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Bottoms up

Future of ecumenism is local, not ‘macro,’ Cuban professor says

January 31, 2014

MATANZAS, Cuba

The Rev. Daniel Montoya, longtime professor at Seminario Evangelico Teologia (Evangelical Theological Seminary, or SET) here, calls his core class “Practical Theological Ecumenism.”

“In Cuba, Christians are a tiny minority, so they try to get together to know each other,” Montoya explains. “They are not so keen on institutional or ‘macro’ ecumenism, but on local or “base” ecumenism.”

In Cuba, as most everyplace else in the world, ecumenism at the national or interdenominational level is in crisis. “These institutional groups forget location,” Montoya says. “They forget the base.”

For example, he says, “people are neighbors, their children attend the same schools, they ride the same buses, they walk in the same streets ― they are friends. On the ground they don’t see any differences, just on Sundays when they go to different churches.”

Practical ecumenism for Montoya, then, means teaching seminary students how to involve people locally “so they have better understanding and don’t have prejudice.” His classes focus on ecumenical cooperation in local communities, not on the dogmatic or doctrinal differences between churches.

Practical ecumenism must also be theological “because all of our hope ― what it means to be the church ― is based on faith and confidence in God.”

The motto of the Cuban Council of Churches ― founded in 1941 and currently moderated by the Rev. Joel Dopico, pastor of Varadero Presbyterian Church near here ― is “United for Service.” This is practical ecumenical theology at its most basic, Montoya says, because “the mission of the church is service, to incarnate the gospel and direct it practically at those whom Jesus loved.”

Today the Cuban Council of Churches represents 56 denominations and national Christian organizations. It notably does not include the Roman Catholic Church ― the largest church in Cuba.

“Unfortunately, the Cuban Council of Churches was formed for a negative reason,” Montoya says, “to oppose the Roman Catholic Church.” The reasons were both theological and political. “The ‘independentists’ opposed the Catholic Church because it was seen as an instrument of the [Spanish] colonizers.”

Local relationships between Catholics and other Christians are “good in some places, not so good in others,” notes Montoya. “Yes in Havana and yes in Matanzas, primarily because of the seminary. With a fairly conservative Catholic hierarchy, Catholic parishes that tend to be most ecumenical are pastored by priests from other countries, he adds, such as Colombia and Mexico.

There is a chronic shortage of Cuban priests. “I think celibacy is a problem,” Montoya says with a smile.

As Cuba becomes more open to the world ― with the possible exception of the United States, due to the 60-year-old embargo of Cuba ― Cuba’s churches, again with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, have become more engaged in interfaith relations.

A new organization, the Cuban Pastoral Platform, was formed in 2012 and engages representatives of seven religions in conversations around interfaith dialogue and justice concerns. Participating in the platform are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Yoruba (native Cuban religion), Spiritists (Afro-Caribbean traditions) and Ba’hais.

One of the platform’s primary meeting places is the Christian Center for Dialogue and Reflection in Cardenas, affiliated with the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba.

While national and international ecumenism flounders around the world, many local ecumenical expressions are flourishing ― in Cuba as elsewhere. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Matanzas last week included four services, one in an Anglican Church, one in an evangelical church and two in Catholic churches, the latter of which featured a Presbyterian preacher.

Montoya finds it ironic that too many denominations ― faced with their own decline and internal crises ― draw into themselves rather than reach out in ecumenical cooperation. “That is normal behavior in the secular world,” he says, “but the churches should be able to work together because they have a history of doing that.”

Churches everywhere, as they become a shrinking minority and face identity crises brought on by rapidly-changing societies in which they live, face unprecedented challenges, Montoya admits. “There is always a risk in following Jesus,” he says.

“As Christians we always live in a risky context. We have to take the risk,” he says, “to discern the signs of the times. It’s a question of commitment, not compromise.”

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