Cuban and U.S. churches work together; Our governments should too

This week on Feb. 26 and 27, the two of us — Reverend Joel Ortega Dopico, a Presbyterian minister and elected president of the Cuban Council of Churches, and Reverend John L. McCullough, a United Methodist minister and President of Church World Service — are meeting in Washington to talk about our work together.

It may surprise many people to know that there is a Cuban Council of Churches, and that there is a thriving, growing faith community in Cuba. While many outside Cuba imagine that religious life has been stifled, there are in fact a wide range of churches active in the country, and religious membership and participation has been growing for twenty years. The Cuban Council of Churches has 54 member organizations. Church World Service and many of its 37 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member communions work closely with churches in Cuba and with the ecumenical Cuban Council of Churches.

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We’re proud of what we have accomplished together in providing humanitarian aid in times of disasters and by accompanying and supporting the Cuban churches as they have gained more space to minister and offer social services over the past twenty years. Our collaboration has helped build bridges of understanding between our countries, which have been divided by politics and an economic embargo for over fifty years now.

Joining Rev. Dopico in the delegation are Cuban religious leaders from a broad swath of Cuba’s religious community. They include the Rev. Griselda Delgado, the Episcopal bishop of Cuba; the Rev. Reinerio Arce, the moderator of the Presbyterian churches of Cuba and head of the ecumenical seminary and theology school in Matanzas, Cuba; the Rev. María Yi, who is a leader of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and head of the Cuban chapter of the Latin American Council of Churches; the Rev. Raúl Suárez, a Baptist minister and founder of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana; and the Rev. Rhode González, a pastor in the Christian Pentecostal church.

While in Washington, these church leaders will participate in a series of meetings and events sponsored by Church World Service, the Presbyterian Church USA, the American Baptist Churches, the American Friends Service Committee, the Episcopal Church, and Global Ministries of the Christian Churches (Disciples) and United Church of Christ.

Real change is going on in Cuba today, including within the Cuban economy, that will reduce the size of the state workforce and expand private enterprises and cooperatives. Efforts are being made to preserve the gains in health care and education that Cubans are proud of. Change presents both challenges and opportunities for the Cuban people and the churches, but together we are committed to helping this process advance.

Together with other leaders, we will call on the U.S. government to take steps to improve the relationship between our two countries. Historically, we have opposed the U.S. embargo on Cuba. It has had a negative impact on the humanitarian situation of the Cuban people. We re-affirm that position today.

As Cuba updates and modifies its own policies, it is time for the United States to do the same. We call for the U.S. government to end the ban that prevents U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba and seeing the island for themselves; to take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a designation that the State Department’s own reports don’t justify; and for the American government to open up trade and commerce in ways that support the small enterprises, cooperatives, and non-profits that are emerging on the island. Finally, the U.S. and Cuban governments ought to open a high level dialogue between our countries to normalize relations and discuss differences in ways that honor and respect the dignity of both nations.

As church leaders and citizens of our respective countries, we have learned to work well together, and we have learned from each other in the process. We urge our governments to do the same.

McCollough is a United Methodist minister and the president and CEO of Church World Service. He lives in New York. Dopico is a Presbyterian minister and the president of the Cuban Council of Churches. He lives in Havana, Cuba.

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