"It is so easy to do good work out of abundance," says the Rev. Abel Mirabel Padilla, pastor of Guanabacoa Presbyterian Church in Havana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC). "It is a whole different expression of faith to serve out of extreme scarcity."
Such is life for the nine congregations, plus several informal "fellowships," that comprise Havana Presbytery, one of three presbyteries in the IPRC.
And yet, presbytery leaders recently told a delegation of U.S. Presbyterians from the Synod of the Sun, the presbytery chartered a new church in 2009 and continues to expand its outreach ministries in and around the nation’s capital.
"Each church has a pastor (who earn about $17 per month) and each is close to our grandfather John Calvin," Padilla said, "but each congregation has its own taste."
The presbytery's churches range from its flagship congregation and the oldest Protestant church in Cuba, First Presbyterian Church in the Old City, to its newest — La Fernanda — a small congregation outside of the city. All are thriving and experiencing significant growth.
"It was very difficult for us old pastors when we only had 10 in church," said Havana Presbytery’s executive presbyter, the Rev. Ismael Madruga, recalling the difficult days prior to the Castro government’s easing of restrictions on religious activity in the early 1990s. "But this is a different moment, with many young people and children coming and many mission projects. "The power of the Holy Spirit is with us in a great way."
The needs are huge. Many of the nine church buildings are in need of repair and expansion. "We are trying to do so much mission in such small spaces," Madruga said. The presbytery’s annual budget is just $9,000.
Some help comes through partnerships with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Two presbyteries — Long Island (20+ years) and Chicago (10+ years) — have partnerships with Havana Presbytery. At least 24 PC(USA) congregations have relationships with congregations in Havana, with every church in Havana Presbytery having at least one partner congregation in the United States.
Korean Presbyterians also support the IPRC’s ministry, providing financial support for pastors' salaries.
The IPRC and Havana Presbytery try to ensure that all its congregations benefit from the partnerships. Padilla said, "We have a staff person for mission partnerships to ensure that all our churches benefit from our ministry together. We want our witness to be one 'so that the world will believe,'" he said, citing Jesus in John 17. "We try to establish equity among the churches because some are of much lower status. We channel help to those churches that are most disadvantaged."
"We thank the PC(USA) for all its help to us," Madruga said, "but the relationship is not built on money. It is built on the whole mission of the church, both here in Cuba and in the U.S."
Mission and human fellowship it fosters are the keys to IPRC-PC(USA) partnership, Madruga added. "We so appreciate the U.S. Presbyterians who visit because we know how hard it is for Americans to come to Cuba."
Every congregation in Havana Presbytery is involved in local mission — from feeding programs to gardening projects, from tutoring with children to visitation of the elderly. A number of the presbytery's churches have become engaged in ministry with persons with HIV/AIDS and their families.
"Many in Cuba thought this was not a big problem," Padilla said, adding that the virus entered Cuba through Africa, brought back by infected soldiers who served in Angola during that country's civil war.
"The church has taken the lead with educational workshops distribution of hygiene supplies," Padilla said. "The government has given Guanabacoa Chuch an 'Award of Hope' two years in a row for this ministry."
John Calvin has risen in prominence in Havana, as well. Last fall a bust of the reformer was unveiled in a public park near Havana's harbor. The sculpture was a gift from the World Council of Churches to commemorate Calvin's 500th birthday. The park setting was provided by the city of Havana at the request of Havana Presbytery.
Now the presbytery is setting its sights on acquiring a bus. Bringing churches together for presbytery meetings and other gatherings is difficult given Cuba's iffy transportation system. "Havana Presbytery is at a disadvantage because we are the only presbytery without our own transportation, particularly to the IPRC’s camp in faraway Santa Clara," Padilla said.
A PC(USA) support group — the Cuba Connection, led by the Rev. Dean Lewis of Santa Fe, N.M. — is currently raising funds to buy a bus for the presbytery.
"The camp helps us work in communion with each other, to bring all age groups from all areas together," Madruga added. "The bus will be a great blessing."
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: ); the Rev. Jose Luis Casal, executive presbyter of Tres Rios Presbytery, who organized the trip; Synod Executive Judy R. Fletcher (and her husband, David, a Dallas pastor; 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, a Presbyterian elder); the Rev. Joseph W. Hill II, general presbyter, Pines Presbytery; Elder Hilary N. Shuford, executive presbyter, Mission Presbytery (and her husband, Harry, a Presbyterian elder); 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. Also part of the delegation was the Rev. Gradye Parsons, General Assembly stated clerk. — Jerry L. Van Marter