by Roger Martin
We are flying from New York’s JFK to Cuba with fourteen members from St. Luke’s Parish church in Darien, Connecticut. Our group includes St. Luke’s Rector David Anderson and my wife Susan who is the parish school director. We are on what has been billed as a mission trip and will soon be meeting up in Havana with Griselda Delgado Del Carpio, Cuba’s Episcopal Bishop, who will accompany us on a week-long tour of her diocese.
As we fly south, I’m reading Acts 13 which is particularly relevant since it’s about one of the earliest Christian mission trips. In Acts, Paul and Barnabas are sailing from Antioch to an alien and mostly hostile territory in Pamphylia, what is now modern-day Turkey. Their mission is to bring the good news to a world that knows very little about Jesus Christ. And I’m wondering: As we are about to embark into equally alien and hostile territory, into a country that has been closed to most Americans since 1959, what will our mission be?
As we exit the José Martí airport in Havana, we are greeted by Carlos, our affable driver and tour guide while we are in Cuba. He loads us into the church’s dilapidated 14-passenger mini bus and drives us to the Diocesan Center located next to Havana’s Episcopal cathedral. This will be our home for the next three nights before we leave for the countryside.
The guest residence is a basic dormitory: bunk rooms without air conditioners, peeling paint, broken tiles in the common bathrooms, no toilet seats (or toilet paper!), sinks lacking hot water, missing faucets, and ancient mattresses that are hard to sleep on. Except perhaps for the most expensive hotels in Havana, this is what accommodations are like all over Cuba.
The Bishop later tells us that she pretty much wants to keep the Center’s residential dormitory the way it is and that all it needs is a relatively inexpensive make-over including new mattresses, paint, toilet seats, and operating showers and faucets. On the other hand a couple of us (being “can do” Americans) have a different idea. We think that what the Bishop really needs is not a dormitory but commodious air-conditioned apartments with en suite baths. We are, of course, focusing on our own creature comforts. But we rationalize this by thinking that with these improvements the Bishop will be able to charge more for the rooms than what we are paying and thereby bring more dollars into the diocese. We will soon discover how flawed our thinking is!
Next morning, after a sleepless night in unfamiliar and rather sparse surroundings, we eat breakfast with the Bishop in the rectory. An impressive woman, Bishop Griselda is Bolivian by birth and after some controversy was appointed Bishop of Cuba in 2010. She tells us that the Diocese was established by American Episcopalians in 1901 but that American support ended with the 1960 embargo meaning that since then the church has been in survival mode. The Anglican Church of Canada became a partial lifeline, but for the most part Castro’s Communist regime has made it challenging to operate a church in Cuba. Today there are 44 Episcopal congregations that serve approximately 10,000 people. Twenty seven clergy, many of whom serve multiple churches, are paid the princely sum of $55 per month but with no pension. The Bishop runs the diocese on only $90,000 per year!
It’s now Sunday and Carlos drives us to the Church of the Resurrection in a very poor section of Havana. The congregation, which has eagerly anticipated our arrival, is made up mostly of working class Cubans. There is no organ so we sing the first hymn accompanied by a boom box to the right of the altar.
The Bishop’s sermon is subdued, sticking to the Gospel text just read by David Anderson, the Rector of St. Luke’s. We later learn that a member of the Communist party was surreptitiously attending the service, perhaps because we were present. In Cuba, you still have to be guarded about what you say, even in church.
It’s Monday and Carlos drives us to Bolondron, 65 miles southeast of Havana and the Iglesia San Paulo, a parish of seventy members where the Bishop’s son-in-law, Andrei Diaz, is Rector. The Bishop and her husband Gerardo (also a priest) follow in their car.
After arriving at the rectory, we walk a couple blocks to Andrei’s church where we will meet a group of clergy who have driven great distances to be here with us. These priests will run a summer youth camp in the Diocesan Center in Havana, a project St. Luke’s has agreed to support. Sometime in the future they will also run a camp and retreat center near Santa Clara— Camp Blankingship—which will be more accessible to children and families since it’s located nearer the center of the country.
Pointing to the first four pews of his church, Andrei tells us that on a typical Sunday they are filled with children. “Children come to church alone,” he says to our surprise “because their parents are mostly indifferent to the church and religion.” He tells us that church is so important to these children that when they misbehave their parents will often discipline them by saying that they can’t go to church. “Children are our church’s future,” he adds. When Andrei says this I reflect back to the plan recently hatched by a couple of us to convince the Bishop not to simply spruce up the existing the dormitory back at the Diocesan Center but instead to create a comfortable residence that will appeal to adults. It then occurs to me that the reason the Bishop wants to have a barrack-style dormitory is so that she can then bring children to Havana, lots of them, and children will be just fine with double decker bunk beds and shared bath room facilities. Like her son-in-law, she too believes that the future of the church in Cuba are the youth.
As we circle back to the rectory, Andrei tell us that just after the Revolution it was acceptable to go to church. “Then when the Russians got involved, the church was actively opposed by Cuba’s Communist party. Now there is a more ‘intelligent indifference’ to the church on the part of the government.” In light of a decline in mainline church attendance in the United States, what Andrei says next is not lost on our group. “On the subject of indifference and declining church membership,” he says, “you have much to learn from us!”
We drive two and a half hours to Santa Clara to tour the future Camp Blankingship, named after the American Bishop of Cuba from 1939 to 1961. This plot of land was purchased by the Episcopal Church in the 1950s but expropriated by the government shortly after the Revolution. Once again in Episcopalian hands, it will be turned into a retreat center for children and adults if about $2 million can be raised from the United States when the embargo is lifted. In the meantime, its farm produces beans, mangos and avocados not just for church members but for the whole surrounding area. A hallmark of the Episcopal Church in Cuba is that its parishes aren’t exclusive enclaves for members only, but resources for everyone in the community.
We drive two hours back in the direction of Havana and arrive at the village of Itabo and the Iglesia Santa Maria Virgin. Bishop Griselda was ordained in 1986 and assigned to this parish two years later. The church was built in 1937, but like so many ecclesiastical structures in Cuba, it fell apart after the Revolution. Consequently, members of the parish had been meeting in their homes when she arrived. In 1997 she decided to rebuild the church, but because building materials were scarce and building suppliers were disinclined to help churches, the task of rebuilding was monumental. But through sheer persistence and begging (and with some financial help from Episcopal churches in Florida) she finally got what she needed.
Like other Episcopal parishes in Cuba, the entire Itabo community (a community that is among the poorest in Cuba) benefits from the Episcopal Church’s presence. Because water in Cuba is not potable, the church has installed a water purification system with a public faucet that the entire village can use. As at Camp Blankingship, the parish owns a small farm complete with vegetables, chickens, rabbits and pigs that also feeds the village.
Just before lunch the next day we have a group meeting with the Bishop. We want her to know how impressed we are with what she has achieved and that we stand with her as she looks to the future.
Jeremy, a member of St. Luke’s and our principal translator since he speaks fluent Spanish, asks the Bishop whether she feels under pressure overseeing a diocese with so many needs. She says that becoming leader of the Episcopal Church in Cuba has involved many surprises and that she has been up against a massive learning curve. “I was not prepared to think through all the pressing challenges our church faces here, but God keeps assisting me.” She goes on to tell us that Itabo is a model for what she hopes to achieve throughout her diocese, that the future of the Episcopal Church in Cuba is the younger generation, and that to be successful she will need more priests. “Only two or three are in the seminary pipeline.”
Stuart and Jenifer, two members of our group, want to know what St. Luke’s can do right now, before the embargo is lifted and the money spigot is turned on. “Do you need financial or human resources, or both?”
The Bishop gets pensive. “I know you want to move fast, but you must realize that my people are not ready to move too fast. The challenge is that before we finally get the resources that are sure to come we need to teach our people how to use them. Right now we have few people who know how to manage a parish. So back at the Diocesan Center in Havana we are running a course for lay leaders on how to plan in a business way. At the end of the course all attendees must present a business plan for their parishes. The top three plans get a small grant from the Episcopal Relief Fund mostly for sustainability projects. Most people don’t win but at least they are learning how to develop a plan.” The Bishop tells us that she too is learning. “The diocese never had a master plan so this is what I have been developing—with little training in how to do it.”
David Anderson, St. Luke’s Rector, suggests that our purpose is neither to dictate what needs to be done in Cuba nor to pressure the Bishop. “We don’t want to become part of the problem” he says.
“I understand,” the Bishop replies. “But the Holy Spirit keeps pushing me. What I eventually need from the Episcopal Church in America are funds and volunteer labor to help rebuild our crumbling churches and to support our youth camps.” She reflects for a moment. “I also need you to finance me spiritually. Your support must be both material and spiritual.”
The week is almost over and we are heading back to Havana in Carlos’ rumbling bus. Our visit to Cuba has been eye-opening. Andrei was right. We Americans have as much to learn from our Cuban friends as they do from us. The Cuban church is poor but growing. Many of our Episcopal Churches are wealthy but have declining memberships. Cuban Episcopalians see their future in the children and so they want to put the limited resources they have into the education and spiritual development of young people. Many of our young people have become alienated from the church.
I think Cuban Episcopalians might have something to teach us about church growth!
Roger Martin is a retired college president is a former associate dean at Harvard Divinity School where he taught church history.