April 2, 1990 is described by Christians in Cuba as “a turning point.”
That day — shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main patron since the 1959 revolution — Fidel Castro met with 70 church leaders, including those of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC) and following the gathering changed one word in the Cuban constitution: Cuba officially became a “secular” rather than “atheist” state.
That single change — which signaled that the Cuban government was now neutral rather than hostile to the church — opened the floodgates to renewed life and mission in the church that continues to this day.
Nowhere is the resurgence of the church — with all its opportunities and challenges — felt with more optimism and urgency than at the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary here, seminary president and IPRC Elder Reinerio Arce-Valentin told a group of 15 leaders from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Synod of the Sun March 16.
The group, led by the Rev. Jose Luis Casal — executive presbyter for Tres Rios Presbytery who grew up in Cuba and pastored on the island until the late 1980s — was on a 10-day continuing education trip to learn more about Presbyterians in Cuba and how U.S. Presbyterians can partner with them. The group also included General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and this reporter.
“Our mission is missiological,” Arce told the group. “Our task is to train leaders and teachers in response to the needs expressed by our churches.” Those needs are overwhelming.
The IPRC encompasses 32 organized churches and at least 15 informal fellowships — developing congregations planted by existing churches. Most congregations also include a number of “house churches” or prayer groups that meet regularly in members’ homes.
To serve these rapidly growing congregations, the IPRC – founded by a Cuban expatriate, Evaristo Callao, coming back from the United States in 1890 – has just 23 pastors, “So pastoral care is a tense situation,” Arce said.
Matanzas Seminary — founded in 1946 by Presbyterians and Methodists and soon joined by Episcopalians and Quakers — is one of 13 theological seminaries on the island but is the only ecumenical school.
It currently enrolls 300 students in at least five programs, but only 26 are in the full-time three-year residential program, the shortest track to ordination. The largest number of students are in the semiresidential program, in which students spend four one-week sessions on campus for five years. “This is our most popular program because many churches (which pay for students to attend) cannot afford the full-time program,” Arce noted.
The seminary’s largest nonresidential program is called “Biblical and Theological Training for Leaders.” The “highly ecumenical” program gathers students in local churches for 12 courses on Bible and theology. “The classes are taught by seminary graduates wherever possible,” Arce noted.
The newest and most rapidly growing seminary offering is a training program for Sunday school teachers, Arce said. “Our churches are growing fast with many, many children and young people and our churches just don’t have enough teachers,” Arce said, adding that the seminary has trained more than 150 teachers so far “and we have so many requests for others.”
Theological education at Matanzas Seminary is very practical. All students work in churches on weekends and engage in service projects during the week in addition to their studies. Students support community centers, HIV/AIDS programs, orphanages and hospitals and clinics throughout the island.
With Cubans facing chronic food shortages, the seminary has turned a sizable portion of its campus into a state-of-the-art organic garden, furnishing fresh produce to the seminary and to local schools and selling the surplus at low cost to people in the community. Each morning local residents line up outside a gate near one corner of the campus to stock up. “The garden is not self-sustaining financially,” Arce said, “but God will provide.”
The government has lifted up the seminary’s garden as a model of self-sustainable agriculture for other communities.
With the per-student per-month cost of seminary equal to the cost of food for three days, “our financial situation is always a struggle,” noted Arce. Forty percent of the school’s budget comes from the PC(USA) — support from local churches, presbyteries, the Outreach Foundation, the Cuba Connection led by longtime Cuba mission advocate Dean Lewis in Santa Fe and Extra Commitment Opportunity accounts administered by the Presbyterian Foundation.
The Synod of the Sun group brought seven laptop computers as gifts for the seminary.
“The PC(USA) is our mother church so we feel very close,” Arce said. “Through all the circumstances we are one church.”
The seminary also receives support from European and Canadian Protestants. “Keeping our doors open is a big juggling act,” Arce said,” but we are faithful and confident and thankful for our friends because more and more the power of the Presbyterian Church is concentrated at the seminary, where churches come to express their needs and we are called by God to meet them.”
That such challenges and opportunities even exist for Cuban Presbyterians seems like a miracle, said Francisco “Pancho” Marrero, general secretary of the IPRC.
“In the first years of the revolution, even the people who didn’t flee Cuba stayed away from the churches in fear,” he said, “but there was always a small group that kept the church alive. After the Soviet collapse, the revolutionaries realized there was something missing. The church could not be prepared for the mass influx of people back into the churches.
“It has been a difficult process but one that gives us satisfaction,” Marrero said, “because we’ve faced up to challenges we never thought we’d meet.”
Editor’s note: The Presbyterian News Service is grateful to the leaders of the Synod of the Sun who extended the invitation to be part of their journey to Cuba: Synod Executive Judy R. Fletcher (and her husband, David); the Rev. Jose Luis Casal, executive presbyter, Tres Rios Presbytery; Elder Cecilia Casal, national moderator of Hispanic/Latina Presbyterian Women; the Rev. Ruben Armendariz, consultant for church development, Mission Presbytery (and his wife, Cynthia Diaz de Leon); the Rev. Joseph W. Hill II, general presbyter, Pines Presbytery; Elder Hilary N. Shurford, executive presbyter, Mission Presbytery (and her husband, Harry); the Rev. Mike Cole, general presbyter, New Covenant Presbytery; the Rev. Richard Schempp, executive presbyter, Palo Duro Presbytery; the Rev. Sallie Watson, interim general presbyter, Arkansas Presbytery; and the Rev. Marvin L. Groote, interim general presbyter, Presbytery of South Louisiana. —Jerry L. Van Marter