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20 October 1999


Trapped in Cuba's capital by Hurricane Irene, an international ecumenical delegation witnessed the organizational ability of the Cuban people as they mobilized all across the island to move those in danger out of harm's way.

Although four people died and several aging buildings collapsed in downtown Havana, observers here claimed the damages wrought by Irene would have been much greater were it not for Cuba's civil defence.

"We witnessed determined discipline, there was no nervousness, people clearly knew how to handle the crisis provoked by the hurricane," said the Rev. Dr Konad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Raiser came to Havana accompanied by regional ecumenical leaders for the first stop of a four-nation swing through the Caribbean and Central America. Originally scheduled to leave Cuba on 14 October, the group was unable to leave the island nation until the following day when it flew to southern Mexico. Yet the lingering presence of the hurricane meant the delegation was unable to fly on to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where it had scheduled meetings with church officials and civil society leaders.

Solidarity at work
The ecumenical leader reported that abundant solidarity between ordinary Cubans had also helped the islanders cope with Hurricane Irene. "I found an unpretentious and self-understood solidarity in Cuba," said Raiser. "Cubans have learned that it doesn't pay to simply look out for your own interests but at the end it helps everyone if you look out for all and help those in need. That's how solidarity should work. Cuba knows how to integrate what has been a practice in traditional societies into a differentiated modern society, and that's quite impressive."

Raiser saw another demonstration of solidarity during an October 13 visit to the Latin American School of Medical Sciences in Havana. Founded after Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America, the school trains young physicians who come from countries like Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras.

"Most of the students are from rural areas and would normally not have the opportunity in their home country to study medicine," Raiser said. "When they come to Havana to receive their training, they make a commitment to go home at the end of six years ready to return to their rural communities with the same spirit of selfless service that they have witnessed in Cuba."

Opened last January, the medical school is housed in a former Cuban Navy complex. In February, the last bomb was removed from the premises.

Raiser said there was much in common between the school and community-based health care programmes supported by the WCC around the world. He said he was interested in exploring ways that the two institutions could collaborate to improve the health of the poor people excluded from existing health care programmes.

The visit to the school came almost at the end of the group's four days of interviews in Havana and the neighbouring province of Matanzas. Earlier in the visit, Raiser had engaged in a dialogue with theological students, preached in Protestant worship services, conversed with the Catholic archbishop of Havana and dined late into the night with president Fidel Castro.

Dramatic growth
On 13 October, as the hurricane drew close to Cuba and the sea off Havana's coast grew tumultuous, Raiser met with leaders of 33 Protestant denominations who briefed him on the dramatic growth of church congregations in recent years. According to the Rev. Otoniel Bermudez, pastor of the independent New Pines Evangelical Church and general secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches, participants were "surprised by how quickly Dr Raiser has come to understand the complexity of the Cuban situation." Bermudez said many of the church leaders present for the meeting came from conservative churches that typically distrust alliances across denominational lines, but that after talking with the WCC leader "they have a new confidence in the ecumenical movement".

All the church leaders present reported their membership rolls have risen sharply. Bermudez, for example, said his church currently has 22,000 members, a 50 percent jump from five years ago.

While analysts commonly suggest this rapid growth comes as a direct result of the economic crisis into which the country plunged earlier this decade when it lost its preferential trading relations with the former Soviet Union, a government official who monitors religious groups said the churches themselves bear more credit.

"The churches are doing their work and doing it well," said Maira Gutierrez, a high-ranking official in the Office for Religious Affairs of the Communist Party's Central Committee.

Several observers told the delegation that the churches' organizational capability was demonstrated earlier this year when as many as one million Cubans participated in different facets of a nationwide Cuban Evangelical Celebration, a several-month ecumenical effort that involved door-to-door evangelism and major rallies in larger towns and cities. The government provided live television coverage of four major rallies and public transportation for the largest celebration held on 20 June in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution.

The church-sponsored celebrations were joyful gatherings that seldom lasted over two hours. One government minister reportedly admitted that the government had a lot to learn from the church, as government-sponsored mass rallies were often interminable affairs where people "are tortured for hours with long speeches".

While credit for church renewal across the island belongs both to the hard work of church leaders as well as to this decade's economic crisis, it's also clear that early in this decade government officials began to see themselves as politicians rather than police in their relationship to religious communities. While tensions haven't completely disappeared, the response of party officials is much more nuanced than in the past, and even frequently cooperative.

"The manoeuvering space for churches has opened up," Raiser observed. "The problem in the 60s, 70s, and 80s wasn't a lack of initiative from the church leaders and members. They simply weren't allowed to function freely as a church. But now the government has changed its policies and allowed the churches a spread of activities not possible 15 years ago."

Avoiding risks
The revival of religion in Cuba faces particular risks. One Cuban religious analyst, Joel Suarez, said he worries that economic hard times will produce "soap Christians", people who approach the churches in difficult economic times because the church offers material resources "from soap to medicines" not readily available in the Cuban marketplace. Such paternalism, Suarez argued, will weaken the church's ability to proclaim authentic hope during uncertain times. "Are we offering cheap grace, a Gospel of Tylenol [acetaminophen], or is the church offering an encounter with Jesus that complicates people's lives and calls for greater commitment to being the salt and light in our neighbourhoods?" asked Suarez, a Baptist.

Church leaders also expressed a desire to not be caught up in what some dubbed "numberism," a triumphalistic focus on how many are coming to churches these days at the cost of any critical analysis of what the church is teaching its new adherents.

Raiser, a German theology professor, compared this to what he had witnessed in the former socialist countries of Europe. "When there's a weakening or an erosion of a hitherto strongly affirmed ideological base, you find people ready to exchange their spiritual frame of reference from an ideological one to a religious one," Raiser said. The danger there, he claimed, was that people can then quickly grow disillusioned with their new religious life, unless the church provides a solid educational programme that will deepen the faith experience and social commitment of new converts.

In many instances, Raiser said he was impressed by "the very clear and instinctive response of the Cuban church in developing new educational materials and activities that will foster in people a new idea of what it means to be a Christian community." He cited as examples of this the development of a new curriculum at the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, a church programme for training lay leaders in Havana, and a church-sponsored popular education programme being used by both the church and some government agencies doing health work.

Raiser said the churches' educational efforts "represent in some way a struggle for the mind of the people". The government, he noted, doesn't want to cede that ideological battle, yet has developed new respect for the ability of the church to bring people together and to foment critical consciousness among its members.

"The Cuban churches have a solid base in evangelical piety, and remain rooted in the life of the people," Raiser observed. "The churches consider themselves an integral part of Cuban society and culture. They no longer represent an alien project, but rather are committed to making a constructive contribution to the process of change in the years ahead."

Accompanying Raiser during his visit to Cuba were Dr Walter Altmanève Jacques, a member of the International Relations team of the WCC; and Marta Palma, a member of the WCC team on Regional Relations and Ecumenical Sharing.

Contact: WCC Media Relations Office, Tel. +41.22.791.61.53

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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.