Mission in Cuba

I recently took part in a visit to Seminario Evangélico de Teología with a delegation from the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. The seminary invited my bishop, Robert Wright, to teach a course on Jesus and Leadership. Lay and clergy representatives from our diocesan global missions commission and several Hispanic congregations joined him – 1 deacon, 2 lay leaders, and 7 priests – a team representing all four orders of ministry.

At the Atlanta airport before take off – an airport chaplain came by to pray with us.
Episcopalians serving at the seminary in Matanzas: Alexi (married to Clara, Junior Warden at Limonar), Dr. Clara Ajo Lazaro (Professor of Theology, first Cuban woman to receive a PhD in religious studies), The Rev. Dr. Marianela de la Paz Cot (teaches Pastoral Theology and Church Administration, also seminary chaplain to Episcopal students and priest at Limonar), The Rev. Gilberto Caballero Elizalde (teaches church history, also priest at Coliseo), Maria Elvira Tirse Hernandez (married to Gilberto, minister of hospitality who took good care of us), The Rev. Lis Margarita Hernandez Martinez (Diocesan Historian, the only vocational deacon in the Church of Cuba)

In addition to the class at the seminary, we visited 7 Episcopal churches and learned about their ministries:

  • Catedral de La Santísima Trinidad, Havana (Cathedral of the Holy Trinity)
  • San Felipe Diácono, Limonar (St. Philip the Deacon)
  • San Juan Evangelista, Coliseo (St. John Evangelist)
  • Trinidad, Los Arabos (Trinity)
  • Cristo Rey, Cuatro Esquinas (Christ the King)
  • San Franciso de Asís, Cárdenas (St. Francis of Assisi)
  • Fieles a Jesús, Matanzas (Faithful to Jesus – perhaps my favorite church name ever, so named because this is the oldest non-Roman church on the island. The founders wanted a name that would distinguish it from the Roman Catholic Church).
Cathedral Exterior
Cathedral Interior
Where St. Philip the Deacon in Limonar used to worship – destroyed by a hurricane in 1980
Outside the sacristy where St. Philip the Deacon has worshiped since 1980

The Episcopal Church of Cuba today includes 40+ parishes and missions and around 30 clergy. Worship everywhere we visited is according to the Spanish language translation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  Many congregations meet in lovely church buildings (like the Cathedral, above). All are very involved with their communities. Most are very small (ASA 20 – 40). A few are larger (ASA 80  – 100).

They are like many churches in the US.

Except . . . This is Cuba, an island nation that endured colonialism, dictatorship, Marxist social revolution, a continuing US embargo, and a “special period” (Fidel Castro’s term) of economic hardship in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

These concrete Soviet water towers are everywhere.

And yet, the church endured. It endured a long season in which being Christian meant being denied access to certain careers and opportunities. It endured a rapidly changing economic system that provides for some needs (education, health care) but not others (clean water, transportation, internet). It continues to endure “extra-provincial” status within the Anglican Communion when The Episcopal Church backed away from Cuba due to complications of the US economic embargo.

These Episcopal Christians are still here. They are like the cars a few are fortunate to drive in Cuba – classic models held together by hard work, repaired with invented parts, and polished with love.

Isn’t this a beauty! On a street in Matanzas.

Churches in Cuba have survived by inventing new ways to keep going. As a result, in some ways, they seem stronger than churches in the US, where faith is easier but perhaps less valued. They have much to teach. They have already taught me much about being the Church in a rapidly changing world.

Cuba has lots of beaches.
AND mountains. Sorry, this doesn’t do justice to the view heading in to Matanzas.
Sunrise over Matanzas, view from the seminary
On a door at the seminary