Pope Francis recently announced that he would be meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro during his visit to Cuba in May. This came in the heels of President Barack Obama’s declaration in December 2014 that he was seeking to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of strife, including eventually opening embassies in Washington and Havana.
I have always advocated for the lifting of the Embargo. However, I must confess I had mixed feelings about the news. I am a Cuban-born immigrant living in the U.S. like many others of my compatriots. While I cannot forget what my family and myself went through because of the Cuban Revolution and the exilic experience, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I support any effort that will bring about forgiveness and reconciliation, even at the political level.
Because of my previous work with the mission agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I was able to visit Cuba in 2004 for the first time since I left as a teenager with some of my U.S. colleagues to engage in conversations with leaders of the Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada de Cuba-IPRC (Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba). That gave me the opportunity to meet and befriend not only the leaders of the Cuban national church, but also many of their pastors and parishioners.
I was very impressed by all the Cuban pastors that I met during my visit, both women and men. The synergism created by the realities of daily lives and the challenges of the Gospel gave way to what a prominent leader of the Cuban Church described to me as “La Teología de las Cazuelas,” which loosely translated means “a Theology of Pots and Pans.” In comparison with many of us ministers and pastors in the United States who usually live above the socio-economic level of our communities, these pastors preach and minister not from adorned pulpits in air-conditioned sanctuaries, but from the food lines and hospitals and clinics without adequate medicine or equipment, sharing the frustrations of a people who suffer from what I consider the criminal embargo imposed by the United States on the island nation, as well as from the inadequacies of the Cuban government’s policies.
Of course, the U.S. Embargo against Cuba was still in full force during my visit. I cannot help but wonder – How would the re-establishment of relations between the two countries impact the Cuban church, specifically the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba, and its relationship with its counterpart in the U.S., and by extension the Cuban society in general?
Some history of the relationship between the two churches and perspectives from colleagues and friends both from Cuba and the U.S. about the recent events may help in answering this question. The Rev. Dr. Carlos Emilio Ham, a Cuban church Presbyterian leader, gives us some background on how the relationship between the two Presbyterian churches began. Moreover, he also asserts that this genesis included a strong social and political agenda.
The Presbyterian Church was founded in Cuba by Evaristo Collazo, a Cuban lay patriot who fought against Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. While living in Florida, USA, in political exile, he was converted to Christianity in the Reformed tradition. He returned to Cuba and founded the first Presbyterian congregation in Havana on June 26 1890. His wife Magdalena, together with the congregation, set up a school for poor children who could not afford to pay high school fees. So from the very beginning Cuban Presbyterianism was marked by this rich heritage: patriotism and social commitment, with a strong participation of the laity and of women, and a special ecumenical orientation and engagement.
In subsequent years, the Cuban congregations were constituted as a presbytery of the Presbyterian Church USA, Synod of New Jersey, until the Cuban Presbyterian Church became and independent national church in 1977.
Prompted by my request to share her perspective on the changes, the Rev. Dora Arce-Valentin, Executive Secretary for Justice and Partnership for the World Communion of Reformed Churches and a minister member of the IPRC, writes: “Since 1977 when the IPRC became autonomous, the relationships with what is today the PCUSA, have been fraternal, respectful and in solidarity.”
She further shares that:
Therefore, I consider that any systematization of the history of the relationship between Cuba and the USA of the last fifty-five years, the role of the churches in the normalization of this relationship will have to be singled out due to its paradigmatic prophetic and “evangelical” character.
In other words, she believes that the churches in both Cuba and the US may have served as the preamble of the current effort to develop the political apertures between the two countries. Moreover, she hopes that the new policies will
[…] open new opportunities of interchange of experiences, more possibilities for dialogue regarding the mission of the church, and even the working together of the two churches to address injustice in both contexts.
Here, we have heard from Cuban Christian leaders. Tomorrow, the perspective of Cuban exiled colleagues will be shared.
Tony Aja is a Teaching Elder member of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, Presbyterian Church (USA), and currently serves as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at McCormick Theological Seminary. A former refugee from Cuba, Tony has developed new ministries with refugees and immigrants in Florida and Kentucky. He has been a missionary, pastor, executive director of an ecumenical community ministry and staff at PC(USA) headquarters and Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. Tony has served in local and national boards and committees dealing with social justice and immigrant and refugee issues. He has helped develop grass-roots organizations with both local and national scope.
Tony is happily married to Elder Loyda P. Aja and they have three grown children: Alan (married to Wendy Trull); Vanessa (married to the Rev. David Aja-Sigmon); and Bryan (married to Misty Schmidt). Loyda and Tony are the proud grandparents of Lucas Joaquin, Liam Elian Antonio, and Jesse Miguel.
 Carlos Emilio Ham, “A Cuban Experience of Mission in Unity” – Semper Reformanda; World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now the World Communion of Reformed Churches); volume 52, number 2, June 2002. This article gives a complete history and analysis of the relationship between the two churches over the years.