Cuba, Past, Present, and . . .

Notes from a sermon delivered on July 29, 2012 by Dr. Tom Tucker, PhD., Cuba mission partnership team member and Treasurer for the Presbytery of South Louisiana.

Job reminds us man is mortal.  He also reminds us that some of God’s creations have the capacity to regenerate.  More importantly Job tells us there is hope – hope that humankind might find eternity.

Jesus in his ministry traveled back and forth between Galilee and Judea, passing through Samaria.  On one trip he spoke with the Samaritan woman.  Jesus being fully human and fully Devine was thirsty.  The scripture goes on beyond quenching human thirst.  Jesus used the occasion to build the analogy of living water, that whosoever drinks of His living water shall not be thirsty for spiritual water ever again and those who believe shall have eternal life.

In Mark 12 Jesus is at the height of his ministry.  He has returned to Jerusalem knowing he is facing death.  He is teaching his disciples and has been engaging the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians in dialogue.  Some of this evolved into heated debate.  The common people were in the temple and heard these exchanges.  Mark says, “And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.”
Here we hear that power, prestige, position, wealth, even our beautiful churches and temples are temporal.  The body of Christ, however, is eternal.

La Iglesia Presbyteriana-Reformada en Cuba, The Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba, traces its origin to 1890.  Two names standout, Evaristo Collazo and Juan G. Hall.  Collazo contacted the PCUS in 1890 asking for evaluation of the potential for the Presbyterian Church in Cuba.  Rev. Anthony Graybill and Rev. Juan G. Hall made several visits from Mexico and Graybill ordained Collazo.  This work was interrupted by the War for Cuban Independence which became the Spanish-American War.

Following the War, both the Southern and Northern Presbyterian Churches in the US opened missionary work in Cuba along with 7 other US denominations.  Rev. Juan G. Hall returned to join Collazo and organized the First Presbyterian Church of Cardenas.  By 1917 the Southern & Northern Presbyterian Church merged their missions in Cuba and accepted transfer of the mission churches of the US Congregational and Disciples of Christ Churches.

In 1946, the Evangelical Theology Seminary was established in Matanzas jointly under Presbyterian and Methodist sponsorship, later joined by the Episcopal Church in Cuba.

The Presbyterian Church in Cuba thrived.  In 1958, Castro assisted by Che Cevera triumphed over Batista in the Cuban Revolution.  The Presbytery of Cuba supported and welcomed the Revolution initially.  Membership in all Cuba Presbyterian churches was 4,300 in 34 congregations.

Then everything changed.  The US broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and imposed an embargo.  The Bay of Pigs invasion failed miserably.  Castro declared himself Marxist and Leninist and declared Cuba socialist, communist, and atheist.  Schools and clinics of all churches were confiscated.  Churches themselves were not disturbed, but only communists could get work and only avowed atheists could be communists in Cuba.  The Cuban missile crisis erupted.  The Presbytery of Cuba suffered. More than half its members and ministers defected leaving the country.

In 1967 the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba was inaugurated as a result of action at the Boston General assembly of the UPC in 1966.  The 45th Anniversary of the PRCC was celebrated at the 220Th General Assembly of the PC(USA) early this month. Unfortunately the PRCC continued to decline after 1967, and was down to less than 1,300 members by 1979.  There were 3 Presbyteries: Havana in the West, Matanzas in West Central Cuba, and Central Presbytery in the eastern or oriental provinces. The Presbytery of South Louisiana began visits to Matanzas Presbytery in 1985 and the Presbytery of Long Island began visits to the Presbytery of Havana.  The Cuba Partnership agreement was adopted by PC(USA) in 1986.

The bottom came in 1989 when the Soviet Block collapsed causing catastrophic economic collapse in Cuba.  A group of religious leaders met with Castro in 1990 to object to oppression of churches in Cuba.  Castro admitted that religious organizations were providing important support for the Cuban people.  This was broadcast over Cuban national television.  1992, the Cuban Constitution was changed by popular vote to remove the description of Cuba as an atheist state and to redefine Cuba as a secular state.  Castro also changed the law to allow Christians to join the Communist Party.  Rebirth of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba began.

Today there are 3,000 members of the PRCC in Cuba.  The PRCC is now the Synod of Cuba and has the same three Presbyteries:  Havana, Matanzas, and Central.  Churches which closed are being reopened and mission churches are being started.  Growth pains abound.

So, what’s going on with Cuban people today?  They live in a mixed social environment that is in economic turmoil.  They exist usually at the extremes of their mixed lifestyles and rarely have any middle range or balanced experiences.

Automobiles are by far mid-1950 models.  The few newer vehicles are used by visitors, tourists, and an occasional dignitary.  The old cars are patched together – rust is covered with Bondo and paint – they look good.  Replacement parts are handmade because there are no actual parts available.  As these ancient autos give up the ghost, the people revert to bicycles and horse drawn carts.  Houses have electricity, but few electrical appliances.  They have broadcast national TV, but no cable or satellite.  At the other extreme cell phones abound.  E-mail is available on archaic DLS phone lines, but there is no internet.  Technologically the Cuban people are either in the 50s or the 21st century and nowhere in between.  

Those lucky enough to find work are paid in pesos.  They buy food – bread, milk, produce, meat – in pesos.  There are ration coupons for other goods if they can be found.  All other commerce is in Cuban United Currency, the CUC or cuk, which is convertible to and from foreign currency.  By the way, there is a 10% tax on conversion from US dollars.  So to buy anything else the Cuban people must spend CUCs and 1 CUC is equal to 24 pesos.  They get paid in a peso economy and live in a CUC economy.  In some ways it is good.  A loaf of fresh home-baked bread costs 3 pesos.  That’s about 12 cents in US.  Sounds good, except a gallon of gasoline cost about 4 CUCs, which is close to 100 pesos.  So you can see the economic inversion they have to live with.

The dual economy is evident in the collection plate also.  Poor working members contribute pesos.  Professionals are able to contribute CUCs.  The church pays its bills in CUCs.  The amount collected is not important, what is important is that everyone does contribute something.  

I saw an innovative idea.  It was a Spring Flower Garden fund raiser.  Members were invited to place money in homemade envelopes with their name or to honor someone.  A poster at the flower collection box had a hand drawn flower added for every envelope.  The stewardship committee then followed up to encourage everyone to make a regular contribution every Sunday.  I placed a 5 CUC note in an envelope.  That Sunday the church Treasurer took me by the hand, led me to the poster and pointed to a new flower – it was mine.  I made a second contribution.

Literacy is very high, in excess of 99.5%.  Castro set this as a goal.  What do the people read?  Communist Propaganda.  The school system is good and obtaining an education is a cultural commitment.  This is good because the Cuban people can read the Bible.  There are amble Spanish Bible available.  This contributes to calls for help interpreting the scriptures.  Pastors are begging for Bible Study partners for their members.

Good medical care is available.  Doctors and hospital are free.  Medicine is free if you can find it – doctors write multiple alternates on prescriptions and the patient hopes the government pharmacy may have one of them, but they often don’t.  The other extreme is when you go to the hospital you get good doctor services and nursing care which is limited to medical procedures prescribed by the doctor.  No other services are provided.  In other words, family members must bring food and feed the patient, they must provide hygiene and personal care, change beds and bed clothes, bath, escort to the bathroom, and watch the patient.

Over-the-counter medicines do not exist.  Pharmacies carry only prescription drugs and have very limited supplies of those.  You can imagine the gratitude the churches in Matanzas Presbytery expressed when over 100,000 doses of OTC pain relievers were delivered on our trip this May.  In addition to over the counter pain relievers we delivered 8 gross of crayons – they don’t have office supply stores.  Scores of pencils and dozens of pens were also delivered.  These simple, inexpensive supplies are common place for us in the US, but they are priceless in Cuba – literally, because there are none to price.

The infrastructure of Cuba is deteriorating.  Main highways are breaking down faster than road repairs can be made.  When returning to Cardenas from Santa Clara our driver said, “We’ll take the interior road even if it is longer because the northern road is in bad shape.”  Rural highways are becoming almost impassable in places.

What I did not see on the highways was semi-trailer trucks.  Cuba has little or no commerce to transport.  The Port of Havana is expanding and handles container shipments, but the containers are not being transported across the island.  Matanzas harbor has an oil depot, but no cargo docks.  The Port of Cardenas has been closed.

Castro provided housing for all, especially the peons.  In cities these are 3-4 story apartments – similar in design to Stalin’s housing in Russia.  In rural towns these are cinderblock houses.  They were built in the late 50s and early 60s.  They are small and closely spaced, but a major improvement over thatched huts.  With a poor economy there are no funds for maintenance.  These 50-year old structures are run down, unsightly, and beginning to crumble.

Church buildings, especially those in rural areas, have suffered.  I saw the literal destruction of buildings due to deterioration, age, and lack of care.  Other Churches are land locked.  They are crammed on narrow lots between other buildings.  The only options are to move or build up.

New construction is hectic.  Building materials are scarce.  Small quantities of unmatched materials are stockpiled on site until enough is accumulated to do the next construction phase.  Plumbing fixtures are almost non-existent.  Plugged pipes stick out of walls waiting for a faucet or showerhead.  Electrical boxes with capped wires are open in ceilings and on walls waiting for fans or light fixtures.

Problems, problems, problems, but the churches continue to meet and their congregations continue to grow.

The water and sewer systems have not been maintained.  Water pressure is low so every house and building has electric pumps to pump water to a cistern on the roof which provides gravity feed for water to the building.  Unfortunately, the incoming water pipes are old and have developed leaks – water leaks out and contamination leaks in.  So, bottled or boiled water must be used for drinking and cooking.

The water at Jacob’s well was not contaminated.  But Jesus used the distribution of drinking water from the well as an opportunity to propose partaking of the Living Water he provided.  Clean water quenches human thirst, but that thirst returns.  Christ’s Living Water is eternal, however, in order to partake we must first believe in Christ to obtain that eternal blessing.

Living Waters for the World is an appropriately named mission of the Synod of Living Waters, our neighbor to the East – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Through this mission, teams are trained and equipped to 1) partner with communities in need of clean water throughout the world; 2) install community-sized water treatment systems; and 3) lead health, hygiene, and spiritual education.

I was able to view two of these installations in operation at Presbyterian Churches in Cuba and drank water exclusively from one of them for a week.  One installation produces and distributes 180 gallons a day and the other 350.  Water is available for a certain period, usually 4-6 hours, every day.  People from the neighborhood arrive with 2 and 5 liter bottles, roughly half and full gallon bottles.  A member of the church is on duty to rinse and then fill the bottles.  Some only get one bottle, others 4 to 6.  They carry them in canvas bags and baskets on bicycles.  While there, they are engaged in conversation and there is a bulletin board of church activities at the door way.  Personal hygiene posters for educational purposes are posted.

This last week a communication was received from Cuba.  It is their rainy season.  Stomach problems, dysentery & diarrhea, are rampart.  Lines have now formed daily that extend out the gates of the church and down the block.  The daily production of 350 gallons of clean water runs out.  People in line are upset.  The church works to calm them while another batch of water is processed.  A team is on the way to add additional storage at this church.  Another church in this city is already scheduled for a Living Water installation this November.

Presbytery has established a Living Waters fund for donations from churches and individuals so additional installations can be made in Cuba and around the world.

I saw some significant changes in lifestyle for the Cuban people as compared to last year.  Public transportation was a major bottleneck last year.  Old, broken down busses, long lines at bus stops, scores of hitchhikers, hundreds of old cars all fully loaded with people, dozens of motorcycles & motorbikes all with multiple riders and many with sidecars.  New busses were on the road this year.  They were Chinese, but they were keeping schedules and carrying more passengers.  The bus stop lines were shorter, considerably fewer hitchhikers, fewer old cars and motorcycles.

Speaking of the reduction of old model cars on the streets and highways, there was an increase in bicycles and horse drawn carts.  I suppose this is due to the permanent breakdown of 65 year old autos.  Bike and cart paths are being added to the shoulder of many roads.  Unfortunately these are dirt paths, so the slow vehicles will be back on the pavement when it rains – and it rains often in Cuba.

Operating tractors were seen this year.  They are from Russia.   They are underpowered, but they are better than horse drawn plows which we saw last year.  The US tractors given as ransom for the CIA mercenaries captured at the Bay of Pigs in ‘61 have completely worn out.  The down side is these Russian tractors can pull a sugar cane cart about 1/8 the size we see on the Louisiana highways during cane season.  This means lots and lots of slow carts clogging the Cuban roads during cane season.

Speaking of sugar cane – several abandoned sugar mills were pointed out.  But more prominent was the operating Havana Club distillery.  Havana Club is the Cuban government brand of Rum – Blanco, Oro, Negro, and Select.  And directly across the highway is a paper mill.  Cane pulp is made into paper.

Another change I saw, and it is major, is small businesses.  The Cuban government has just recently started licensing small businesses.  Of course, you have to pay a tax, but small businesses are being allowed.  Driving down a street we would see the porch on an occasional house with clothes on hangers for sale, or a table with small goods for sale.  Previously closed and boarded store fronts on downtown streets are open.  There are no window displays with lights and manikins, but the door is open.  The fact there was not a steady stream of customers indicated the stock available for sale was somewhat limited.  Nonetheless, these are small businesses that are being operated to make a profit for the proprietor – that’s capitalism, a crack in the dam.  We hope the little Dutch boy remains in Holland.

“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of troubles.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down;
He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.”
“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
That it will sprout again and that the tender branch
Thereof will not cease.”

Job speaks as if to the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba.  Collazo and Hall were laid to rest beneath Cuban soil.  But the Church continued.  The Cuban church was cut down, but the roots remained.  The shift in social attitude brought forth new growth.  This new growth brings new challenges.

Carlos Ham characterized the last two decades for all the churches of Cuba as “a tremendous religious revival.”  Many new members are filling the pews.  He notes three challenging characteristics of the “new Christians” in Cuba:
  1. They are academically well-prepared, and in many cases are professionals, unlike other ‘Third World Countries.’
  2. They are sensitive to the depths of their emotions and look for ways to express them.  In the context of a materialistic society, they experience deep spiritual needs and therefore try to meet them through the Christian faith.
  3. They are anxious to recover the time they have lost before coming to the Church and to participate actively in the programs of the local churches, including the development of social projects.
We met with the congregation of several churches.  I noted a multi-generational mix.  The elders are the officers of the church; they are the roots that sustained the church during its darkest days.  The children are active and enthused.  Teens are organized and involved.  The president of the young adults group and 6 of the young adults at one church met with us during a weekday.  Parents of the children and teens are active.

The multi-generational spirit, enthusiasm, unconditional love, and excitement of Presbyterians in Cuba are contagious.  Music, dance, scripture, and worship are exciting and powerful.  The closest I can come to that experience in the states is Cursillo.

Speaking of which, Bruce Turner is available to answer any questions you have about Louisiana Presbyterian Cursillo.  The next Cursillo weekend is August 23-26.  I will be there along with Bruce serving the participants, because this spiritual journey is so important to all of us as we continue to growth in our life with Christ.

With the growing membership in Cuba comes the need for spiritual leadership.  Over half the pulpits in Cuba are empty.  Numerous mission and house churches have been formed.  Pastors double up.  Retired pastors fill in.  Seminary students are assigned as pastors.  The Synod of Cuba has had to take charge of pulpit assignments across all three Presbyteries in an attempt to fill the need.

Prayer, Bible Study, Worship, Fellowship, and Service – the hallmarks of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba, and their urgent need is for support in all these area.

Let us pray.
O God, our God, be with us and sustain us as we seek to further your will on earth.  Continue to guide and strengthen our brothers and sisters in Cuba.  Help us to find effective ways to support and encourage their work and the work of the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ, throughout the world.  In His name we pray.  Amen.
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