Bearing the standard

New generation of leaders prompting growth of Cuban church, general secretary says

July 9, 2009

The Rev. Francisco “Pancho” Marrero

The Rev. Francisco “Pancho” Marrero —Jerry L. Van Marter

LOUISVILLE

A new generation of Cuban church leaders — who were not even born at the time of Castro’s revolution in 1959 — are leading rapid growth in the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba (PRCC), the denomination’s general secretary says.

“We are a church that has grown a lot, two or three times as much in the last 20 years,” said the Rev. Francisco “Pancho” Marrero Gutierrez in a July 7 interview with the Presbyterian News Service during a visit with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) officials here. “We now have 51 congregations,” he added, “though not all are organized with sessions, but they all worship regularly.”

Marrero is spending a month in the U.S. visiting with the PRCC’s PC(USA) partners. At least nine presbyteries have formal partnerships with the three PRCC presbyteries and many PC(USA) congregations have relationships with Cuban congregations.

Marrero is a pastor in Matanzas, where he also teaches and serves as dean at the Reformed seminary. He is midway through his second two-year term as the PRCC’s general secretary, and is one of what he calls “the majority in the middle” — those who, by age, bridge Cuba’s pre- and post-revolution years.

Some of the newer PRCC congregations are in parts of Cuba that were not “Presbyterian” areas under the “comity agreements” that divided missionary territory between various denominations a century ago. The new congregations — in Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Las Tunas and Holquin — are all outreach ministries of existing PRCC congregations.

“Because of distance and available resources, it is very difficult,” Marrero said, “but there is lots of mission energy.”

“The error I find most often in the U.S. is that people don’t realize there is a church in Cuba,” Marrero said. “We never shut down, we never closed, even though it was very difficult for a time [between the revolution in 1959 and a new openness to the church by Cuba’s communist government after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991].”

Marrero said Cuban Presbyterians think of that time “in terms of the biblical concept of a period in the desert. It was a time of intense learning during which we engaged in deep reflection about what it means to be the church.”

The dramatic growth in the PRCC in the last 20 years is a reflection of a post-revolution generation of Cuban Presbyterians assuming leadership. “It’s definitely a new moment for us,” Marrero said, “and it represents both opportunities and dangers.”

New young leadership brings fresh thinking and evangelistic enthusiasm to the church, he said, “but some have only been Presbyterian for a few years” and so “may not be able, by themselves, to carry on the best aspects of the Reformed tradition.”

Another danger, Marrero said, “is when a lack of spiritual maturity allows for dialogue that creates a divide rather than unity in the community. Those of us between the generations have a great responsibility to ensure a smooth transition and minimize the tendency toward chaos.” He likens that role to John the Baptist, “preparing the way of the Lord,” he said.

A large part of his role as general secretary, Marrero added, “is to organize what’s going on so that we retain our history and make sure that nothing we’re doing now is lost.” The key is communication, he said.

“I most enjoy keeping communication between governing bodies fluid, open and transparent. It’s hard but I get a lot of satisfaction out of communicating back and forth with a lot of people to make our decision-making effective. I’m proud of having introduced this new way of working together.”

Marrero said he doesn’t think the simultaneous changes going on in the Cuban church and government and in the U.S. are accidental.

“We look and see a new generation in leadership in the U.S. that was not responsible for the separation of our countries,” he said. “And though our new leader is not young [Raul Castro is 78; his brother, Fidel. 82], he represents something new in the Cuban context after 50 years of a single leader.

“Logically, this sparks a lot of expectations in both countries that the new leaders are not necessarily committed to what went on before,” Marrero explained. “It makes it much more likely that our countries can find a way to work together. It’s not an easy road, but we need to commit ourselves to walk that road we’ve longed for for so long.”

He said he expects the church’s relationship with the Cuban government to continue to improve, though he doesn’t believe the church will have much influence on government decisions.

“In Cuba, religion is still private and personal — there is no sense of a public role for the church,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t some influence of the church on the society,” he said, citing surveys showing that the Cuban people frequently have believed the church was a greater source of support in times of crisis than government agencies. The Cuban government, he said, “makes sure churches can function normally with mutual respect.”

The PRCC has learned that with growth comes challenges, Marrero said. “We still have areas we haven’t had time to work on,” he said. “There are some obstacles in the way our work with young people has been organized.”

And developing enough leadership to meet the needs of a growing church is always a challenge. “We are putting a lot of effort into preparing people for leadership,” Marrero said. “We just don’t have enough people who are willing and able.”

Other challenges the PRCC is addressing, he added, “are continuing to discern our responsibility to society, the concern of our pastors for the spiritual lives of individuals and keeping its longstanding ecumenical commitments.

“We are learning anew to be the church, with all of our triumphs and errors,” Marrero said. “We have a testimony to offer, but also a lot to learn.”

And one thing he’s sure of: the future of the Presbyterian church in his country. “I know that the Reformed faith will survive in Cuba,” he said. “This new generation of leaders we have may not fully know our history and tradition, but it is certainly ready to bear the standard and carry it forward.”

The Presbyterian News Service is grateful to the Rev. Tricia Lloyd-Sidle, PC(USA) mission co-worker for Cuba and Caribbean, for her skilled translation during this interview.

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