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UMCOR advocates to provide Cuba storm relief

The Rev. Sam Dixon, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, addresses members of the denomination's Board of Global Ministries on Oct. 15.
A UMNS photo by Cassandra Heller.

By Linda Bloom*
Oct. 16, 2008 | STAMFORD, Conn. (UMNS)

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has made some progress toward obtaining the U.S. Treasury Department licenses required to allow the denomination to assist hurricane survivors in Cuba.

A work team rebuilds a hurricane-damaged home in the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Methodist Church of Cuba.

The Rev. Sam Dixon, UMCOR's top executive, presented an update from legal counsel about the licenses during an Oct. 15 meeting of the relief agency’s board of directors. UMCOR is part of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, which was meeting Oct. 13-17 in Connecticut.

Numerous United Methodists have called for a response to the devastation caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Cuba in early September, including those in the church's Florida Conference, which has an ongoing relationship with Cuban Methodists. The hurricanes destroyed more than 400,000 homes and destroyed or damaged 33 Methodist church buildings, according to reports from the Methodist Church in Cuba.

But the U.S. government’s decades-long economic embargo against Cuba restricts such assistance. UMCOR’s renewal of its license for aid to Cuba was denied by the Treasury Department in 2006, along with renewals for other organizations representing church institutions.

"Because of the embargo, we cannot transfer funds legally into Cuba," Dixon said, noting that third-party transfers—through Canada, for example—also are considered illegal. "If we do that, we risk incurring substantial fines."

Loss of nonprofit status could be a consequence. "We have to be careful to protect the church," he stressed.

Hired law firm

In September, UMCOR retained the Washington law firm of Williams and Jenson to represent the board in its effort to obtain new licenses. The firm previously worked with the denomination’s Board of Pension and Health Benefits to obtain a license to transmit a small amount of pension funds to Cuban pastors.

Just before the UMCOR meeting, David Starr, the attorney representing UMCOR, reported to Dixon that the applications need to be re-submitted and split into four, rather than two licenses.

If approved, the revised licenses could provide immediate relief through Dec. 5, followed by a longer humanitarian response after that date, as well as general assistance to the Methodist Church in Cuba. UMCOR had hoped to allocate up to $1 million for hurricane relief work in Cuba and $300,000 for general church assistance.

“It greatly pains us … that we cannot respond. The needs are huge.”
–The Rev. Sam Dixon, UMCOR
The entire process has been frustrating, he said. "It greatly pains us, at UMCOR and Global Ministries, that we cannot respond (to the hurricanes)," Dixon said. "The needs are huge. It really wiped the eastern part of the island clean."

Four former bishops of the Methodist Church in Cuba, currently residing in the United States, issued a statement of concern in October about the effects of the hurricanes.

"As a result of these natural disasters more than 400,000 homes have been totally or partially destroyed, the economy has suffered greatly, the food is scarce due to the loss of crops that were kept in storages and … (sicknesses) are afflicting the people, mainly because of the contamination of the many sources of drinkable water," the statement said.

The statement called upon The United Methodist Church "to intensify the pressure on the U.S. government to grant the proper licenses that would allow us to act in accordance with the evangelical mandate of helping the needy: 'As you did to the least of your brothers, you did it unto Me' (Matthew 25:40), and be able to give assistance to that part of the Body of Christ in Cuba that has suffered as a consequence of these natural disasters."

Supporting the bishops

The United Methodist Missionary Association, which had representatives present at the Board of Global Ministries meeting, issued an Oct. 12 statement supporting the concerns of the Cuban bishops.

"As active and retired United Methodist missionaries who have lived as members of the body of Christ across the globe, we are concerned that the policy of the United States government has limited the ability of The United Methodist Church to be in partnership with the Methodist Church in Cuba and respond to the urgent needs of the Cuban people," the missionary association statement said.

MARCHA, the denomination’s Hispanic/Latino caucus, has pushed for relief efforts in Cuba since the hurricanes occurred. In a Sept. 30 message to members and supporters, the organization acknowledged UMCOR’s limitations but encouraged donations from its members to the Methodist Church in Cuba.

"It is MARCHA's view that our Christian duty requires us to offer aid to those in need regardless of who they are or where they live," the statement said.

MARCHA, the missionary association and other United Methodists have called upon church members to urge the U.S. government to help facilitate the flow of aid to Cuba by temporarily lifting the embargo.

Dixon also encouraged contacting congressional representatives, the Treasury Department and the White House. "In addition, there are those in the Cuban American community with significant political connections who are strongly opposed to lifting the embargo for any reasons," he said. "Joining with members of the Cuban American community who feel differently in encouraging the provision for a humanitarian response would be appropriate."

*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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