By Jerry Pillay, President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches
It was my joy and privilege to visit the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba from 21– 26 February 2013. I most sincerely appreciated the warm reception and gracious hospitality offered by the church and country, accorded with V.I.P status from the time my feet touched the Cuban soil and until the time I departed.
I was deeply impressed by what the hosting church is currently doing in their numerous programmes and projects to support and develop the communities in which they are found and in the country as a whole. I was particularly delighted with the project to supply purified water from taps on church premises and that of the Theological Seminary. This water is made freely available to the community at large and literally hundreds of people come regularly to fetch water. Although the church is not allowed publicly to “evangelize”, it is projects such as these that enable the church to impact the community with its Christian witness and message.
In spite of a relatively short time with the church much was put into the itinerary to enable me to gain very useful insights into the life, work and witness of the Presbyterian Reformed Church and life generally in Cuba. The programme included meetings with the leadership of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, meetings with the Minister of Religious Affairs, information on the history of Cuba with a guide, preaching and attendance at three church services on Sunday, a visit to the Theological Seminary which included discussions with professors, the Principal (who is also the current Moderator of the church) and the Dean of the Seminary, meetings with the Cuban Council of Churches, and a final interview with the Cuban media before my departure.
Although all of these were special moments and the discussions were essential and often times inspirational, allow me to say something about a few of them. I was deeply encouraged by the church’s ability to integrate women in its leadership. All three Presbyteries are led by women Moderators and more than 48% of the clergy are women. The church leadership works under really challenging circumstances but are able to hold the fort in keeping the more than 12 000 members together in faithful and growing witness. Although the country is ruled by one political party, the Communist Party, it is definitely not a communist state. In fact, even though the government does not propagate religion, it certainly does recognize that it needs the church and other religious bodies to develop the country. Thus they have come up with a number of laws and policies to improve this working relationship and to encourage the financial sustainability of religious bodies so that they are not forever reliant on foreign assistance. In addition, the Council of Churches is allowed a monthly radio broadcast to share information about its work in the country. All these are, no doubt, commendable initiatives.
One of the most painful moments in this visit was to hear the stories of the families of the “Cuban 5”. These are five men from Cuba who were arrested in the USA some 15 years ago as “spies” allegedly leaking information to Cuba about the US military. According to the families concerned, their loved ones were given an unfair trial and purposefully imprisoned without appeal, a few having received life sentences. The families have not been able to visit them during this time because of being denied visas and at times when they managed to secure a visit by other family members, further obstacles were placed in the way that did not enable the visits to materialize.
The families have requested that WCRC assist them to gain visiting rights, to help create awareness of the situation and to appeal to President Obama to relook at the matter. We plan to have discussions with other ecumenical bodies as to how we may work together on this matter. Indeed, the pain, suffering and anguish of the families concerned have become a pastoral matter for the church in Cuba.
I am most grateful that I was able to undertake this visit to Cuba and to spend this limited but incredibly valuable time with our member church there. It certainly has been an experience that has opened my eyes to the realities of others and, more significantly, to the work of member churches within the WCRC in other parts of the world. I wish to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the Presbyterian Church in Cuba for this invitation and for opening their hearts and lives to me and the Communion: “when one part of the body suffers we all suffer, and when one part of the body rejoices we all rejoice”. May Almighty God continue to bless and prosper the work of our brothers and sisters in Cuba.