(Praying and worshiping with Disciples international mission partners is one of the privileges of serving as General Minister and President. Recently that opportunity came in Cuba when Brite Divinity School, as part of a course, sponsored a visit to the island to study pastoral care. Rick Lowery and I tagged along.)
We were nearing the end of worship on this Sunday in Havana. Global Ministries missionary and church history scholar Dr. Carmelo Alvarez called me up to the front of the church. We were going to participate in a tradition, he said – a tradition of reconciliation. Citizens of Cuba and the United States have much to forgive. Christians of every nation, however, have confidence that God’s power through Jesus Christ to reconcile is stronger than what lies between us. And so we prayed.
The political situation between Cuba and the United States remains difficult, but between the Christian Pentecostal Church of Cuba and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada and the United Church of Christ, there is a rich and lasting partnership in Christ.
We stood side-by-side, hands across each other’s shoulders, the Rev. Elisero Navarro, president of the Christian Pentecostal Church of Cuba (ICPC), the Rev. Osmani Dias-Matros, one of the pastors of the congregation, and I. Dr. Carlos Cardoza, a Disciples pastor and professor from Southern Methodist University (SMU), also visiting the Havana church that day, came forward to offer the prayer for forgiveness, for reconciliation, in the name of Christ.
The reconciling prayer and worship took place at Mount Carmel Christian Pentecostal Church. This congregation, located near Havana’s China Town, has a heart for evangelism as well as for deep worship and pastoral care. I asked Pastor Osmani what his work consists of. He immediately responded, “My work is to pray.”
With a few more leading questions from me, he described his other activities in a normal week. It turns out, like any pastor, Rev. Osmani stays pretty busy! Worship and Bible study for youth, women, men, prayer cell groups. Something goes on every day to engage and serve all or part of the congregation. He also spends time in pastoral calling as well as serving as vice president for the ICPC
The story of how we Disciples became partners with the ICPC goes like this. They were formed in 1956, by Puerto Rican Assembly of God missionaries. Following the Cuban Revolution, they became an independent church. In 1975, the leader of the ICPC attended the World Council of Churches Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. He needed translation. Disciples Bill Nottingham and T.J. Liggett offered their assistance. By the end of the meeting a friendship and a partnership had been forged between two churches of ecumenical heart. Ever since, Disciples in the US and Canada have been in partnership with the ICPC.
Our visit was another sign of that partnership. At lunch, President Navarro talked to me about the current goals of the ICPC including the development of self-funding projects. Cuba is a poor country, he said, and it is difficult for church members to support the work of the church with their offerings alone. Some congregations meet in homes, a growing movement among Cuban churches. With the recent openness of the Cuban government to citizens engaging in self-employment, churches are finding ways to develop income streams through small enterprises. For example, in one town a pizzeria has been developed. Its profits go to the church.
Across the ICPC, pastors crave training and Christian education. They are grateful for Disciples partnership in offering support for pastor training and church development.
My prayer is that the reconciliation we share as church can be a foretaste of a broader reconciliation and partnership between nations benefitting the people of both.