Back in the early 1990s, I was told on good authority, Fidel Castro went to Columbia, S. A. on some kind of political junket. Right before he returned to Cuba he was holding court during which a petit nun in full habit confronted him on human rights violations. Maybe for a silent moment he was thrown off guard with memories of his early parochial school days until he finally muttered, in effect, “If I had some ones like you back in Cuba, I could talk with them about this issue.”
This started a chain of events that one-day led to my moment with El Presidente–a stretch but still a connection!
One of my Cuban Presbyterian minister friends told me that several protestant ministers and he were watching Fidel on TV back home when Fidel muttered that seemingly un-historic line. “When he arrived home we contacted him saying we would like very much to talk.” Fidel granted them a meeting with him at which time they declared they had been faithful to Revolution and had not fled. They presented a list of concerns about the religious situation they faced daily and changes they would like to see enacted. For example, they asked for time on the State TV for religious programs; permission for religious persons to serve in the government; and people in the government to become members of churches.
They were troubled that their nation’s Constitution mandated an unfair religious preference to the detriment of those they represented and all the many other religious groups present in the country. Fidel seemed puzzled and asked what they meant. “The preference for ‘atheism’!” He replied, “We are a religious people; I never thought about ‘atheism’ as being a religious preference. We will change the Constitution at the next Congress by removing references to atheism from it making it religiously neutral.”
And so it was changes came. This paved the way for the Pope to come visit Cuba and hold Mass in Jose Marti Revolution Square. It provided an opportunity for religious liturgy to be celebrated in the open air in this way. This openness to religion by the government was not a recent grandstand response in face of difficult economic times because serious conversations between the religious community and the government began in the late 1980s when the Revolution was at its economic zenith.
Not long after the Pope’s visit, representatives of the Cuban Council of Churches met again with Fidel. They asked that Protestants be allowed to have an Evangelical Celebration in Revolution Square too, as a matter of balance between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He granted their wish.
In the month leading up to the appointed day for the Celebration, June 20, 1999, representatives of 49 Protestant denominations prepared for “something historic.” Never before in the history of the Revolution, or in the 500 year history of Cuba, or anywhere else in the history of the Caribbean or Latin America, had so many Protestants–regardless of creed or political ideology–joined together to celebrate God’s message of love, peace and unity so openly.[i] After the fact it was reported over 100,000 people were in attendance.
Four national activities took place in the largest Plazas around the country as part of the preparation, with provincial celebrations in eight other locations. Also municipal celebrations were held in five locations, including one in the Marianao section of Havana on May 30.
It so happened that I was in Cuba leading one of my Travel Seminars (May 24-June 2) for a group from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.[ii] We were among the 20,000 people jamming the Marianao Plaza, on the surrounding rooftops and hanging in the trees chanting–CRISTO VIVE!!! CRISTO VIVE!!! CRISTO VIVE!!! The air was electric with an “invisible energy!”
That would not be the last time I heard that chanting or felt that “invisible energy!” At the invitation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba, I was appointed by our Stated Clerk to represent the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joined representatives of Protestant Churches from the United States, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, South America and Europe at the Evangelical Celebration on June 20.
Still Vivid in my mind about that day
–Hearing pre-dawn celebrants passing Luyano Presbyterian Church where I was staying on way to their buses chanting Cristo Vive!!! I shouted down the refrain from my second story perch; they shouted back waving Cuban and Christian flags.
–Encountering all sorts of buses and vehicles filling the streets nearing Revolution Square; growing crowds on foot from all directions.
–Stifling an uneasy feeling as I waited to have my camera checked, later only to discover it was a “high tech” procedure when I found a picture of a desk on my roll of developed film!
–Mingling with people before the service and feeling the buzz of excitement when Fidel’s entourage pulled up behind the platform a few minutes before the service, then finding his way to a front row seat.
–Walking in front of that crowd as I was escorted to the platform from my fourth row seat to join Rev. Carlos Ham and Rev. Hector Mendez, my Presbyterian hosts.
–Seeing the pulpit from First Presbyterian Church, Havana on the platform that I had helped load in a truck the previous day.
–Watching Fidel’s lips move quoting the Gospel Lesson, the 17th Chapter of John–Jesus prayer for the Church–and asking my friend Carlos if that was what he was doing, getting an affirmative nod.
–Sitting for several hours in the only shade in the Square from platform backdrop as the heat soared with the morning sun; Fidel sitting in front row in his long sleeved uniform and wondering how he was faring.
–Standing only a few feet away from Fidel after the benediction and taking his picture without incident.
Could all this be topped? Stay Tuned!
[i] For details see “Presbyterian Voice,” November 1999, p. 14, CRISTO VIVE!!! EVANGELICAL CELEBRATION, HAVANA, CUBA–June 20, 1999, Eyewitness: William G. McAtee
[ii] International Volunteer in Mission, Cuba Specialist, Led 11 Cuba Travel Seminars for the PC(USA) between June 1997 and March 2002; Represented PC(USA) at Evangelical Celebration, Havana, May 20, 1999