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Anabaptism births new church in Cuba
“What you have done for the last number of years has not been in vain. Many have identified with the Anabaptist vision. For us this is not just a way of thinking, it is how we live our life. Please tell this to the people of Canada.” – Alexander Reyna in a phone conversation after this story was released.
April 13, 2009
WINNIPEG, Man. — On August 19, 2008, the Mennonite Church in Cuba – Iglesia Menonita en Cuba – was officially born. From a Mennonite Church Canada perspective, it was an unexpected birth.
When MC Canada first began walking with Cubans through various types of ministry some twenty years ago, there was no intention to create a new church. Cuba already had numerous denominations.
“We knew there was a lot of interest in Cuba for the Anabaptist vision and our strategy was to nurture that interest,” says MC Canada General Secretary Robert J. Suderman. “It was clear to us that we were not there to start another church.”
But a strong desire for peace theology enhanced the appeal of an Anabaptist vision. With the conviction of Pastor Alexander Reyna, whom Suderman describes as “the motor behind the movement,” and Pastor Eugenio, the new church’s treasurer, Iglesia Menonita en Cuba has grown to include ten cell groups with a total of about 120 people.
In late November, a delegation consisting of Suderman, Janet Plenert, Executive Secretary of MC Canada Witness, Don Peters of Mennonite Central Committee, Linda Shelly, Mennonite Mission Network director for Latin America, Paul Kroeker, Outtatown Director at Canadian Mennonite University, and Katrina Plenert, daughter of Janet Plenert and in the role of a youth representative, met with Iglesia Menonita en Cuba to determine how other Mennonite organizations can support them. The delegation also met with a number of potential partners in Cuba.
Reyna said, “Our vision has been to start groups with a Mennonite identity and this can have a bigger impact in society… God doesn’t need reformers, but people who will practice a living faith that isn’t just theoretical. I think that the Mennonite Church, from what I have been able to see is able to do this. I have had a new birth, a new baptism in a sense.” (translation by Linda Shelley).
The wider church has had its share of struggles in Cuba. Before the revolution of 1959, there were 54 registered denominations. By 1967, an alignment with the then Soviet Union affected church activities and atheism became the official state position. A constitutional adjustment in 1992 loosened the atheist position, and churches began to operate more openly.
The Anabaptist vision provides Cubans with a theology that expresses the gospel in a socially relevant way – a contrast to the hierarchical structure of traditional churches. In many traditional churches, women are not permitted to hold leadership roles in ministry and churches generally consider themselves to be disengaged from problems of society because in Cuba for many decades, the government has taken care of social matters.
Reyna pointed to the deliberate decision to call the new church Iglesia Menonita en Cuba. “Usually it’s ‘de Cuba,’” he said, “but we want to say ‘en Cuba.’ ‘De” indicates ownership. We want to show that the church is incarnated in society.”
Currently, Iglesia Menonita en Cuba is not officially recognized by the Cuban government, thus limiting membership to cell groups of no more than 15 people. Because Cubans cannot own real estate and only registered churches are assigned property or given authorization to build, these cell groups must worship in private homes. Worshipping in private homes requires permission from local authorities, and whether or not permission is granted depends upon the relationships between cell groups and local authorities.
Pastoral and congregational training is also complicated by Cuba’s legal system. Without official status, Iglesia Menonita en Cuba cannot arrange for visas for people such as Suderman to teach. The new church must rely on the support of proven, officially recognized organizations that will request visas on their behalf. So far, the Martin Luther King Memorial Center (CMMLK) and the Cuban Council of Churches have been willing to assist the new church in this way.
Plans for the near future include the possibility of sending two people from Iglesia Menonita en Cuba to the Mennonite World Conference in July, 2009, and inviting at least one Cuban pastor to Canada for IMPaCT – International Pastors Coming Together, a program of MC Canada Witness. The availability of Canadian visas for IMPaCT has been a problem for some Latin American pastors in the past.
Despite the challenges facing this new Anabaptist church, relationships are growing and pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.