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Cuban Methodists thrive but feel effects of embargo



Bishop Ricardo Pereira Díaz of the Methodist Church in Cuba addresses the April 23-26 meeting of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in Stamford, Conn. UMNS photos by Cassandra Heller.

By Linda Bloom*

April 27, 2007 | STAMFORD, Conn. (UMNS)

The Methodist Church in Cuba is thriving more than it ever has since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

But actions by the U.S. government have had a negative impact on mission work and ministry between Cuban church members and their American counterparts, according to leaders of Cuba's Methodists.

That's why Bishop Ricardo Pereira Díaz of Cuba and staff of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries asked board directors for assistance during the April 23-26 spring meeting in Stamford.


The United Methodist Church has consistently called for an end to the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Pereira explained that despite the politics involved, it is the people in Cuba who suffer under the embargo.


Children's evangelism is a focus of the Methodist Church in Cuba, says Dayimi Pementel Prieto, director of the church's Christian education program.

For many years, the Board of Global Ministries has had a license from the U.S. Treasury Department allowing the agency to send funds to support the work of the Methodist Church in Cuba, the Rev. Jorge Domingues, a staff executive, told directors.

"In recent years, it has been more and more difficult to get that license renewed," he said.

In January, the Rev. R. Randy Day, the board's chief executive, received a letter from the U.S. Treasury denying the license renewal for 2007. Among the issues raised, according to Domingues, were the lack of a budget showing how every single dollar would be spent and the objection that money the United Methodist Committee on Relief sent in the 1990s to support a housing project was in violation of current U.S. regulations. "We were not in violation of the regulations at that time," he said.

The board is revising its application, but in the meantime, any funding that would normally come to the Cuban church through Advance gifts, grants and Women's Division projects has been halted, Domingues said.

The only license currently valid for The United Methodist Church is to send pension money to Cuban pastors who were registered with the Methodist Church before 1959.

A long history

Pereira - who was elected bishop in 1999 and re-elected last March - led a four-person delegation to the board meeting.

The denomination has a long history in Cuba. The first Methodist arrived 125 years ago, and a contingent of missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church South took up residence in 1895. Until the Cuban revolution in 1959, Methodists planted churches and ran hospitals and schools on the island.


The Rev. Mario A. Perez speaks about programs offered by the Methodist Center for Theological Studies in Cuba.

After the revolution, according to Pereira, the church was left with two ordained elders. "If a church building was closed for 15 days, it was occupied by the government," he said. "All of the social work, which was an integral part of our witness, was taken from us."


Isolated from Methodists in the United States, the Methodist Church in Cuba became an independent denomination and suffered from "a lack of understanding by the government of what we were about," the bishop added.

Membership and church attendance plummeted, in part because people were afraid to be identified as Christians in a nation that was officially declared to be atheist. "At one point, we only had active 500 members," Pereira reported.

Participation began picking up again in the 1980s and 1990s, and changes were made in liturgical style to reflect the reality of Cuban life.

In 1990, the Methodist Church in Cuba had about 8,000 active members and 96 pastoral appointments. Today, there are 243 churches, 18,400 active members, 3,000 churches in formation and 35,000 people, including members, who participate in some way in the Methodist community, according to the bishop.

Children's evangelism is a focus, according to Dayimi Pimentel Prieto, director of Christian education for the Cuban church. "The majority of children that come to our churches come from dysfunctional families," she said.



Youth director Yosvonys Pereira Proenza says preparing youth for leadership is key to
church growth.

Programs include vacation Bible school, summer camp, family retreats and training of Sunday school teachers. Special attention also is paid to teenagers, the children of pastors and the physically challenged. While the church is still not allowed to do social work, meals are provided for children and the elderly during Sunday school, she noted.


Preparing leaders

Yosvonys Pereira Proenza, the bishop's son and the church's youth leader, said the church recognizes that preparing leaders among youth and making each young person an evangelist leads to greater church growth. It is important that "young people feel they are a part of the work," he added.

Leadership formation also is important for adults, according to the Rev. Mario A. Perez, director of the Methodist Center for Theological Studies in Cuba. The center, housed at the Central Methodist Church in Mantanzas, is a new program that arose out of a conflict with the ecumenical seminary there.

Offerings include a three-year leadership formation course as preparation for local church work and a correspondence course that provides basic training for those unable to come to the seminary. "As the result of the growth of our churches, we need to prepare the leadership," he said.

But the Cuba still lacks economic stability, which affects the church and its members. The U.S. embargo continues and the decline of the socialist world has reduced support and trade with other countries, particularly the former Soviet Union. "With the fall of the Berlin Wall, our whole situation has changed," the bishop explained.

For example, Cuba was once considered "a medical powerhouse" but now lacks even basic medicines. "There are some doctors who have left their clinics and are working as cleaning people in a hotel to have enough to live on," Pereira said.

The pay for church pastors doesn't go far, either. "I don't know how they live," he added. "It's a miracle."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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