World Council of Churches Office of Communication|
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ECUMENICAL LEADERS TOLD CUBA'S GROWING CHURCHES FACE NEW CHALLENGES
cf. WCC Press Update of 12 October 1999
cf. WCC Press Release of 13 October 1999
There has been "a remarkable growth of religious life" in Cuba, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) told a gathering of Protestants in the Cuban capital on 12 October.
In a sermon to an ecumenical gathering of more than a thousand people in Havana's Mella Theater, the Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser took note of the spectacular growth reported in recent years by Cuba's Protestant churches. Yet he also warned Cubans "to trust in the Gospel and not their rising numbers" if they want the church to be "a centre of hope during uncertain times".
The worship service came on the third day of a four-day pastoral visit to Cuba by Raiser. The general secretary leaves 14 October for Haiti, the second stop of a four-nation tour in the region. Raiser is accompanied 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 our visit, we have witnessed signs of the courageous struggle of the Cuban people to maintain their dignity and independence," Raiser told the crowd in Havana. "But questions remain about the values that can guide you through an uncertain future and hold your society together."
Raiser said he had seen several signs of the church "being salt and light" to today's Cuba, including "opening up to young people looking for space for life," as well as creating places where mistreated women are treated with compassion and where the poor "are received with dignity".
In this decade, Cuba's loss of its preferential trading relationship with the former Soviet Union has thrown the country into an economic tailspin from which it is just now showing concrete signs of recovery. At the same time, Cuba's churches have grown dramatically, aided by the ruling Communist Party's decision in 1991 to drop its requirement that party members be atheists. This development encouraged thousands of Cuban Christians to attend worship and join churches more freely as a result.
As an example, the Methodist Church in Cuba, one of two WCC member churches in Cuba, has grown from 4,000 members five years ago to some 10,000 today, and another 4,000 persons are enrolled in membership classes. The denomination's membership dropped as low as 1,600 twenty years ago.
In an earlier exchange with the ecumenical delegation, Francisco Rodes, a Baptist pastor and professor of Latin American church history at the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Matanzas, acknowledged that people generally assume the churches have filled up in response to economic hard times.
"While it's true that the Christian churches all over the island are full, there's a sense of triumphalism that could lead us 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... While it's true that people are coming to church, it's also true that people are leaving the church. Many people who joined the churches in this decade have quit after two or three years inside the church."
Representatives of Protestant and Pentecostal churches from throughout the island told the ecumenical delegation on Tuesday that a massive evangelism campaign earlier this year brought more than one million Cubans out for public worship celebrations held in scores of villages and cities nationwide. The campaign culminated in a 20 June celebration in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution in which top government officials, including president Fidel Castro, participated.
Leaders of the Cuban Council of Churches, also a member of the WCC, reported that they have brought 56 shipping containers full of biblical literature into the country so far this year in support of the Celebration.
Yet church leaders here say such success is posing unique challenges for them.
"The Celebration demonstrated that the ecumenism we've had until now is insufficient for today," said the Rev. Oden Marichal, an Episcopal priest and president of the church council. "Ecumenism as we've practised it has been mostly a matter for the historic Protestant churches and some Roman Catholics." In a country where many of the new Christians are joining Pentecostal churches, Marichal suggested church leaders need to renovate existing ecumenical structures.
In his discussion on Monday, 11 October, with students and faculty of the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Matanzas the WCC general secretary, the Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, admitted to "a tendency in the ecumenical community to act defensively against the growth of Pentecostal witness" in the past, but 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".
Contact: Kristine Greenaway, director of WCC Communication,
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.