Christianity in Cuba

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, July 7, 2019.

When we flew from New York to Miami, and Miami to Cuba and a week later back to New York, wherever we had to fill out those forms asking for our residence, I always wrote Greenwich, Connecticut. It’s good to be home.

You not only represent home to me, nine of us represented you abroad, for surely as this church is committed to caring for the poor, helping those struggling to receive an education, provide shelter and put food on the table for their family, ours was a mission trip.

Our gospel lesson from Luke falls in the season of Pentecost, the season where we focus on mission and growth of the Church. In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Jesus is the protagonist. He preaches, teaches and performs miracles in many places. Later, the Twelve Apostles are also empowered to go forth in mission.

In today’s lesson, Jesus commissions 70 followers to take his message to the places that he himself expects to go. This anticipates the book of Acts, Luke’s second volume, where all who receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost are equipped for mission.   Jesus promises that the harvest is abundant. This is not because he’s a born optimist, but because he has faith in “the Lord of the harvest.” (Luke 10:2). All of us are called to share Jesus’ mission beyond the doors of this wonderful church. That’s why a group of us recently went to Cuba.

Where there was hatred, we tried to sow love. Where there was doubt, faith; where there was despair, hope; where there was sadness, joy. Never easy, it was challenging but also joyful in the hot, simple conditions that we found.

We traveled on religious visas. Dick Schulze, who did a magnificent job organizing our trip, Karolyn Armstrong and I were making our third visits to Cuba. Dr. Dick and Frankie Hollister, Randy and Debbie Wolf, Luz Valez and Lee Paine were visiting Cuba for the first time. While the United States government recently cancelled travel visas to Cuba and forbid US cruise ships from visiting, we can still travel to Cuba on religious visas.

The Episcopal Church in Cuba is part of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide body of 80 million Christians living in 165 different countries. The Episcopal Church in Cuba was founded in 1901. It was founded by the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, who was traveling by boat to the Dominican Republican by boat when a storm left him stranded on Cuba. He quickly learned that there was not a single Protestant church on the island. So, he started one. Hence, the Episcopal Church of Cuba was born.

Today, there are 46 Episcopal churches and 24 Episcopal priests to serve them. Most priests serve two or more churches. Many of the churches meet in homes, because hurricanes destroyed their sanctuary and the Castro government would not allow them to rebuild. Now, the government is granting them permission to rebuild their churches.

We traveled to Cuba because the Episcopal Church of Cuba was cut off from the wider Episcopal Church following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. All contact was severed by 1966.

Last summer, the most exciting thing that occurred at the Episcopal General Convention meeting in Texas was that Episcopalians voted to reunite with the Episcopal Church of Cuba. The 5,000 Cuban Episcopalians, who struggled valiantly to live their faith under an atheist, Communist regime were once again reunited with the Episcopal Church.

The largest group of Christians in Cuba are Roman Catholics. Santeria, a mix of traditional African religion with Christianity developed by slaves, is also strong. Only 7 percent of Cubans are Protestant, including some 50 different denominations.

When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, he declared Cuba an atheist state. Christians who practiced their faith suffered retribution. Many Cuban Christians fled the country. Gradually, the oppression against Christians stopped. Those who attend church in Cuba are resilient. They have endured a revolution, Communist oppression, poverty, being cut off from much of the world and retribution for living their faith. They are dedicated to their faith.

How odd it was for us to be the hope bearers. I think of the story of Naaman being healed of leprosy in today’s reading from 2 Kings. Naaman was a powerful Syrian commander, but leprosy made him untouchable. For Americans if anyone today has leprosy, it is the Communists in Cuba living 90 miles offshore from Florida. Some view them as untouchables.

When kings could not restore Naaman to perfect health, healing came from a foreign slave girl, the ultimate nonperson in the ancient world. She told her master about the prophet Elisha – a foreigner whom God used to heal Naaman. How often God extends a healing touch from someone unexpected – like Episcopalians from America traveling to Cuba.

Reaching out a healing hand to a member of a different race, culture or religion often requires that we check our traditions at the door in the interest of meeting one another on neutral ground. Yet, the slave girl helps Naaman by drawing on her religion and culture, not by avoiding them. Had she to put those things aside, Naaman would not have been cured. God offers a wake-up call when we get caught up looking for the God of hope to surface in the same places or in no place at all.

Hence, we brought suitcases full of medicine, medical and school supplies, soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, which are hard to come by in Cuba. We purchased and carried two water purification systems which will benefit entire communities.

Along the way we met people like Vernon, the Senior Warden of his church. His cries each time he rings the church bells. As a boy, Vernon watched his father ring the church bells. Then the Revolution came, and the bells fell silent for 40 years, and the church slowly fell to pieces. Vernon never thought that he would hear the bells ring again. Then his Episcopal church was rebuilt. Now it is full of worshippers of all ages. Vernon rings the bells each Sunday calling people to worship in his church in the town of Maniti.

We met Anita, who sat beside me at lunch in a restaurant that we learned none of them had ever eaten at because they could not afford it. They carefully selected from the menu, knowing that it was possibly their first and last meal in that restaurant. Anita is a professor. She has stage four cancer. She never mentioned her illness as we ate. When I asked, “Do you have dreams for your church?” a great big smile filled her face, and she said, “I have lots of dreams.”

We met and marveled at Marisol, who is a training to be a deacon and serves as the Christian education director at St. Andres in Maniti. She coordinated a series of Christian readings that the children recited and a dance that they performed for us. She loves working with children. One adult with a gift for working with children transforms an entire community.

Then there was Oni. I met Oni two years ago while leading a group from my previous church to Cuba. She lives in Limonar, a small town of 10,000 people in what had been a strong sugar-producing region until the Russians stopped buying their sugar from Cuba. Now, there is little work. Their church was a ruin. They worshipped in the priest’s home. We helped to raise some money to rebuild the church. Now, the walls for a large church are erected and they await more funds to put a roof on their church. Oni spotted me walking around the church, ran up, screaming and wrapped her big black arms around me hugging me like a child. She did the same for each member of our team as they stepped out of the van. We felt like family.

Columbus mistakenly thought himself in the Orient when he landed on the Cuban shores in October of 1492. He wrote, “This is the most beautiful island my eyes have ever seen.” There are over 800 kinds of trees on the island, beautiful beaches, pineapples, papayas, mangos, guavas, limes, lemons, oranges and coconuts. Parts of Cuba resemble the Garden of Eden.

Castro and his revolutionaries tried to redistribute the wealth of Cuba after the Battista regime, American corporations and the Mafia syphoned off Cuba’s wealth. Castro killed tens of thousands Cubans for resisting the revolution.

Yet, the regime has done some good things. It has nearly eradicated illiteracy and has provided excellent free medical care and education through college for much of the population. Yet, there is lots of indoctrination and no freedom of the press. The communist government controls the television, newspapers and radio, following Lenin’s lead which views the press an as ideological instrument of the revolution. That’s why as a former journalist, I cringe when anyone calls the press “the enemy of the people.” Our press helps to maintain our freedom.

Cuba is also extremely safe. There’s hardly any violence, prostitution or drugs. But Cubans live with only the most basic necessities. If ever there is a place where American Christians can incarnate Jesus’ words to “love your enemies,” Cuba is it. We can show Christ to Cubans by developing relationships, learning from each other and supporting one another.

The United States first imposed an arms blockade on Cuba in 1958. Two years later, we banned all food and medicine and persuaded our allies to join the blockade Cuba. We are now the only country that does not trade with Cuba. After 60 years of trying, we should lift the embargo, because it has failed to transform Cuba into the country that we hoped that it could become. We would be wiser to help transform Cuba through mutual concern and engagement.

Returning to our gospel lesson, Jesus commissions them to gather the harvest and to pray that other laborers will join them in this important work. God oversees the growth of Christian communities. We are only called to be open to this growth, to pray, plan, organize, invite others to join us. Wherever we faithfully do this, the kingdom of God is announced, the reign of evil is challenged, and the promise of God’s favor is made known.

After meeting with clery and lay leaders Holguin, Cuba’s third largest city, and the small town of Maniti and meeting with the Episcopal Bishop of Cuba, who will be our guest preacher on July 28th, we feel called to help buy a building in Holguin and renovate it so the church can grow. We hope to raise $100,000 this year to do this. The congregation of 25 people in Holguin could easily grow to 150 people in a decade with our help and many lives could be transformed.

We also hope to support the church in Maniti, which seeks to start a preschool and install washing machines for the entire village to use. We shall see what God has in mind. Next Sunday, three mission team members will preach at 10 a.m. and Dick Schulze will preach at 8 a.m. Stay tuned. Pray. Listen to God. See if God is inviting you to our mission in Cuba. We hope to return to Cuba next February. Perhaps you can join us on our next mission trip. Amen.