A Baptist delegation from the United States trekked to Cuba earlier this month to learn more about Cuban Baptists and build bridges of understanding.
Despite a distance of only 90 miles, the two nations remain worlds apart due to political and cultural conflicts.
On Oct. 10-11, more than 80 Cuban Baptists gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Coordinación Obrero-Estudiantil Bautista de Cuba (Coordination of Baptist Workers and Students in Cuba).
The group, usually called COEBAC, seeks to help Cuban Baptists engage in their context and society.
The founding meeting of the organization included the presence of a group of Swedish Baptists.
This international flavor continued with the anniversary meeting as U.S. Baptists joined the gathering, with two of the U.S. Baptists originally from Bosnia and Serbia.
The 12-person delegation from the U.S. included individuals associated with Churchnet (also known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri) and two churches (one in Missouri and one in Louisiana) that each have a two-decade partnership with a Cuban Baptist church.
“The trip to Cuba to participate in the 40th anniversary of COEBAC was a great opportunity to meet our Cuban Baptist brothers and sisters,” Churchnet Vice President Forestal Lawton told EthicsDaily.com. “The development of new friends made the trip worthwhile.”
“The opportunity to meet founders of COEBAC and listen to the history of their struggle was a rare opportunity,” said Lawton, who leads the Men’s Department for the Baptist World Alliance. “Seeing the sights of Havana, Pinar del Río and Ciego de Ávila was also an impressive moment.”
Baptists from the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba and the Fraternity of Cuban Baptists joined together at the COEBAC anniversary at Iglesia Bautista Enmanuel (Emmanuel Baptist Church) in Ciego de Ávila (located in the middle of the island nation).
Baptists from the other two conventions in Cuba have also connected at times with COEBAC but did not have representatives at this gathering, which also served as an attempt to revive the organization after it fell dormant for several years.
Eduardo Gonzalez, pastor of the host church and COEBAC general secretary, called the meeting an attempt to hand the baton to the next generation and not merely an anniversary.
Gonzalez and other speakers talked about “resurrecting” COEBAC to help Cuban Baptists engage their society.
“We have a responsibility to recover our Baptist legacy [in Cuba],” a Cuban Baptist seminary professor argued during a session.
The COEBAC meeting focused on exploring Baptist principles in light of the challenges facing Cuba and the world today.
Speakers included Cuban Baptist leaders, visiting U.S. Baptists and an official from the Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Key values explored during the two-day event included separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, autonomy of the local church, lordship of Jesus Christ, and authority of the Bible.
Sessions also included discussions about Cuba and engaging in society.
Ramona Matos, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Canaan (Canaan Baptist Church) in Bolivia, Cuba, argued that Baptists in Cuba must adhere to key principles and live out “the social responsibility of Christians.”
“[We need] a Baptist movement that will serve as a reflection of the Cuban reality and Baptist principles,” she said.
During the COEBAC gathering, participants spoke of the need for Cuban and U.S. Baptists (sometimes called North American Baptists) to come to know and understand each other.
Uxmal Livio Diaz Rodriguez, the first general secretary of COEBAC, called for a “two-way mission” that includes working “to give North American Baptists the knowledge and the light of the Cuban Baptists.”
Rodriguez expressed his hope that Cuba would no longer be viewed in the U.S. as a “mysterious island.”
Another Cuban Baptist looked forward to a new era and declared that people will look back and “talk about the days the walls fell apart between Cuba and the United States, historians will not be able to ignore the role of the churches.”
Ken Sehested, founder of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, expressed thanks to the Cuban Baptists for allowing their gathering to be slowed by translating speakers and dialogue sessions.
It remains “important for people … to share their insights across boundaries and borders and across generations,” he said.
In addition to attending the COEBAC meeting, the 12-person U.S. delegation also visited other sites of Baptist work in Cuba.
The group visited the Western Baptist Convention’s seminary in Havana, the office of the Cuban Council of Churches in Havana, and a Baptist church in Pinar del Río (in the western part of Cuba).
Although the group of Baptists from Missouri visited only briefly, U.S. and Cuban Baptists spoke of lasting connections that would arise from the trip.
As one Cuban Baptist leader told EthicsDaily.com, politicians build and break relationships, but Christians are united by “ties that cannot be broken.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.