Visit to Cuba brings changes for covenant

By Jenna De Marco | March 10, 2009 {0981}

The Florida Conference’s longstanding relationship with The Methodist Church in Cuba will continue, but there will be some changes.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker preaches at the Methodist Church of Marianao. Photo courtesy of The Methodist Church in Cuba. Photo #09-1111. For longer description see photo gallery.

That was the message from meetings in Cuba in late February between Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, Bishop Ricardo Pereira of The Methodist Church in Cuba and officials from the Cuban religious affairs office.

“The (Cuban) government has made it clear that it would like the relationship of The Methodist Church in Cuba and The United Methodist Church of the Florida Conference to continue,” Whitaker said after returning from a three-day trip to island nation. “They understand the historic nature of this relationship, and they favor international relationships.

“At the same time, the structure of the relationship is definitely going to change. From the government’s point of view, the time of the covenant between the two churches is completed. … There is now a new beginning in the relationship between the two churches, but that relationship will be different.”

In an e-mail message to the Florida Conference, Pereira echoed Whitaker’s assessment of the meetings.

“The visit of Bishop Whitaker has been very fruitful,” he said. “We had the opportunity to see that during 125 years of Methodism history in Cuba, we have been able to keep the relationship with the church in Florida. It’s important for Methodists in Florida to know that this relationship will go forward. I quote an officer from the Cuban government when I say: “(The relationship) can and should be kept and strengthened.’ ”

Caridad Diego, head of the Office of Religious Affairs, and two of her associates met with the bishops. Roberto Chaple, a professor of Old Testament at Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Havana, served as interpreter.

The late Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, who served as bishop of the Florida Area from 1996 until his death in 2000, and the Rev. Rinaldo Herna´ndez Torres, on behalf of Bishop Gustavo Cruz of Cuba, signed the Cuba/Florida Covenant in 1997. The covenant was designed as a formal relationship between the conferences to strengthen both in their ministries. Since its inception, many members of the two conferences have traveled to and from the two countries, sharing ideas and resources.

The relationship between the two churches existed long before the signing, however. In 1873 the Florida Conference sent a missionary to Key West to start a ministry among Cubans living there. Two Cuban lay pastors returned to Cuba in 1883 to start congregations. From 1883 to 1968, when Cuban Methodism became independent, one bishop served both conferences.

Specific details about the future relationship will be determined in meetings between Pereira and the religious affairs office, Whitaker said.

Bishop Ricardo Pereira of The Methodist Church in Cuba (foreground) and Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker greet worshippers after a service at the Methodist Church of Marianao. Photo courtesy of The Methodist Church in Cuba. Photo #09-1112. For longer description see photo gallery.

“We accentuated the positive because Caridad Diego really did emphasize that they want the relationship to continue, and she articulated that the policy of the government is to favor international relationships — a lot of their churches have international relationships,” Whitaker said.

One likely change, Whitaker said, will be the way Florida Conference caravans, or church teams, that travel to Cuba to work with churches there will be coordinated. He anticipates fewer will be permitted and they will be organized through Pereira’s Havana office, which will be accountable to the Cuban government. The format for the caravans might be similar to visits made by United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) teams.

“There have still been UMVIM teams going to Cuba within the last six months, and the way those teams function is different from the way the caravans have been functioning,” Whitaker said. “They are in, and they are out. We expect that the visits of the caravans will be similar to UMVIM visits.”

Whitaker also anticipates financial contributions to The Methodist Church in Cuba will be handled primarily through Pereira’s office, with possible accommodations made for districts or churches located a considerable distance from Havana.

Other expectations may also be expressed, Whitaker said.

“I was very graciously received,” Whitaker said. “I felt freedom to state my thoughts and feelings, and I had the opportunity to do that. … They were supportive of the relationship, and we were not surprised that they want to have changes.”

Other business

The visit included several other notable engagements.

Whitaker attended a meeting of the National Board of The Methodist Church at which district superintendents and lay officers reported on events in the life of the church and ways the covenant had made a difference in their churches or areas. In turn, Whitaker shared some of the activities taking place within the Florida Conference.

The bishops also discussed hurricane recovery efforts, which are progressing, even as building materials remain in short supply. The Florida Conference had transferred $74,563 in donations to Cuba as of Dec. 31.

“Bishop Pereira gave me a report about how the monies from the Florida Conference are being used and the deep appreciation they had for the generosity from Florida,” Whitaker said.

While in Havana, Whitaker preached at Pereira’s church. He said it was a “great experience in worship for me.”

Cuban Methodists are baptized near Havana. As of 2008, The Methodist Church in Cuba comprised more than 282 churches, 700 missions, 21,000 members and a community of 50,000, according to the church’s Web site. Photo courtesy of The Methodist Church in Cuba. Photo #09-1113.

The bishops also met with Jonathan Farrar, the chief of mission in the United States Interests Section in Havana. He serves under the U.S. Department of State.

“We talked a lot about religious life in Cuba and the general political situation,” Whitaker said. “He’s been very supportive of the work of all of the churches.”

A tour of the new Evangelical Methodist Seminary, located in the historic section of downtown Havana, was included in the bishops’ itinerary. The Methodist Church in Cuba recently launched the seminary in an effort to accommodate the unique schedules of pastors who are already serving churches. The seminary building has been renovated in keeping with specifications of the historic district.

“(It’s) a big undertaking of the Methodist Church in Cuba … and so far, it’s going well,” Whitaker said.

The Rev. Fletcher Anderson, a Florida Conference elder, represents the conference at the seminary. He teaches Hebrew, a required foundational course.

“He’s been formally retired for a long time, and he selflessly gives of himself,” Whitaker said.

The seminary currently has 15 professors and 70 students, which are numbers the church hopes to maintain, Pereira said.

“The new Evangelical Methodist Seminary is a need, given the growth that our church has experienced in the last few years,” Pereira said. “Thank God we are about to complete our first year of successful work. We invite the Florida Conference to join us in this project through support and exchange.”

Pereira said The Methodist Church in Cuba has grown at an annual rate of 10 percent for the past eight years.

“It is still a priority to extend its ministry to new places and to keep growing with new members,” Pereira said. “The Florida Conference can join us in supporting and equipping new house churches, providing salary support for missionaries and pastors, and strengthening the new Evangelical Methodist Seminary.”
 
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.


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