges.”

Hernandez pointed out that since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become increasingly difficult for Cuban pastors and lay leaders to visit Florida churches. Even some efforts to bring pastors to the United States for theological education have partially failed due to new restrictions on receiving U.S. visas, he said, and “the visits of Cuban delegations have been reduced to almost none.”

The Rev. Ricardo Pereira, bishop of the Methodist Church in Cuba, preached to more than 500 students at Pine Castle United Methodist Church's Christian Academy during a visit to Orlando in 2000. The Rev. Jacquie Leveron (foreground), then pastor of St. Andrews and Wesley Chapel United Methodist Churches in Ft. Lauderdale, interpreted the bishop's message to the students, congregation and church staff. Photo Courtesy of Pine Castle United Methodist Church. File photo: Feb. 4, 2000/Florida United Methodist Review.

“Even the Cuban bishop has been in trouble to attend meetings and to fulfill preaching commitments in the U.S.,” he said. “That is a part of the covenant that has not been done due to the restrictions imposed by the U.S. government.”

Hernandez said U.S. travel, visitation and financial restrictions have had a progressively negative impact. 

“Even the per-diems that American citizens are allowed to take into Cuba in each trip have being reduced several times to a ridiculous amount in the present,” he explained. “As the Body of Christ we have the right and the commitment to support each other, to visit each other and to be in solidarity with each other; even when the governments do not have the ability to talk to each other and to find a civilized way to address their differences. We can’t and must not easily accept that we are unable to fulfill the covenant because of the political situation between our two governments.

“And I believe we need to challenge those policies at both sides of the covenant. Our right to be the Church of Christ comes first and is beyond the political acrobatics of governments.”

The Cuban government, Hernandez noted, has also restricted the number of caravans allowed to visit the island. “Religious’ visas are now required, and only obtained through a lengthy and complicated bureaucratic process,” as reported in e-Review several months ago.

Another challenge, according to Hernandez, is that not all Florida Conference districts and churches have made the same commitment to the covenant.

“I’ve found a lot of resistance, suspicion and even opposition to the covenant in my own district,” he said. “One of my frustrations, being a part of the Florida Conference now, is to see how many people are still indifferent to the covenant or under the suspicion that we are helping the Cuban government to survive or unaware of the spiritual benefits they are missing from this mutual relationship. There is a lot still to do in Florida regarding the implications and fulfillment of the covenant principles.”
Knox says the covenant “has certainly done what it set out to do,” but agrees more needs to be done. 

“Not all churches have covenant churches,” he said. “This causes difficulty and misunderstanding among Cuban churches that have not received a sister church.”

Burkholder agreed some Florida Conference districts remain slow in their response to the covenant, “but we actually have enough churches to have three sister churches to each one of theirs.”

“Some churches still interpret this relationship in terms of money, and that really isn’t what it is about,” she said. “Sister churches and caravans are about building relationships, praying and sharing with each other, learning from each other and growing more deeply in Christ through the relationship. Sure, dollars often follow, but that is just not the focus at all.”

It’s standing room-only at this Methodist church in eastern Cuba. A team from the Florida Conference visited there in July 2003 as one of 29 caravans that traveled to the island that year as part of the Cuba-Florida Covenant. Photo by the Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin. File photo: Dec. 5, 2003/Florida United Methodist Review. Web photo only.

Kincaid added: “Covenants are forever so they give us on-going relationships and on-going opportunities to reset goals and celebrate what God’s accomplished with joy. Some precious loved ones move out of our sister church’s location, and new ones move in. We see Cuba churches growing, missionaries going into the fields evangelizing and gaining souls for the kingdom one by one.”

Kincaid said the goal of the Cuban church and the covenant is the same: “to win Cuba for Christ.”

“We see combined efforts in rebuilding homes and churches that may have been damaged or destroyed by time, weather and decay,” she said. “Our expectations of what ‘we want to do’ is always beyond what we can accomplish; however, we always have to keep in mind that the ministry of the covenant is ‘to be’ and not ‘to do.’ The doing happens as a result after the relationships have been solidified.”

In terms of what direction the covenant will take across the next decade, Burkholder said it is probably time to invite the Methodist Church in Cuba into a conversation on the subject.

“Surely, continuing to build new sister church relationships is one emphasis, but I think we need to pray and consider next steps together,” she said. “It is also a reality that many potential ‘next steps’ will be governed by what our governments allow us to do, so we really have to be visionary and yet realistic at the same time.”

McClellan said the next step is the same as the first, “praying for each other constantly.” She said it is also “imperative that both groups come together and evaluate the initial covenant to see what was good about it, what didn’t work, what needs to be changed, or even if it needs to be continued.”
Looking to the future, Hernandez said the covenant will move forward across the next decade if it is able to defy legislations that bring obstacles to the practice of freedom of religion in this country.  

“As an immigrant in the U.S., I came to this country because of its freedom, values and the opportunity for everyone to have a better life and a more promising future,” he said. “I could never imagine that Christians in the U.S. would be forbidden to travel wherever they wanted to go or to share financial resources with Christians in other parts of the world. But I have learned this is a country of laws and you can always find ways to challenge laws which restrict our ability to exercise our Christian duties toward brothers and sisters around the world and particularly in Cuba.”

At the same time, Hernandez said, the conference needs to continue sending caravans to Cuba, complying with restrictions imposed by both governments.

“That would be a testimony to both the U.S. and Cuba governments that no matter how many restrictions they would impose on our relationship, we are still determined to go on and to do what the Lord has called us to be in Him: one body,” he said.

Rankin said political relations between the United States and Cuba always affect the covenant’s direction.

“There may be a major change once Fidel Castro moves from the scene; at this point, how the covenant changes with that is pure speculation,” he added. “Hopefully, we can increase the visits of Cubans to visit our congregations and expand on their experiences in the Wesleyan movement here in Florida and the U.S.”
Knox said what is already being done needs to continue, although he admits it is “often hard to get our people excited about this.” He says efforts should focus on getting additional churches involved in the covenant, despite the fact “not all lay and clergy have missional hearts.”
Says Kincaid: “Our commitment to have 100 percent of Cuba churches in loving, active relations with Florida churches is ongoing. Regardless of what may happen or not happen in the future of our countries, the foundation has been set because it has been set in Christ.”
Rankin is encouraging local churches to celebrate the covenant’s 10-year anniversary. The Connectional Ministries report at the annual conference event June 6-9 will feature an emphasis on the covenant and will likely include a video highlighting its accomplishments and the people who have been involved. A public call for those who have been on a caravan to stand up is likely, Rankin added, and there will be an expo booth providing information.

More information about the covenant is available on the Florida Conference Web site at

More information about the “From Generation to Generation” 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event is available at


This article relates to Cuba-Florida Covenant/2007 Florida Annual Conference Event.

*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.