Participants of the Cuban travel seminar for clergywomen.

By Mary Buckner

This spring, two world-changing events occurred back to back. On April 9, 2015, President Obama met with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the first such meeting in over half a century. Five days later, Obama announced his decision to remove Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, paving the way for better diplomatic relations. During this same historic week, 16 United Methodist clergywomen traveled to Cuba for a seminar sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and Boston University School of Theology.

“The timing was very meaningful for us,” said Dr. HiRho Park, director of Clergy Lifelong Learning at GBHEM. “We felt that we were called from God to greet a new age of peace and reconciliation between two countries.”

The seminar faculty facilitator was the Rev. Dr. Cristian De La Rosa of Boston University School of Theology.

“This continuing education experience facilitated the re-framing of our understandings about Cuba as a nation, its religious institutions and the commitments and practices of its people,” De La Rosa said. “More seminaries should partner with our church agencies for transformational educational experiences like this one.”

The diverse group of U.S. participants included women of Asian, African, Hispanic and European descent, though they all found Cuba a very different world—a world where higher education is free to all, where everyone has access to good healthcare and where the income inequality gap seems absent, yet where Internet access remains with strong censorship.

The seminar was designed to explore Cuban women’s social, political and religious issues and the unique evolution of the Cuban Christian church. The seminar began in Matanzas, Cuba’s second largest city. Seminario Evangelico de Teologia, the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary, was founded there by the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches in 1946, as an ecumenical pastoral training center.

Participants of the seminar visited local Cuban mission works.
Participants of the seminar visited local Cuban mission works.

Seminar participant the Rev. Courtney McHill, pastor of McMinnville Cooperative Ministries, said, “Matanzas, ‘the Athens of Cuba,’ is ripe with theological, ecumenical and philosophical dialogue, street theater, and a ground of spirituality. Women are present in all spheres. Each speaker spoke to us with integrity and a wealth of educated information. Obviously, the context is layered and complicated, and yet we learned to the maximum capacity in our days together.”

In Matanzas, participants met with Cuban women leaders in theology, medicine, education and community organizations, including well known women theologians Dr. Ofelia Ortega of Matanzas and Dr. Elsa Tamez, a feminist biblical scholar. Park noted that the focus of Cuba’s revolutionary theology is inclusive, ecumenical, multiracial and interdisciplinary, where the church mission is not only religious teaching but also grassroots support for the health, education and human rights of the community.

“For the elderly women that made the revolution [women who participated in the revolution and nurtured a transformed country] a key concern is the future of young people in Cuba when and if relationships with the U.S. change and the embargo is lifted and possibly immigration of Cuban people to the U.S. is permitted. Will the young people leave the country?” De La Rosa commented.

Participants met with Tejedoras de la Esperanza, Weavers of Hope, a group of women who make and sell handcrafts and art to support community projects, and also visited the Kairos Center located in the Primera Iglesia Bautista, an organization that works to advance human rights. In the nearby town of Varadero, they visited the Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada and Casa Del Cariño, Loving Care Home, a ministry offering low-cost housing for the elderly.

The second half of the seminar took place in Havana, where participants attended Iglesia Metodista de Marianao, the Cuban Methodist Church led by Bishop Ricardo Pereia. Six services are held each Sunday, and over a thousand people attend. Park described the services as “spirit filled,” with a contemporary music band, vivacious singing, fervent prayer and joyful liturgical dance performed by a group of young people.

“I was moved by the Cuban people’s commitment to the Christian principles of love, inclusivity and justice,” said seminar participant the Rev. Patricia Bonilla, deacon from the Northern Illinois Conference. “As a clergywoman living and ministering in the United States, I was struck by how much closer Cuba seemed to the Kingdom of God than so many churches claiming to be representative of God’s kingdom on earth.”

“Cubans are very proud of their culture, their music and their arts,” Bonilla continued. “This was evident in the street theater, the music at every corner and the accessibility that the general public had to all sorts of cultural activities. Upon our visit to the Spanish Folkloric Ballet in Havana, we observed a theater full of young people. Artists sold paintings and handcrafted items at the Mercado, and the central Plaza was full of families late into the evening listening to music and sharing a laugh.”

Speaking of the seminar participants, McHill said, “This amazing group of clergywomen were all willing to be flexible, to not be ruffled by the changes and experiences to come, and we all always said yes to the next experience and adventure.”

After returning home, Park said, “I feel humbled and grateful to have had this opportunity, and I thank God that the U.S. and Cuba are finally reconciling. The Cuban people’s faith has developed a sense of duty through dark times, truly a theology in revolution.”

Buckner is a writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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