The Rev. Glenn Dixon’s road to mission partnership in Cuba began in March 1997 with a trip to Florida’s death row in the state penitentiary in Starkville.

“I was asked to minister to Pedro Medina in the five hours before he was executed,” Dixon, former pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, told the Cuba Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) here Oct. 21. “After Pedro was killed — it was the most gruesome thing I’d ever seen in my life — I went to visit his sister in New York and she asked me if I’d go visit other family in Havana, so I did.”

Uncertain about the reception he’d receive on the communist island nation, Dixon said he was “welcomed as a brother in Christ by First Presbyterian Church in Havana.” He returned to Cuba a year later bearing Pedro Medina’s ashes and the seeds of a partnership between St. Augustine Presbytery and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba took root. Focused on First Church-Havana, Dixon has taken groups of St. Augustine Presbyterians to Cuba each year.

The Cuba Network — one of three dozen mission networks that unite Presbyterians from throughout the U.S. who are engaged in mission partnerships in particular areas of the world — heard many stories such as Dixon’s. Most of the networks are meeting here this week in conjunction with World Mission Celebration ’09, the culminating event in Mission Challenge ’09 — a month-long effort to connect Presbyterians around the country with PC(USA) mission workers around the world.

Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago sponsors eight mission trips a year to Cuba, said Mission Director Vicki Reynolds. “Our first contact was in 1999 with the Rev. Hector Mendez [pastor of First Church-Havana],” she said. “He invited our pastor, John Buchanan, to come preach in Havana on World Communion Sunday in 2001 and our partnership has been growing ever since.”

Mendez has preached at Fourth Church-Chicago — also on World Communion Sunday — and the congregation has been recruiting other congregations in Chicago Presbytery to be part of the partnership. Through its Cuba partnership, Fourth Church also supports Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba.

While most PC(USA)-PRCC partnerships are church-to-church or presbytery-to-church, Santa Fe Presbytery relates to the entire PRCC, which consists of about 35 churches and another 15 fellowships organized in three presbyteries, said Bryan Beck. “We host guests from throughout the synod (denomination) and get them out into most of our churches so it stays a human-to-human link,” he said. “And our delegations to Cuba are presbytery-wide so we have continuing contact with as many Cuban Presbyterians as we can.” The presbytery funds its partnership activities in Cuba through an annual special offering.

Baltimore Presbytery’s partnership started as a single church-to-church relationship, said John Walter, until 2007 when several presbytery leaders made the trip to Cuba. That visit, he said, “blew the doors off” and the presbytery is now engaged in partnership with the PRCC’s El Centro Presbytery. A recent “massive” gathering of Baltimore and El Centro Presbyterians at the PRCC’s camp in Santa Clara in central Cuba “blew up all the misconceptions and presuppositions we all had about each other,” Walter said.  

Partnerships take many different forms, depending on the needs, desires and interests of the partners, said Marilyn Seiber of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., whose congregation has had a partnership with First Havana for 10 years and the Matanzas seminary for seven. Those two congregations do a lot with music and two years ago gathered in Havana and made an Advent quilt to display in the Havana sanctuary.

“At New York Avenue we have an orientation in which we ask everyone what their expectations are, what they want to do, and we send it to Hector Mendez,” Seiber said. “Last time we said we wanted more theological discussion and he thought our non-ordained folk would be bored,” she chuckled. “We said ‘No,’ he set it up and it was the best trip we had.”

As partnerships deepen, their theological content and understanding does as well, the Rev. Tricia Lloyd-Sidle — the PC(USA’s mission worker assigned to Cuba and the Caribbean — affirmed. “At the denominational level in 2004 we had a 24-person symposium, held entirely in Spanish because it’s usually the Cubans who are limited by language,” she recounted. “I didn’t realize until we went through it what a big deal it was for the Cubans — it was almost embarrassing how appreciative they were that we were willing to engage at that depth in their language.”

Marianne Lewis of Santa Fe, N.M., has carried spiritual disciplines and practices to the seminary at Matanzas as a result of her many trips to Cuba and her own theological studies. A Matanzas student who wanted to open a meditation room at the seminary after talking with Lewis was rebuffed  by the seminary’s president, the Rev. Ofelia Ortega ... until Ortega visited Lewis in the U.S.

“Ofelia suddenly understood how important [spiritual practices and disciplines] this is for theological education,” Lewis said, “gave Rene (the student) space for the meditation room and insisted that I come to help develop it.”

Lewis returns to Matanzas regularly to continue development of the seminary’s spiritual formation program, which has expanded to include contemplative prayer forms and groups, spiritual formation programs for youth, labyrinths, Taize-style worship services and spiritual retreats.  

Reinerio Arce, a special guest from the PRCC to the network meeting, said, “No matter what we do in partnership, we have to understand that we are called to be partners of God for the kingdom of God. We are called to be partners for God’s partnership and God’s task,” he said. “The mission is not ours — we are instruments of the mission of God.