Looking toward change in relations with Cuba

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U.S. religious leaders played an unofficial but significant role in the negotiations that led to the Obama Administration’s restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, says a United Methodist pastor.

The Rev. John McCullough, the top executive of Church World Service, said an ecumenical coalition embarked on its own diplomatic mission, hoping “to bring a sense of clarity” between the U.S. and Cuban governments. That mission was related to discussions over humanitarian concerns for Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba, and three members of the “Cuban Five” remaining in U.S. prisons.

“As an ecumenical strategy, we became focused like a laser beam on the humanitarian crisis,” he explained. “One of the real difficulties was that neither government wanted to be the first to make the move because of the level of distrust.”

Mission agency deeply interested in improving u.S.-Cuba relations

By Elliott Wright

The moves toward more open doors between the US and Cuba, including relaxed rules on visits, are in keeping with United Methodist positons. While they will no doubt improve interaction between US and Cuban Christians in the future, they are not likely to immediate change The United Methodist Church’s current relations or activities in Cuba.

“We welcome the steps that may normalize US-Cuba relations, and are glad that we already have strong ties with our Methodist brothers and sisters in Cuba,” said Thomas Kemper, chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s mission agency “This includes a regular program of volunteer in mission (VIM) journeys in partnership with the Methodist Church in Cuba.”

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During a Dec. 17 news conference, President Obama announced the prisoner releases by Cuba and the U.S., along with policy changes normalizing travel, banking and trade relations.

This week, both the U.S. Senate and House are holding committee hearings on the impact of those changes.

The religious advocacy efforts included consultation from the leadership of different denominations – including The United Methodist Church – and outreach to others, such as the Jewish and Roman Catholic communities and state councils of churches.

“It was a very loud and a very consistent and a very determined clarion call for change,” McCullough stressed. “I believe that this change in policy would not have happened had that not been the case.”

Jim Winkler, who was involved as the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and, currently, the National Council of Churches, agreed.

“I believe the longstanding advocacy of CWS, the NCC and our member denominations has been essential to encouraging the Obama Administration to move toward normalizing relations with Cuba,” he told United Methodist News Service.

Hearings this week on Cuba

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had a hearing on “Understanding the Impact of U.S. Policy Changes on Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba.” The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs is holding a similar hearing Feb. 4.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Jan. 29 to end all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and a companion bill was to be introduced in the House this week.

The Rev. Phil Wingeier-Rayo, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, believes Obama’s new policy will accomplish “what the embargo hasn’t been able to do for 50 years – the opening up of trade and allowing a kind of person-to-person diplomacy.”

Wingeier-Rayo and his wife, Diana, lived in Cuba from 1991 to 1997 as missionaries with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries – the first Protestant missionaries allowed back after the revolution. They remain in touch with many friends there, and he has returned to Cuba with mission groups three times, most recently in 2011.

Friendships are just as important as trade resources, Wingeier-Rayo pointed out. Fewer travel restrictions, he said, could broaden the exchanges between religious groups and, on a wider level, allow ordinary citizens of the U.S. and Cuba to get to know each other.

The United Methodist Florida Conference’s partnership with the Methodist Church in Cuba already demonstrates the value of people-to-people relationships, said the Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr., pastor of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

“The embargo has not worked for many years,” added Rodriguez, who moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 33 years old. “It’s a policy of the past. Instead of accomplishing anything positive, it actually damages the people of Cuba.”

He disagrees with the claims of Cuban-Americans in Congress that normalization would enhance the positions of the Castro brothers, as well as the opposite notion that U. S. influence would cause Cuba’s communist government to fall.

The Cuban people should determine their own future, Rodriguez believes, and more contact with people from the U.S. will help empower them to do so.

Connecting through mission

The connection between United Methodists and the Methodist Church in Cuba has flourished in recent years.In January, an 11-member group from the Arkansas Conference became the denomination's first volunteer team to arrive in Havana after Obama's announcement. They contributed to a long-term project to build housing for Cuban Methodist seminary professors.

Team leader Nechi Fullerton – who has traveled to Cuba four times since 2012 and is in frequent contact with Cuban Methodists – said she expects any official changes between the U.S. and Cuba to occur slowly.

“The people there are very excited and very hopeful, much more optimistic than I am,” added Fullerton, a member of First United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

U.S. volunteer teams bring construction supplies, medicines and other needed items, but “relationships with the people are more important than the project,” she pointed out. “They are the most inspiring people I have met. What they have done with what they have is absolutely amazing.”

Ongoing commitment to better relations

McCullough, who estimates that he has traveled to Cuba about 20 times since his first visit in the early 1990s while working for the Board of Global Ministries, has similar feelings.

“A lot of Americans, which was true in my case, experience the Cubans as very a warm and gracious people,” he explained. “So it was painful to not be able to more actively engage with each other.”

Encouraging better relations between the U.S. and Cuba has been an ongoing commitment for CWS and its partners, and McCullough “has really taken a lead and made this a priority for his engagement and advocacy,” said Martin Shupack, the CWS director of advocacy.

“It’s really a global issue and it’s a humanitarian issue,” Shupack added. “As a humanitarian organization, we care about the Cuban people; we care about the Cuban churches.”

As part of a joint religious delegation meeting Nov. 1, 2010, with Obama, McCullough directly asked the president to make religious travel to Cuba less difficult. Two and a half months later, the White House announced it was easing travel restrictions for religious, educational and cultural exchanges.

More recently, McCullough said he was struck by the situation involving the Cuban Five and Alan Gross “and the impact it was having on their respective families.”

In early November, McCullough, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Rabbi Elhanan Sunny Schnitzer, executive director of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, traveled to Havana to continue to advocate for the release of those prisoners.

When the release and policy change occurred, the trio praised the action in a joint statement with the Cuban Council of Churches.

“Our world has changed dramatically since the U.S. embargo/blockade on Cuba began in 1962,” the statement said. “There is no longer any reason to deny both our peoples the blessings of mutual exchange and expanded relationships in all aspects of life.”

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected]

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