Methodist church members in Santiago, Cuba, praying in the street. They received significant hurricane Sandy relief from UMCOR and the Cuban hurricane Sandy relief team.
Cuba’s Vibrant, Growing Methodist Church
by Elliott Wright
For more than 130 years, the Methodist Church in Cuba has experienced peaks and valleys that make it an enduring, determined—and, today, vibrant and growing—member of the Latin American Methodist family.
An initial effort to introduce Methodism to Cuba in the 1880s was overwhelmed by political realities. Then, for the first half of the 20th century, US government and church interests held sway. A long, deep period of uncertainty followed the 1959 Communist Revolution led by Fidel Castro. Finally, new social demands cascaded upon the churches when the collapse of the Soviet Union undercut the Cuban economy in the 1990s.
Today, the Methodist Church in Cuba has more than 42,000 members and a worshiping community of 65,000—a remarkably large number for a Protestant denomination in a country with a Roman Catholic culture (by tradition) and a Communist government. Many churches that were damaged or destroyed during the revolution have been restored, often with the assistance of mission volunteers from other countries. These volunteers were also instrumental in building a church camp and restoring a theological seminary for pastoral training in Havana. Now, the Cuban Methodist church is partnering with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in building more than 200 houses for people whose homes were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. At this point UMCOR has constructed 100 houses, supported 450 families, and reconstructed 26 churches.
“The church in Cuba is something of a miracle,” notes the Rev. Edgar Avitia, the Global Ministries’ staff member who relates to Cuba. “It survived tough times and now thrives, in large part because it combines the grace of Wesleyan theology with Cuban culture. Its leadership and style of worship are unapologetically indigenous. It sings and dances and serves others to celebrate God’s love.”
The Cuban church uses a Caribbean liturgy “because it allows people to express themselves with authenticity and freedom,” explained Bishop Ricardo Pereira Diaz, the episcopal leader of the church, in a video interview last year when he visited the offices of Global Ministries in New York. He pointed out that young Cubans, especially those raised in a secular culture, are attracted to a church that embraces their Cuban heritage.
Even at the lowest point after the Communist Revolution, when most pastors and many church members left the country, the Methodist Church in Cuba never completely vanished. It also never totally lost contact with fellow Methodists in other countries despite a total embargo and blockade imposed by the US Congress in 1963.
While ending the embargo is a hope among Methodists in both Cuba and the United States, that possibility resides in the future. Moves in late 2014 and early 2015 to reopen diplomatic relations between the two countries may well facilitate more family, religious, and cultural visits across the borders.
The United Methodist Church’s General Conference opposed the embargo from the start. Its 1964 General Conference issued a statement questioning the US efforts to isolate particular countries, notably China and Cuba. “The Christian gospel involves reconciliation by encounter and by communication regardless of political considerations,” the General Conference statement said. “Therefore, we cannot accept the expression of hostility by any country, its policies, or its ideologies as excuses for the failure of Christians to press…toward a growing understanding among the peoples of all countries.” United Methodist official opposition to the Cuba embargo has never wavered.
Cuba’s Methodist Background
Methodism first arrived in Cuba in 1883, with Cuban migrant workers returning home from Florida after encountering Methodist outreach in Key West or the Tampa Bay area. These first missionaries held worship in the lobby of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana and established a school, but the going was rough in a Spanish possession struggling to shake off the shackles of colonialism. Civil unrest also hampered the work. A war for independence escalated into the Spanish-American War, which concluded in 1898 with a US occupation, a new colonial master. A new Methodist start was needed.
The plan from the 1880s for Cubans to lead the Cuban church faded during the decades when US economic and political interests controlled the island. Most Methodist missionaries and church officers in Cuba were foreigners. Church records indicate a high turnover among missionaries, partly because of their susceptibility to tropical diseases. One standard history of the first 50 years of Cuban Methodism records the comings and goings of missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Cuba became an annual (regional) conference, first of the MEC, South, in the 1920s and later, of the Methodist Church, which was formed by the union of three Methodist entities in 1939. Episcopal oversight came from the church’s bishop in Florida. Not until 1924 did the Cuban church even have an indigenous district superintendent.
Despite the overlay of religious colonialism, many pastors were Cubans during the first half of the 20th century—a testimony to a strong emphasis on clergy preparation and education in general. An ecumenical theological seminary was one of the first institutions to be developed when mission work was restarted after 1898. Education at all levels was a strong Methodist forte and an arena in which missionary and indigenous commitments coalesced. The Rev. Harry Brown Bardwell, originally from Georgia, headed Candler College, an elementary and secondary school in Havana, for 40 years (1909 to 1949). Bardwell had a deep missionary commitment to Cuba and its people and continued to live there until his death in 1956. That and other Methodist schools were eventually nationalized by the Castro government.
At the arrival of Communism in 1959, Cuba had 120 Methodist church buildings and some 70 Methodist pastors serving 5,000 members. Most pastors and many members left Cuba as Castro’s forces prevailed. These departures took place in a series of waves, extending into the 1980s. The Castro government’s initial constitution defined the country as atheistic, and by 1962, all 53 Methodist missionaries previously serving in Cuba had left. The 1968 United Methodist General Conference recognized the autonomy of the Methodist Church in Cuba, which was then electing its own bishop.
Florida Conference Ties
In the last two decades of the 19th century, work among Cuban migrant workers in Key West and the Tampa Bay area was initiated by the Florida Conference of the MEC, South. It was from Florida that the new mission vanguard came in 1898, led by its bishop, Warren A. Candler, who would give his name to the Havana school and who also presided many times at the Cuba Annual Conference meeting. Across the first six decades of the 20th century, many of the missionaries and much of the support for the Cuba mission came from congregations in the Florida Conference. The southern tip of Florida is only 90 miles from Cuba, and many Methodists who left Cuba in the 1960s made Florida their new home. This Florida-Cuban connection continues today. “I believe that God has blessed the relationship between our two churches,” wrote Bishop Timothy Whitaker, the episcopal leader in Florida in 2009. “We share a common heritage and a common commitment to advancing the cause of Christ in our region of the world.”
The Florida Conference has another special relationship with the Methodist Church in Cuba—“Methodists United in Prayer.” It is organized around person-to-person visits for spiritual enrichment and has the approval of the governments of both Cuba and the United States. Under this agreement, each year Florida can send 24 persons per district to each of the nine Methodist districts in Cuba. Likewise, a limited number of Cuban pastors can visit Florida churches each year. This relationship is of great value to congregations in both countries, said Icel Rodriguez, director of global missions for the Florida United Methodist Conference, in a February 2015 telephone interview.
In many cases, a “sister church” relationship exists between congregations in Florida and Cuba. Bishop Ken Carter, Florida’s current bishop, led a conference celebration of 130 years of Methodism in Cuba and visited the island in 2013. Afterward, he said in an email to Florida churches: “The Cuban Methodists have discovered how to form new communities of Christian disciples…and how to call forth the gifts of a younger generation.”
The value of person-to-person visitations is often visible on the websites of Florida’s United Methodist congregations or its districts when they report on exchange visits by Florida pastors to Cuba and those of Cuban pastors to Florida. The North East District unit of Methodists United in Prayer issues a quarterly newsletter, Cuba Current, filled with accounts of visits as well as Cuban-centered festivals and studies. The newsletter archives are online at http://lasierramethodist.com/Resources.html.
Volunteers in Mission
The launching of Methodists United in Prayer was facilitated by developments that also led to a sustained program of United Methodist Volunteer-in-Mission (UMVIM) team journeys from the United States to Cuba. By the early 1990s, relations between Cuba’s churches and the Castro government were warmer than in earlier days. In 1991, the leadership of the Cuban church broached the idea of greater contact with outside Christian communities. For example, perhaps Cuban Methodists could even host a missionary. That year, a couple—the Revs. Philip and Diana Wingeier-Rayo—became
the first UMC missionaries to enter Cuba in 30 years. Then, in 1992, the Cuban constitution was revised to characterize the country as “secular” rather than “atheist.”
Philip Wingeier-Rayo currently serves as director of the Mexican American and Hispanic-Latino Church Ministries Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. In a recent phone conversation, he recalled the six-year venture in faith he and Diana took nearly 25 years ago. “It was supposed to be a six-month assignment that developed into a two-term missionary placement,” he said. “I taught at the ecumenical seminary and pastored a church. We traveled all across Cuba, opened some of the closed churches, and laid the groundwork for the Volunteer-in-Mission effort.”
Despite rough spots along the way—especially given US policy related to the embargo—the UMVIM Cuba program currently allows two volunteer work teams (up to 12 persons) from the United States to go to Cuba each month. The allocation was initially one team per month, but the number was increased to lend capacity to the work on a Methodist theological seminary in Havana, according to Aldo Gonzalez, long-time coordinator of the United Methodist Cuba VIM program. The initial work was focused on partnering with Cuban Methodists to reconstruct churches and parsonages.
UMVIM sojourners, Gonzalez notes, were also instrumental in building Camp Canaan—a facility that can host up to 700 persons for such events as the church’s annual conference. The camp also serves the Cuban church’s strong emphasis on reaching youth and young adults.
Social and Spiritual Holiness
The 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union and other Communist governments of Eastern Europe had what has been called “calamitous consequences” for Cuba, but it also triggered new opportunities for evangelization and church growth. Trade virtually ceased for a time, negatively affecting jobs, incomes, and government-funded social programs upon which many Cubans relied. There was not only a need but an opportunity for churches and other nongovernmental organizations to become more socially active. For Methodists, that meant combining social holiness with personal spiritual holiness. The Cuban church started or stepped up ministries in health, housing, agriculture, senior care, and services to single mothers.
With the Methodist Church present in more than 90 percent of Cuba’s municipalities, Bishop Pereira can say with confidence—as he did in the interview last year—“We want to have all good things of the gospel come to pass in our country.”
Methodists in both Cuba and the United States are hopeful that diplomatic relations between the two countries—and an eventual lifting of the embargo—will expand the Christian interactions that now benefit both sides.
Elliott Wright is an Information Consultant with Global Ministries. This article was originally published in the May-June 2015 issue of New World Outlook magazine. Used by permission.
A house of the UMCOR housing project in Cuba, built by Cuban and US volunteer teams.
Photo: Germán Acevedo Delgado
People on the street in Cardenas, on the Caribbean island of Cuba, discussing the events of their day.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey
Dayanara García, treasurer for the Methodist Church in Cuba, with flags that represent different church relationships behind her. Cuban Bishop Ricardo Pereira Diaz looks on.
Photo: Germán Acevedo Delgado