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20 October 1999


On a four-day pastoral visit to Cuba, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, spent 11 October at the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Matanzas, 110 kilometers from Havana.

Raiser is accompanied on his four-nation tour in the region by a delegation of ecumenical leaders, including Dr Walter Altmann, president of the Latin American Council of Churches, and the Rev. Carlos Emilio Ham, a president of the Caribbean Conference of Churches.

During his visit to Matanzas, Raiser engaged in dialogue with students and faculty and learned that the thelogical seminary is experiencing record growth. According to the Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega, the school's rector and a former WCC staff member, 127 students are currently studying there, and another 159 are taking classes in extension programmes supervised by the seminary faculty. Ortega, a Presbyterian pastor who currently serves as moderator of the WCC's Commission on Education, said the school today has a waiting list of prospective students.

That's a big change from 20 years ago, when it had only six students, two of whom came from Africa. Yet during the 70s and 80s, even though the seminary wasn't packed with Cuban students, it did provide a safe meeting space for church activists from throughout the Latin American continent who couldn't find anywhere at home "in the shadow of dictatorships" to discuss struggles for human rights and economic justice.

Today, things have changed at the seminary not just in numbers, but also in the content of what students learn. Gender issues, in a country that despite four decades of revolution still wrestles with machismo, are being raised in all aspects of the school's life, and Ortega said every student takes a required two-semester course on theology and gender. The school has also struggled to help students develop a worship style that is uniquely Cuban. "We're weaving our Cuban culture into how we do liturgy, the hymns we sing and write, into who we are as a church," Ortega said. The delegation witnessed this liturgical renewal in a worship service led by students in the seminary's chapel.

The rector said the school has also involved itself in the life of the community in new ways. Students and faculty are working with local neighbourhood groups in Matanzas to develop an educational programme encouraging environmental hygiene. "We're working with the community, with civil society, in some ways we've never seen before," Ortega said. "We're learning how to be a church that comes out from behind its walls and becomes a fully involved, fully Cuban church."

Accompanied by Altmann and Ham, Raiser participated in several hours of dialogue with seminary students and faculty. The students questioned the ecumenical officials about themes ranging from interreligious dialogue to the WCC's recently concluded Ecumenical Decade - Churches in Solidarity with Women. Students also asked about the WCC's posture toward Pentecostal churches, which compose a significant sector of the Cuban church community.

Admitting "a tendency in the ecumenical community to act defensively against the growth of Pentecostal witness," Raiser pointed to "a growing recognition that Pentecostalism represents a distinct and new expression of the Christian faith which cannot simply be subsumed under the general Protestant ethic".

Altmann said that many churches throughout the region had responded to the growth of Pentecostalism by either "assuming a defensive approach towards Pentecostals or trying to copy them" in order not to lose space in the religious marketplace.

Altmann reminded the students of the distinction made by the Peruvian theologian Bernardo Campos between "Pentecostalness" as an action of the spirit in our time, and Pentecostalism as an historic, institutionalized expression of this action.

In response to a question about the US trade embargo against Cuba, Raiser said the WCC and other ecumenical groups "had spoken out clearly" against the embargo, but added that the most important work against the sanctions was being carried out by churches in the United States. "The struggle has to be fought and won within the US," Raiser said. "And it will ultimately succeed because it's a movement to change US policy from below."

In a lively discussion with 15 seminary faculty members, Raiser asked the professors how they interpreted the rapid growth of the church in Cuba in recent years.

Francisco Rodes, a Baptist pastor and professor of Latin American church history, acknowledged that people generally assume the churches have filled up in response to economic hard times. Rodes warned that although Christian churches all over Cuba are full, a "sense of triumphalism" could lead Christians to be "overly optimistic, to misinterpret what's happening around us. We need to wonder whether, if things go back to normal, people are going to remain in the church. ... Many people who joined the churches in this decade have quit after two or three years inside the church." The church needs to rethink how it does Christian education in order to overcome "a superficial understanding of faith", Rodes suggested.

Raiser said he was pleased by a discussion with students about new religious movements. "There's a sensitivity and awareness there that we are moving into a time when you can no longer simply start from the assumption of Christian hegemony," he said. "They're interested in working through that, in developing criteria of how to approach those questions. I find that encouraging."

Delegation members said the seminary impressed them. "It's a place that I've heard about for a long time," said Raiser. "It's one of the key locations in the world where critical theological and political thinking takes place."

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.