VIM Builds Mutual Respect in U.S., Cuba
by James Melchiorre
GUANABACOA, Cuba, September 3, 2008 (UMNS)--Javier Diaz is having a busy morning.
First, he must repair a hybrid church bus that has an old Russian-model body and a Toyota engine under its hood.
Later, he'll change into a guayabera, the formal shirt for men in Latin America, to preach a sermon on the prophet Jonah for a midweek prayer and fasting service.
At noon, he'll have lunch with a group of United Methodists from New York City, sharing across the language barrier his enthusiasm for the movies of actor Jim Carrey.
It's all in a (half) day's work for the pastor of the Methodist Church in Guanabacoa, Cuba.
Diaz and his wife, Ana, are the shepherds of a 600-member congregation that is the sixth largest Methodist church in Cuba.
I spent 15 days with them this summer as a member of a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team from the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in New York. Our group planned our trip to Cuba for four years.
We spent our time hauling blocks, sand and stones to prepare the second floor of the Guanabacoa church to be transformed into a new sanctuary.
Along with several members of his congregation, Pastor Javier often joined us in the "grunt" work, sometimes shoveling sand, or re-adjusting a reinforcement bar, or tinkering with a temperamental power saw.
Diaz is just 35 and has been a pastor since he was 18. Watching him and his boundless energy reminds me of my first trip to Cuba back in 1993, and how seeds that are carefully planted and nurtured often yield a bountiful harvest.
Times were tough then. The Soviet Union had collapsed and taken with it the many preferential trade arrangements that had kept the Cuban economy relatively healthy.
During our visit in September and October of 1993, the Cubans were so desperate to conserve energy that a full-scale blackout occurred every evening in the capital city of Havana.
When we visited Methodist congregations, though, worship services were packed. Leading many of those services were preachers in their late teens and early 20s--contemporaries, I realize now, of Javier Diaz.
So many pastors, both Cuban and North American, had left Cuba after 1959 that there was a critical shortage in the pulpit, even as Cubans were again filling the old sanctuaries and the new "house" churches.
A young preacher could find a place easily then. It was a time of transition from a Cuba that was officially atheistic to a new arrangement of uneasy co-existence between the government and the country's faith communities.
That relationship today is hardly cozy. Congregations still are not permitted to construct new buildings, though they can renovate, improve and expand their existing structures.
And that work is helped by mission teams that have come once or twice a month from United Methodist congregations in the United States through VIM, a ministry coordinated by the denomination's General Board of Global Ministries.
These teams can include up to 12 members; our team had 11, including five college students. Teams also bring a monetary gift to the Cuban congregation with which they serve, so that supplies and tools can be purchased to continue the rebuilding, even after the two-week mission trip is over.
The ministry of Javier and Ana Diaz in Guanabacoa is demanding but probably not unusual in Cuba. A prospective Methodist pastor must begin ministry by starting a new congregation and demonstrating its growth. Only after several years does the pastor attend seminary while continuing full-time service to the congregation. Javier and Ana Diaz went to seminary together. Javier tells visitors that his grades were high, but Ana's were even better.
The trip to Cuba in July was my fifth in 15 years. With each journey, there is evidence of change. Nowadays, U.S. automobiles from the late 1940s and 50s--still running--share the highway with newer models from Asia and Western Europe. Tourism, in its infancy in 1993, is now a major industry, encouraged and supported by the Cuban government.
The young adults we saw in the pulpits in the early '90s are now established pastors.
And the construction projects that were only proposals back then are being steadily completed with the assistance of VIM teams. Recently, work teams have concentrated on a building in downtown Havana that soon will open as the new Methodist seminary.
It may sound like a cliché, but everybody associated with our recent mission trip, Cuban Methodists and New York City United Methodists alike, agreed that the reconstruction of the buildings is secondary in importance to the relationships that are built during these shared experiences.
While our two countries are still separated by a U.S. travel ban and a trade embargo dating back to the Kennedy administration, personal and congregational connections keep growing, a harbinger perhaps of a better, more mutually respectful future.
*Melchiorre is a freelance producer based in New York City.
Date posted: Sep 04, 2008