Cuba Study Tour Report
Trinity United Church
Cuba is a land eleven million people. It is a place of great natural beauty and historic buildings
and sites. Many people think of Cuba as a warm weather getaway when it’s cold at home. I went
to Cuba with thirty other Canadians as part of a one week study tour in February, 2009. A United
Church minister and professor, Chris Levan organized the trip together with a partner in Calgary.
People came from New Brunswick, Ontario, and Alberta. (There were two participants from the
Domincan Republic as well.) Our visit was to see what God is up to with Protestant churches in
Cuba. Specifically, the theme of the study tour was “God and Empire,” and participants reflected
on the relationship between God’s ways and those of powerful nations, corporations and groups
dedicated to their own interests. My findings were eye-opening. This report is somewhat lengthy
because there are so many experiences to describe from a busy and intriguing week.
Churches in Cuba had a prickly relationship with the Cuban government for the early decades
after the 1959 revolution. The revolution set out to bring justice to Cubans, suffering in those
times from terrible inequality and abuse at the hands of plantation owners and off-shore
corporations. While churches weren’t closed then, no new denominations could set up in Cuba,
and the government seemed suspicious of the churches’ international relations with their
denominations. In the last twenty years or so, relations between church and state have eased
considerably, we learned. This is because many churches openly support the principles of the
revolution, for one thing, since equality and an end to oppression are goals of Christians who
embrace something called praxis theology. For another, the state sees how churches add to the
daily lives of ordinary Cubans in practical ways, especially the lives of more vulnerable citizens.
Praxis Theology at Work
We stayed in the guest lodgings at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba. Set
up in 1946, the Seminary is committed to praxis theology. (More about the seminary later.)
Praxis means more than practical. It means a complete integration of theology and practice.
People doing praxis theology use their theory (theology) to inform the way they live the faith,
and the information from their practice to inform their theology in a continuous feedback loop. In
Cuba, the churches are working with vulnerable people because they understand from the
gospels that this was Jesus’ vision of the reign of God.
The Seminary works closely with area churches and ministers. We paid a visit to one of these
churches in a little town called Four Corners (Cuatra Esquinas) about an hour and a half inland
from Matanzas. There church members did a survey of needs about ten years ago. Since then
they have worked hard to respond to what they found. They now provide breakfast each morning
to seniors living alone, eight of them. They also take breakfast to the homes of a few more
people unable to join the group. There is a big gardening project. Some of the seniors are able to
join with church members to add fresh produce to everyone’s diet. They also preserve fruit
(mango, guava, orange rind) in syrup for sale to supplement people’s modest incomes.
Volunteers created a baseball diamond, and they meet children and youth there after school for
recreation and discussions about issues such as gender relations and HIV/AIDS prevention.
The Four Corners Episcopal Church congregation was very proud that it has also initiated two
projects in even smaller communities nearby. A church couple offered the front half of their
home as a space for church services. After they served us a delicious lunch featuring pork from a
hog they had raised, that was where we met to hear about all their work A guide told me
afterwards that the homeowner, Victoria Rodriguez, could not have spoken out in such a group
even two years ago. But for three years she has been commuting to Havana to train as a lay
leader. She had just graduated, she told us, at the cathedral there two days before. Her husband,
Cyril, is also shy. He is the after school baseball coach. Some of his players are on the national
team for thirteen and fourteen year olds.
The Evangelical Theological Seminary
The Seminario Evangelico de Teologica was founded by the Cuban Episcopal (Anglican),
Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. Students from over a dozen Protestant denominations
have graduated from it as ministers. The churches involved with the seminary have overcome
their homophobia to work with people affected by HIV/AIDS. This includes Baptists, Quakers,
and a few others in addition to the founding denominations. Some other churches still tend to
equate an HIV infection with sinfulness, and illness as punishment for sin. The school is one of
thirteen theological schools in the country. It has started up three centres for lay education in
A former principal, Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega, is now President of the Caribbean and Latin
American Council of Churches, and the President for that region on the World Council of
Churches in Geneva. She and the other staff members were a wonderful part of our experience.
While Dr. Ortega was principal thirty years ago, she began to work on the grounds of the
seminary itself. The gardens around the many buildings on the grounds of the seminary are now
very beautiful, and some unused land at the back of the compound is now terraced for
vegetables. Local seniors spend their mornings planting, weeding and harvesting. They are paid
for their work, plus they get to take home some of the harvest. Our meals always featured fresh
salad of lettuce and tomatoes from the school’s large gardens, and bananas grow on the property.
At the school we heard from the Matanzas Province head of HIV/AIDS prevention. He is HIV
positive. Cuba has been producing anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs since 2000, so unlike those who
contracted the disease much earlier, he expects to live a fairly normal life span. He conceded that
even with extensive programs of education in every sector of society HIV infection is still
increasing. The only exception is among youth, where youth activists and high profile celebrities
from the entertainment industry have been able to persuade young people that condom use is a
normal part of sex, and that women have the power to say no to partners who are unwilling to
respect their choices and their health.
We also heard from a retired professor of religious studies about Afro-Cuban religions. The
biggest and best known of these is Santeria. One of the rooms at the museum set in the historic
fort in Matanzas’ port is dedicated to Santeria, and following our lecture, we saw the displays of
‘orishas,’ protective figures something like Catholic saints in their specific role for travellers, the
sick, and so on.
In the Capital
The group of us got on a well-used school bus donated by American Baptist ministers for peace
and travelled to Havana for a day and a night. Our first stop was at a large school for three
hundred people of all ages with developmental delays. Children who come to live there may stay
if their families cannot cope with their needs, and they cannot acquire skills for independent
living, so the population at the school included people in their fifties and sixties. There are thirty
large facilities like it all over the country. The pride of the Castellanos Centre was their dance
troupe. Unfortunately, they were performing elsewhere the day we visited. From there we went
to lunch and a lecture at the Martin Luther King Centre in Havana. Attached to Ebenezer
Lutheran Church, it has grown to be an important location for the promotion of human rights.
Local people and foreign visitors gather frequently to explore non-violent resistance to empire,
and work for change. The founder of the Centre, Rev. Raul Soares, is a member of the Cuban
parliament, as are several professors at the seminary in Matanzas. The Christians in the
parliament worked for seventeen years to have the death penalty abolished in Cuba, and they
were pleased to report that this had happened in 2008. Soares is small in person, but clearly a
very great force for ethics and rights in Cuba. We stayed overnight at a church in the suburbs,
and woke up to a breakfast of pancakes and fresh fruit.
The Conference and the Visiting American
Back in Matanzas (about two hours east of Havana), Thursday and Friday were devoted to a
theological conference featuring the staff and students of the seminary, Canadian visitors (a
mixture of religious studies and theology students, lay people and clergy), and Dr. John Dominic
Crossan, an American scholar who lectured in Newmarket in the fall of 2008. Dr. Crossan’s
presence was a coup for the seminary. And it almost didn’t happen. Permission to visit Cuba
came from the American government just five days ahead of his expected arrival. Crossan is a
renowned New Testament scholar with many books to his name. One recent book ,iGod and
Empire, inspired the theme of our study tour, so everyone was keenly focussed on his lectures.
Here was an American scholar who emigrated from Ireland speaking in a communist country
presently embargoed by the United States. Crossan makes the case convincingly that Jesus’
ministry was about non-violent resistance to the normal violence of the Roman empire of his
Crossan looks back at human history and concludes that we have become used to violence as a
way to protect what we have from those on the edges of our societies. His concern is that this has
become the norm for the United States even as it claims to be a country inspired by Christianity.
Crossan experiences Jesus as the renewal and refinement of the age old biblical call for a society
that depends not on violence and might but justice to achieve harmony and fair sharing among
people. Complicating the situation for human beings at the present time is that our customary
ways of behaving threaten not just each other, but the whole planet.
It was fascinating to hear the challenges and inquiries from Cuban theologians who have been
dealing with both a national government sceptical of their loyalty and existence, and the full
force of the American empire all their lives. Dr. Crossan, too, seemed engaged with the
perspective and experience of his hosts. Unfortunately he didn’t get the same in person tours we
did to see what practical steps Cuban Christians have been taking to provide a non-violent
examples of alternative communities. We broke into small groups to talk about how the rich and
the poor can talk about God together.
It was in a small group that Dr. Ortega explained how the students and staff of seminary at
Matanzas are getting shut out of further study in Europe. She felt it was American pressure that
was making sister schools in Europe begin insisting on high fees for students, and rejecting the
credentials of faculty members for professional exchanges and experiences. The power of empire
to get its way can be very blunt, as the blockade against Cuba, and it can also be subtle, as
exclusion from higher learning.
All this theological exploration would have been enough to consider the study tour worthwhile,
but our leaders had arranged cultural experiences for each evening. On the first night, we moved
to the flat patio in front of the seminary’s small office building for a dance lesson from Maestro
René Castellanos. Castellanos is a retired professor of Hebrew, Greek and church history. He
also studied folk dancing with a famous American couple, the Hermans, in New York in the
thirties. Yes, the thirties! He is ninety-three years old. He spoke English slowly and distinctly,
searching occasionally for the right word. He was dressed for winter weather, and his shoes were
highly polished. A young person ran the sound system for him, and with precision and dry
humour he taught some willing but slightly clumsy Canadians dances from Israel, the United
States, England, Canada, Greece and, of course, Cuba. A full moon rose over the happy group in
a warm, cloudless night sky, and the experience was magical.
The next evening we heard a world-class professional chamber choir performing sacred and
secular works in Latin, Spanish and English. The next night it was a string quartet consisting of a
music professor father and his three adult daughters. (And more dancing with the Maestro
afterwards.) For our final evening in Matanzas, a nine piece Cuban dance band made up of
players from local churches got us up trying out our new dance steps. I wish I could say how
well we did mixed with local people, but sadly, our beginner status was all too obvious. The
music, however, was wonderful, as usual.
The Beach, at Last
On Saturday, we said goodbye to our new friends at Matanzas and headed for the Presbyterian
guest house in Varadero, another hour and a half east. The little local church decided about
fifteen years ago that it needed to have a “project” (an outreach ministry). Since theirs is a tourist
town with one of the best beaches in the world, they focussed on hospitality. A large home
across the street from the beach became available when a church member could no longer keep it
up by himself. The Presbyterians slowly refurbished it and now offer accommodation there,
across the street from the beach. In the winter and spring (when the air and ocean temperatures
dip down to the mid-twenties) Canadians and others pay to stay there. That allows the church to
offer it free of charge to seniors in retirement homes, special needs children, orphans and church
groups from elsewhere in Cuba in the summer and fall. It is a brilliant plan. (Check out
www.ceserce.org if you are interested in a lower cost, more interesting place to stay on a
Caribbean holiday. Google ‘presbyterian guest house varadero’ if your search engine can’t find
the web site at first.)
I had a swim and soaked up some sun, went snorkelling amidst beautiful fish on a reef in the
afternoon, and encounter yet another amazing Cuban musical group at the beautiful public park
in the centre of town before the day was over. By Sunday, I felt like I had been away a month, so
full was each day. We worshipped together on the front porch of the guest house on Sunday
morning in a mixture of English and Spanish. I grilled those who might be able to fill in gaps in
my notes, and tried to absorb as much Caribbean warmth and sunlight in the hours remaining
before we came back to the Canadian winter.
Cuba intrigues me as a place that has tried hard to assert the dignity of each citizen for the past
two generations. The 1959 revolution was a violent one, though, and the government has been
intolerant of many expressions of criticism since then, jailing many political prisoners. The
people in Cuatra Esquinas told us the church projects had brought them dignity, so clearly the
revolution has not achieved all it set out to do. The spirit of all those we met who were involved
was wonderfully engaging. Christ is not just a person, but a way of living, an approach to life
that is full of smiles, work in the soil, meals shared, generations looking after each other, and it is
more clear to me now, music and dancing. We have our own praxis theology at Trinity, our own
ways of sharing Christ’s liberating love. What we may need now is more reflection on needs in
the community, and also the insights to be had from outreach ministries already underway. This
latter task is what my doctoral work is about, so I am eager to get on to that stage of research.
I heartily recommend this trip to anyone interested in exploring their faith in a fascinating (and
warm) setting. If all goes according to plan there will be a repeat next year when Dr. Levan
hopes to have two renowned scholars involved in the conference. This may be the chance for
which you have been waiting for a deep and spiritually challenging experience of faith in action.