The second week of December I was talking with a boy in Guines, Cuba. Guines is about 60 kilometers southeast of Havana. We were standing just outside the Presbyterian Reformed Church, where I was a guest along with Barbara D’Andrea of Wainscott. The boy, Nathaniel, just now 17, asked me, “What day was Jesus Christ born? The date.”
I was startled by the question, first that he didn’t know the date of Christmas, and second that he asked me. I answered him in an adult way, registering no surprise.
It is helpful to know that a generation of Cubans were born and came of age during 30 years when there were political consequences for religious observance. Nathaniel and his family do not attend church. I do not know the background of that, but I do know his mother was born during that time when religious practice was effectively banned. There was discrimination against religious affirmation, and this extended to job placement in the socialist society.
My knowledge of Cuba is partial and anecdotal. I have visited 10 times and will return this coming March. I am part of a mission partnership between Presbyterian churches in the U.S. and Presbyterian Reformed churches in Cuba. Presbyterians are a minority religious population in Cuba, though with a history that goes back to 1890. There are 32 Presbyterian Reformed churches in the whole of Cuba.
In the week before visiting Guines, Barbara and I attended a conference of men and women from our American and Cuban churches. Along with the business of the conference, I heard personal stories. Like the conversation with Nathaniel a few days later, these stories illuminate a history with points of light. I heard a man say at our conference that he had been humiliated in school as a child because his family went to church. He was socially ostracized. When it became acceptable later to attend church, the woman who had been his teacher came back to church and said, “Are you surprised to see me?” He said, “Yes, because you discriminated against me in class when I was a boy.”
Official religious persecution stopped in 1992, when the Cuban constitution was changed to say it was no longer a Marxist-Leninist state, and a new section was added to say that religious persecution was prohibited. It was then permissible for a Christian or any other religious person to become a member of the Communist Party. That meant a person’s work or career would not be held back because he or she went to church.
Nonetheless, while in Guines on this visit I heard a young man say that even now, when having papers filled out for a job, the question is asked, “Do you go to church?” And if so, which one? “So they keep track,” this young man said. “They know.”
To pursue the thought of a delicate and difficult relationship between personal faith and loyalty to the state, I asked Pastor Abel Mirabel of the Guines church if he felt a person could in fact be a practicing Christian and be a member of the party. He said, for him, no, it is practically impossible. I spoke of liberation theology, which I had studied in seminary at Princeton. I had gone to Colombia and the Central American countries the summer of 1960, when I became aware that some Christians were working with Marxists to address poverty and political oppression. My host pastor at Guines did not think well of that. He would agree about poverty and oppression, but he would not ally himself with Marxists.
At the conference prior to our Guines visit I delivered a paper I had been asked to write. The topic was, “The Current Social Reality in the United States and in the Presbyterian Church.” I thought the topic too vast, but because of my interest in social justice issues as an expression of religious conviction, I took it on. The conference was at Matanzas on the northern coast, where the Presbyterian Reformed seminary is located. I broke my comments into several subjects, each of which I addressed briefly: changing demographics in the U.S., race, immigration, economic disparities, and marriage equality. A translator translated my words for the Cuban participants (into English for us when the Cubans spoke). I also had copies in print in English and Spanish.
There was discussion afterward, though no one said anything about marriage equality. It was a polite silence from the Cubans, even though gay rights and the more obvious presence of gay men and women in Cuban society, certainly in Havana, is noticeable. For two, maybe three years now there has been a gay pride parade in Havana.
Everyone at the conference would otherwise be involved in pastoral ministry in the churches, Cuban and American. The common denominator is our humanity and the faith we embody to address spiritual longing and human need.
Barbara and I went with Pastor Abel on home visits, one time to see a couple who have been married 61 years, Ophelia and Hugo. Their house was modest, as most homes in Guines are. Differences in upkeep and appearance can be attributed in part to whether a person has a family connection in Miami. If so, there is money from the American Cuban family. Ophelia and Hugo’s home was plain — wood frame with high ceilings, a front parlor, back living room and bedrooms, kitchen, bath, on one floor.
Hugo is a barber and was cutting a man’s hair in the parlor when we called. We visited with Ophelia in the adjoining living room. She speaks pretty good English. I speak limited Spanish. We spoke in both languages. Both Ophelia and Hugo came from church families. They were married in 1951, several years before the revolution. Hugo became a revolutionary. Ophelia did not and continued her affiliation with the church. I could only guess at their conversations in those earlier years of marriage! Hugo fought in the Bay of Pigs against the American invasion. Ophelia said, “I saw him go off to war.”
Hugo still does not go to church, but on the Sunday we were in church he came to meet her after the service. Perhaps he does each Sunday. We shook hands at the door.
I had preached that Sunday, in Spanish. I write the sermon before our trip and have it translated correctly here. Then I go over the Spanish, practicing it for ease of delivery. My calling as a minister has always included preaching, and to do so in another language in front of a Spanish-speaking congregation is additionally satisfying to me. Language permits entry into a people and its culture. It’s a rich experience.
In some of the homes along the streets in Guines there were small Christmas trees. Not fresh ones but those that are saved and brought out each year. The twinkling colored lights shown through a front window, and the Guines church had lights encircling its church bell. Cuba is not a consumer society, so there are no pitches to purchase gifts for Christmas. No advertising. Nonetheless, people give gifts in the spirit of the season.
I visited Nathaniel twice in his home. I gave him a Christmas card with a snowy New York street scene of a small car with a Christmas tree and lights sticking out from the car. It was either he or his mother who asked what snow feels like. I searched for the word “soft,” not able to come up with it, but Nathaniel’s grandmother said, suave. Yes, I said, “soft.”
There was no Christmas tree in Nathaniel’s home. That doesn’t mean anything in itself, though it could. It was two days later that Nathaniel and I were talking on the street, and he asked, “What day was Jesus Christ born? The date.”
The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.