Beyond Plastic Cuba

The island nation is a land of contrasts: Beauty and deprivation, renovation and abandonment, an alienated church and grassroots growth.

By Matthew Townsend

Cuba is complicated. Visitors to Cuba hear this refrain over and over again as they try to wrap their minds around a society that is unlike any other in Latin America or, for that matter, the world.

Likewise, the Episcopal Church of Cuba is complicated. The church, split from the Episcopal Church in 1966 after relations between Cuba and the United States soured, is governed by a council consisting of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada, and Archbishop John Holder of the West Indies. The Rt. Rev. Maria Griselda Delgado del Carpio, Bishop of Cuba, was appointed by the council in 2010 after the Cuban church failed to elect a bishop coadjutor in 2009.

Success in connecting Episcopal churches in the United States to Cuban Episcopalians depends on creating relationships between Americans and Cubans in general. Only in recent years have Americans been free to visit Cuba legally, with relaxations in the embargo that allow U.S. citizens to visit for educational reasons. Programs like the Authentic Cuban Experience, coordinated by Florida-based Educational Opportunities Tours and Celestyal Cruises of Greece, offer secular tourists and religious pilgrims a guided journey to several locations on the island. Celestyal Cruises and Educational Opportunities have also invited travel and religion writers to tour Cuba at no cost, an invitation TLC accepted in May.

Expectations abound among Americans who make the journey. Cuba does not occupy a neutral space in the minds of Americans: it is the land of rum and cigars, a land of toil, a workers’ paradise, a corrupt dictatorship, a place that stood up for the poor, a place that stole the life’s work (and lives) of so many innocents.

Jorge Arrocha, a citizen of Cuba and an academic who lectures on Cuban history and culture aboard Celestyal’s voyages, focuses on cultivating such relationships. Arrocha delivers lectures about Cuba — everything ranging from its general history to the cultural significance of rum — as the cruise line’s vessel circumnavigates the island. Many crew members aboard the ship are Cuban citizens, further adding to a sense of immersion.

Arrocha told TLC that the complex layers of Cuban society can make it difficult for Americans to understand the

country. “On the one hand, you have the Cuban people,” he said. “The common people really want change and transition, normalization with the U.S. They’re waiting there for you on the street with their arms open.”

Another layer is the Cuban government, he said, in which dialogue is focused on programming — what to  show and how to show it. While Arrocha does not explicitly avoid political topics, he places heavier emphasis on cultural and historical exchange. The nature of Cuba’s government is apparent and self-evident upon visiting: it is frequently present, whether in the form of uniformed officials or propaganda posters. Passengers’ belongings are X-rayed at each port as they come and go from the ship. Cuba does not feel like a police state crawling with minders, but it does not feel like a free state, either.

Visitors’ experience of Cuban citizens — who are often friendly and will readily engage in conversation on the streets — and the Cuban government can come into conflict with their expectations. A potential trap: playing to a paradisiacal vision of what Arrocha calls “the plastic Cuba” to visiting foreigners, in which “Cuba is the island of the cigars, Cuba is the island of the rum, Cuba is the island of mulattas and mulattos dancing salsa on the beach.” Part of introducing Americans to Cubans involves showing the history and change present in the country, including more relaxed attitudes about religion and LGBT people that have emerged in the last few decades.

A desire to “see Cuba before it changes” often motivates visiting Americans. Arrocha described this as a mix of fear about an encroachment of McDonald’s and the belief that a transition to a capitalist system is inevitable. These possibilities were on Sarah Kirchman’s mind. Kirchman, who worships at St. David’s Church in Columbia, South Carolina, joined Roman Catholic friends Arlene Rowland and Freda Crawford for Celestyal’s journey in mid-May. Like everything else in Cuba, the portents of change are complicated.

“I’ve been really surprised,” Kirchman told TLC aboard Celestyal Crystal. “They really are making progress as far as the renovations and the updating and the remodeling of some of the buildings. But we’ve all talked about how we’ll see two or three buildings that look really great, and then five or six next to them, obviously built in the ’50s, are just about ready to fall.”

Rowland, who organized their trip as an opportunity to see the “real Cuba” with the concern that the island could again close to tourists, said the change she saw was hit and miss. A frequent traveler, she said the poverty in Cuba was less pronounced than she had seen in Vietnam or Cambodia, “but it’s still poverty.”

Arrocha said that most Cubans are concerned less with sweeping, systemic changes than meeting their day-to-day needs, which may explain the gap between Americans’ fear of dramatic change and their observations of slow progress.

“Cuban people are not thinking right now about a specific definition of what is Cuba,” he said. “Cuban people

are more interested now in the economy, in their everyday life, and how to make their life better. That’s it. It’s a very simple question. It’s not a question about capitalism or socialism.”

“It’s Tough Living”

Signs of change appear on Cuba’s horizons: restored buildings, revived projects, and much-needed repairs are clear. But as Rowland, Kirchman, and Crawford pointed out, projects with international investment sparkle as neighboring buildings crumble due to lack of funds for restoration. Poverty in Cuba is indeed visible, if different from the American experience.

Decades of persecution and social disengagement from religion have left many churches, especially in Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline traditions, struggling to survive.

Fr. Damian McElroy, priest at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Moorestown, New Jersey, also traveled to Cuba for the first time in May. Born in Northern Ireland, McElroy is no stranger to religious tension, and the pain that can come with a struggle for independence. He jumped at the opportunity to travel to Cuba and meet Christians there.

“I was just shocked at the poverty and the deprivation,” he told TLC aboard ship. “I saw store after store after store closed, the windows dusty. I went into food stores, saw people with their ration coupons, and nobody was speaking. I found that a little bit unsettling.”

The Rev. Mark Pendleton, rector of Christ Church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and member of the task force preparing a resolution about Cuban-TEC reunification for General Convention, told TLC by phone that Cuba and the churches within it have experienced substantial ups and downs that challenge simplistic views of the country.

Pendleton first journeyed to Cuba 30 years ago and is intimately connected with the place. For the past four years, he has brought missionary groups from his parish to visit and learn about the complexities of Cuban life and faith.

“Cuba is complicated,” he said. Pendleton said politically progressive Americans who travel to Cuba sometimes

return impressed with its medical and educational systems. Over time, though, he has developed a different view.

“I think it’s a very oppressive system. It’s tough living. I’ve lost the rosiness of what I might have had 30 years ago in the real nostalgia of Che Guevara. It’s a pretty tough place now where people just struggle, and they’re isolated on that island. They can’t walk north.”

Those with a more open-eyed approach can see Cuba — a place of happy people, hard living, and deep poverty — as unsettling. Pendleton said a balance can be struck between the extreme perspectives that nothing good can come from Cuba and that Cuba is a utopian workers’ paradise.

For McElroy, the sorrow of Cuba’s desperate poverty was balanced by the simple faith that he found there, especially among older Cubans. He walked alone in Havana and found himself in a plaza across from a church. A man called to him and asked him where he was from and about his journey to Cuba. McElroy told the man that he was a priest and had come to Cuba on a cruise ship.

“I don’t think he entirely took me seriously,” McElroy said. “When I assured him I was, he called over a number people in the square — pregnant mothers, people who were sick.” McElroy said a prayer and blessed those who had gathered.

“They were all from an older generation. It was almost like when they met the priest, it was like meeting something from their past,” he said. Younger people he met seemed less interested in religion; their grandmothers go to church. “It seemed in their eyes that Christianity, faith, was something for the past. It belonged to the world of faith and superstition.”

Faith in the Shadows

In Cuba, many churches are relics of the past. As religion became ostracized in revolutionary Cuba, church buildings closed or were turned into state museums or cultural centers. Churches that continue public worship face an environment with little tolerance of evangelism, even in some of its simplest forms.

“I noticed how many church bells were used as decorative pieces at the entrance to the church, on the ground because they’d been taken down,” McElroy said. “I never heard a church bell ring in Cuba because they don’t ring.”

While visiting a cathedral in one Cuban city, McElroy said, he found the structure in a state of desperate disrepair. “But I also found six elderly ladies gathered around the Blessed Sacrament, some meditating and some reading the Scriptures. And that was like a little oasis of faith. It was something beautiful to see.”

He met the parish priest, whom he described as humble and heroic, a Cuban man leading a simple life.

“I’m delighted that the daylight is shining on the Christian faith in Cuba. But a lot of that life is still lived in the shadows.”

Pendleton said religion became more acceptable in Cuba in the 1990s. By 1992, atheism was removed from the constitution and Christians could serve in government. After Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Christmas was again declared a holiday. Such changes stood in stark contrast to the persecution of the ’60s and ’70s, during which future bishop Emilio Hernández spent a decade in jail. “Seminarians were thrown into, really, these concentration camps,” Pendleton said. “Miguel Tamayo, the one-time bishop of Cuba, suffered through that.”

Pendleton also said that Cuba, unlike other Latin American countries, does not have a history steeped in Roman Catholicism. Jose Martí, great hero of Cuba’s independence from Spain, was a Freemason. “Cuba has always been unique, I’ve found, in Latin America in trying to figure out the role of the church.”

Like the Book of Acts

Growth in Episcopal churches has been tempered by a government with no formal or informal relationship to the church, Pendleton said. “Today, what’s hard for the church is if they want to build a new church they have so much bureaucracy.”

Clergy work outside of Cuba’s social security system. Numbers have grown in the Cárdenas-based parish that Christ Church supports, but rules of assembly limit how many can gather outside of worship services. “There has been great growth. But the government is always there.”

In Cuba, the church has “been neglected for 30 years, far beyond typical Latin American churches,” where the state rarely intervenes in matters of church construction and repairs. “That’s not true in Cuba. You can have the money and not get the permission.”

Protestant churches that are growing in Cuba are doing so thanks to less traditional approaches to organization and worship. “Not all churches are growing,” Pendleton said. “The churches that have grown have taken a track similar to other parts of Latin America. The evangelically minded churches tend to get more folks. The ones who don’t need seminary-trained pastors grow: Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventists, those with services that reflect the culture.”

This approach works well in the countryside, where storefront churches can be started more easily and with fewer resources. “You don’t need a fulltime paid priest to do it. You get a pastor, you get a band, you get a guitar, and you’re ready to roll. Those churches have seen growth.”

One mainline denomination that has experienced some success in recent years is the United Methodist Church, which has spread by planting house churches. The Rev. Larry Selig and his wife, Ida, also traveled to Cuba on the cruise. A retired Presbyterian pastor who works with ecumenical churches in America and overseas, Selig told TLC he had gone to Cuba to observe “the factors under communism which not only attracted people to seeking Christ but also sharing him with others.”

While in Cuba, they visited a Methodist house church — a house transformed into a full-fledged sanctuary — to learn about the way the church has been spreading in Havana. Selig said they often start with a home Bible study and build to 25 members. At that point, the Methodist bishop assigns a pastor in training, who attends seminary and is mentored by an ordained pastor in the area. The house church the Seligs visited has grown to about 125 members. When membership grows beyond that number, a house church will spin off a new Bible study to plant churches in other neighborhoods.

“It sounds like it was in the Book of Acts,” he said. “And they’re not building church edifices but neighborhood worship spaces where people live.” Because air conditioning is rare, the indoor services can be heard through open windows by the neighbors, drawing them in, he said.

Building Friendships

As connections grow between Episcopal churches in Cuba and the United States, some programs help Cuban churches tell American counterparts what they truly need.

“That’s what we’re trying to set up with this Friends of the Episcopal Church of Cuba program,” Pendleton said. He came from the Diocese of Florida, which has collaborated with the Cuban church for more than a century.

“What we’re trying to set up is a more coordinated resource network where we’re not duplicating efforts and working at cross purposes,” he said. Because the network allows Cuban priests to share their plans and needs directly, American churches can be involved more easily — it is all spelled out. “If you want to send a group to Cuba, here’s the process and here are the needs.”

Pendleton said that Bishop Delgado’s support for this network has helped move relationships from being ad hoc, in which “each diocese, each church would do its own thing.”

The priest cautioned Christians against heading to Cuba to check an item off their bucket list or to engage in make-work activities that make American church groups feel helpful without meeting actual Cuban needs. He also said the Cuban church needs financial resources, and that Christian travelers who do not leave much money behind may create more financial strain than benefit.

“It may feel good to you, but they just crave relationships because they’re this isolated island,” he said. “Check that Type A personality at the border. It might not matter if you do something physical in that week. There’s a whole lot you can do with your presence.”

This is the first in a three-part series about the Episcopal Church of Cuba.

Photo Gallery

Photos by Matthew Townsend



Online Archives