In 2013, at an event celebrating 130 years of Methodism in Cuba, Bishop Ken Carter of The Florida Conference stated, “The Cuban Methodists have discovered how to form new communities of Christian disciples…and how to call forth the gifts of a younger generation.”
Much of that discovery has been led by Bishop Ricardo Pereira, who recently sat down for an interview in Lakeland. In 2017, he will appear at Florida’s annual conference to commemorate the 20th anniversary of what has been described as a “brother and sister relationship” between churches in two countries many consider worlds apart.
“It is something between two churches that love each other,” said Pereira. “For 19 years we have worked…and our governments need to recognize that the communication between the churches in Florida and Cuba has shown it is possible to have a relationship.”
In 1997, what was formerly known as the Cuba-Florida Covenant, was ratified by Bishop Henderson and Bishop Francisco Gustavo Cruz. Today it’s known as Methodists United in Prayer (MUIP). Since this bit of history, 200 churches between the two countries have formed relationships with one another.
|Methodist churches in Cuba are formed in houses and are often the site of dances, poetry and celebration aligning with Caribbean culture. The parsonage shown here presents one of many challenges, a desperate need for repairs.|
“This relationship is of great value to congregations in both countries,” said Icel Rodriquez, director of global missions for the conference.
“Many North Americans and people from all over the world think they know Cuba,” added Pereira. “These mission groups that go there, they live as our people do. They understand how Cubans live.”
Pereira talked of the limitations of living in a Communist country and understanding the reality of it, of not wanting the sister churches in Florida to see his world as a wall dividing us. “I believe so many things have been accomplished,” he said. Talking of the Covenant and how it has changed in 19 years, he added: “In the beginning, it was a relationship like father and son. Today, it has the spirit of two siblings that are the same.”
“We have an urgency to take our churches out of the sanctuaries and into where the people are,” said Pereira. “Catholic churches have the most beautiful sanctuaries, but we have the house churches, which is the Methodist spirit taking the faith into the houses, like the old times.
“We have brought our culture into the church,” he added. “Our worship services include dances and poetry…it’s like it were a Jesus or a gospel for Cuba.”
This celebratory form of faith deeply rooted from the Caribbean islands, flourished even during the lowest points following the Communist revolution. Some have referred to it as something of a miracle that it survived.
“It’s a very active ministry, a very hands-on ministry,” said George Reed, the current chairperson of the MUIP and a member of Ponte Vedra UMC. “When it’s working well between sister churches, really good things happen on both sides.
“I’ve seen entire congregations get energized over the relationship,” Reed said. He remembered his ride in an early 1950’s automobile upon arriving to Cuba for the first time and the lifelong friendships that were quickly formed.
The sister churches often include exchange visits from pastors, a limited number from Cuba attending and preaching at services in Florida. Pereira said they return to his country hoping that Cuba will one day be a nation that is prosperous like the U.S.
“The majority of people do not travel outside of Cuba,” said Pereira, “either because they don’t have a visa or they don’t have the resources.” He added how much the visits from the sister churches means to his people.
“It opens a window for us to know what is happening around the world,” he said. “It is an affirmation that faith does not belong with a country, but with the entire world.”
|Hurricane Matthew recently swept through the eastern half of Cuba leaving a path of devastation. Bishop Pereira, who took this photo, was one of the first to gain access to the area. Shown is the village of Baracoa on Oct. 6.|
He offered to those coming to visit that they would see what looks like a “walking museum.” He referenced the cars that Cubans continually work to keep running, replacing motors and parts with what they have and how everyone helps each other to survive. He remembered a story about his fellow countrymen who recently built a truck and made it go through the ocean using simple materials. “They would make a plane, but the government would not allow it,” he said with a touch of humor.
The Bishop described Cubans as able to adapt and survive in difficult times, mentioning a recent visitor to his church in Havana.
“He secured permits,” said Pereira. “He wanted to print the Latin American Bible. In the shop, they use a printer from Russia obtained many decades ago. How they repair those machines, I have no idea. But they are working,” he said.
Storms are not just political in Cuba; a recent hurricane swept through the island’s eastern half devastating villages tucked in the hills and mountains of the Sierra Maestra. The Bishop again talked of resiliency and hope and of finding ways to rebuild.
“Lots of people are without houses,” he said, emphasizing they were not built of brick and could not survive the high winds. “Some of our house churches were destroyed. People lost the few things they had: their mattresses, clothing.
“Right now we have to clothe the people, and we have to feed them,” he added. “In the end, we will support them in rebuilding their houses,” he said.
There remains the need for financial support to build new house churches.
“It’s not unusual to see a new church in Cuba with 25 people and the next year they are up to 200,” said Reed. “From the U.S. perspective, the return on investment for bringing people to Christ is absolutely astounding. You know, you can’t buy a house in the U.S. and plant a church for $6,000. In Cuba you can!”
Editor’s Note: For those interested in contributing to the Cuba Hurricane Relief Fund, your help would be greatly appreciated. Please contact Icel Rodriquez, director of global missions for the conference at firstname.lastname@example.org.