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Healing sought in U.S.-Cuban strife
Pastoral visit prompts meeting with Castro

By Bob Williams

ENS Photo: Alex Baumgarten
Hospital director Francisco Perez-Villaverde (left) briefs Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold on operations in pediatric oncology ward of Havana's Juan Marquez medical center.   (ENS Photo: Alex Baumgarten)

[Episcopal News Service]  [Photographs accompanying this article can be found at:]

Havana children's hospital director Francisco Perez Villaverde knows something about healing against the odds.

In the oncology ward, he praises staff for curing kids "at a rate up to the standards of the rest of the world." He notes that among the 10,000-plus patients admitted last year, 54 died, and of those cases -- each severe -- "the result would have been the same in any hospital."

Repairs to the hurricane-weathered wards are running slow, he adds. Elevator parts take weeks to arrive from Spain, because U.S. trade restrictions -- now in their forty-seventh year -- prevent shipment from Miami 90 miles away. U.S.-made medicines are similarly unavailable.

But every effort is made to keep Juan Manuel Marquez Pediatric Hospital clean, decorated with children's art, and staffed with locally educated doctors whose expertise is one outcome of Cuba's more than 97 percent national literacy rate.

"I'm aware that doctors trained in Cuba are respected as among the finest in the world," said the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, who prayed with patients February 27 as part of a six-day pastoral visit to Cuba. "I'm also aware of your endurance."

Upon arrival, Griswold found his name was already known to some hospital staffers, several of whom said they had seen the Presiding Bishop interviewed on national television news programs following his Sunday sermon at Havana's Episcopal cathedral.

"During my visit here I have been moved greatly by the faithfulness and vibrancy of your church," Griswold said, preaching in Spanish in his February 26 homily at the invitation of Cuba's Bishop Miguel Tamayo.

"Also, I have been saddened to see the suffering caused by the policies of my country's government," Griswold continued. "The Episcopal Church in the United States strongly opposes the blockade against Cuba. In the four decades of its existence, the blockade has done little except exacerbate the suffering of the Cuban people. Reconciliation must begin, and people of faith must lead the way."

The Episcopal Church's General Convention has called for the lifting of the embargo (which is known to the Cuban people as "the blockade") since the early 1990s.  The Church's Office of Government Relations works with a broad coalition of religious and human-rights workers to advocate against the embargo in the U.S. Congress.

The congregation that filled Holy Trinity Cathedral gave Griswold a standing ovation after his sermon, in which he declared that the "U.S. embargo has helped fuel inhumane poverty among your people, brought large parts of your magnificent cities and infrastructure to ruins, and cut off Cuban families from the support -- financial and otherwise -- of their loved ones in the United States."

Reported internationally on the Agence France-Presse news wire, the sermon sparked responses ranging from approval to voices decrying the revolutionary government and the initial seizure of Cuban citizens' assets. Some critics challenged the use of the term "blockade" rather than "embargo." Others accused Cuba's socialist leaders of human rights violations.

But in Cuba-the same island where the U.S. government holds political detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and where operations there drew closer international scrutiny after the 2003 Abu Ghraib prison scandal-the Presiding Bishop took care to urge "all sides to come to the table of diplomacy and reconciliation."

"The first step must be repentance," Griswold said in his sermon, which also called for renewed advocacy and collaboration in ministry. "As we enter into Lent this coming Ash Wednesday we are called to think deeply about the ways in which our actions cause division and pain."

"Long past" are the fears that sparked the embargo, which "is now outdated, outmoded, and must be put aside," Griswold told a Saturday gathering of clergy who serve Cuba's Episcopal Church. The Cuban church was formed in the 1800s by U.S. bishops, but since 1967 has been an extra-provincial diocese overseen by a Metropolitan Council within the Anglican Communion.  

Supporters of the embargo, including the Bush Administration, contend that the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba is a necessary response to the Cuban government's limits on certain political and civil rights. Griswold, however, said in his Sunday sermon that the real sufferers in the embargo are not officials of the Cuban government. "In the four decades of its existence," he said, "[the embargo] has done little except exacerbate the suffering of the Cuban people."

That view is consistent with the feelings of the Cuban church, which has seen its companionship with the U.S. church dwindle as a result of the embargo. Economic support for the Cuban church from U.S. dioceses and parishes is severely restricted, religious travel to Cuba increasingly is curtailed, and the Church Pension Fund has been allowed to pay only a fraction of the pensions owed to Cuban priests ordained prior to the split between the two churches.

Castro: 'No hatred here'

"Cuba is the only country in the world where an American flag has never been burned," Cuban president Fidel Castro, 79, claimed at a late-night meeting with Griswold on February 28. The impromptu dialogue, called by government officials, was not originally part of the Presiding Bishop's pre-planned itinerary.

"There is no hatred here... I trust the American people," Castro said through an interpreter. "We understand that the blockade is the creation of government, not the people of the United States."

The two-and-a-half-hour conversation -- conducted across a long conference table with one delegation on each side -- began as Griswold spoke of being a senior at Harvard in 1959 when Castro visited the campus. "You approached in a boat on the Charles River," Griswold recalled. "I was among a group of students who waved to you from a bridge."

Recalling the campus setting, Castro asked: "Has anyone blockaded you for 47 years? Has anyone blockaded your thoughts? Lies are an attempt to block people's minds.

"No one has all the truth," Castro continued.

"Truth is larger than any one perspective," Griswold concurred. "The truth is always unfolding."

The full dialogue between Castro and Griswold was given almost entirely to points of history and philosophy. Griswold did, however, raise implicit concerns about the civil and political rights of the Cuban people -- particularly the right to dissent publicly from government policies -- with the Cuban president. Griswold told Castro that the right to dissent is one of the most cherished rights in the United States, and is the reason he is able to return home and advocate against the embargo.

"You were not born a revolutionary, and I was not born a bishop," Griswold said. "But history has drawn us into events by which we've been shaped and molded."

"And in such a way we have shaped ourselves, but we both chose difficult careers: I am a revolutionary, and you are a bishop," Castro said, as laughter filled the room.

"When somebody like you and I sit down and talk, and we can tell each other our concerns, progress is often made," Castro said, citing the value of the exchange of "a great diversity of minds. A great mistake is made when you think people think in the same way... Both in religion and in the political arena there are mysteries."

"That tension is where true growth can occur," Griswold said. "Aspects of truth can interact with each other, and we find ourselves stretched."

Castro imparted many of his views on education, the nature of truth, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s tenacity in fighting for civil rights after centuries of oppression, including a slave trade that involved both Cuba and the southern United States.

Castro explained that his father -- "a campesino, a poor peasant" born in Spain and drafted by the army -- could neither read nor write. Yet Castro went on to complete schooling under the Jesuits, and to lead his country to new levels of literacy and education.

"I studied in a religious school," Castro said. "I remember studying the Apocalypse. Do you think the Apocalypse could be close to us now?"

"I believe we create our own apocalypses," Griswold replied.

Recalling Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba, Castro affirmed the Pope's view that "the theory of evolution was not irreconcilable with creation," another point with which Griswold concurred-also raising the subject of global warming.

"It took nature 350 million years to create hydrocarbons, and it's taken man only a few generations" to compromise the atmosphere significantly, Castro said. "When you and I met all those years ago, there was much talk about nuclear weapons, but nobody spoke about the environment."

Castro cited care for the environment as among the core "values we should try to carry."

"Yes, values that have a global significance, that see all of humanity as connected and of value," Griswold replied. "One of the values of our churches is to respect the dignity of every human being."

Castro raised the topic of globalization and the immediacy of digital communication.

"There isn't time in this world for people to process information and allow it to mature into wisdom," Griswold said.

The conversation turned again to flags -- this time, to the 30 or so being flown on large poles in front of the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana -- strategically erected by Cuban officials to obscure some twenty-five separate red light panels located in the windowpanes of the building and programmed to display news and information. The "ticker"-style message system, installed earlier this year by the U.S. government, broadcasts messages criticizing the Cuban government that, until the erection of the flagpoles, were fully visible to motorists on Havana's main highway.

"I'm embarrassed," Griswold said of the messages, which have become the focus of several international media reports.

"I'm very grateful," Castro replied. "If you're playing baseball, and your opponents make mistakes, you appreciate it." He said the ticker "was ordered from Washington" and that staff of the local Interest Section should not be held responsible for the device.

"I am not a pessimist," Castro added.

The talks continued past midnight, concluding after 1 a.m. Griswold commented that he would not soon forget the opening moments of this particular Ash Wednesday. In response, Castro made the gesture of a small cross on his forehead and said, "What I used to like about that service are the words, 'you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'

"And I remember what [Cuban poet, philosopher and statesman] Jose Marti used to say, 'All the glory of the world fits into a kernel of corn.' "

Castro presented Griswold with an oil painting of a Cuban seascape, and gifts were given to the Presiding Bishop's delegation of five staff members, including the Rev. Juan Marquez of the Office of Anglican and Global Relations; the Rev. Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries; Alex Baumgarten, international policy analyst in the Office of Government Relations; and Barbara Braver, the Presiding Bishop's assistant for communication.

Griswold: Churches share partnerships

Preaching later that Ash Wednesday morning at Havana's cathedral, Griswold again underscored the importance of collaboration between the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of Cuba.

"I very much believe that our two churches are called by Christ, and by our shared history, to engage in the difficult and costly work of reconciliation," Griswold said in his homily.

At several points during the pastoral visit, Griswold, who will retire when his term concludes this November, said that he would strongly encourage his successor -- to be elected June 18 while General Convention is in session -- to return to Cuba to participate in the annual meetings of the diocese's Metropolitan Council.

The members of that council are the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Primate of the Anglican Church of the West Indies, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. But in recent decades, amid heightened U.S.-Cuban political tensions, the practice had been for a bishop in the Episcopal Church's Province IX -- a grouping of Caribbean/Latin American dioceses -- to represent the Presiding Bishop on the council.

Some considered the Presiding Bishop's absence a slight to the Cuban church and reported the matter to Griswold, who responded with his pastoral visit and other steps for healing and collaboration, including follow-up on particular issues related to clergy pensions. 

Ties between the two churches go back to the early 1870s, when Minnesota's Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple stopped in Havana en route to Haiti and persuaded the U.S. church to send missionaries to Cuba. In 1883, while Cuba continued its struggle for independence from Spain, the island's oldest Episcopal congregation-"Fieles a Jesus" (Faithful to Jesus), located in Matanzas-was established. The parish has continued its ministry since that time.

Today the Episcopal Church of Cuba is one diocese of some 11,000 members in 51 congregations and perhaps as many as 30 additional house churches, according to local church leaders.

Among Cuba's national population of some 11.4 million, the work of the Episcopal Church is respected for its balanced and reasoned approach, local priests said. Some of the church's clergy are also members of the national parliament.

Ties of companionship -- "acompanimiento" -- with Episcopal dioceses and organizations are also important links between the two churches, Griswold said, underscoring the longtime partnership shared by the Cuban church and the Jacksonville-based Diocese of Florida.

The Presiding Bishop also noted recent visits to Cuba by Bishop Leo Frade of the Miami-based Diocese of Southeast Florida, and by a group from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts (further links to be posted at Other ties include the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, whose Cuban chapter president, Nelson Valdevia Morffi, was present to greet Griswold in Havana.

"The more links, the more visits, the stronger we in solidarity will be," Griswold said.

Cuba's Bishop Tamayo echoed the Presiding Bishop's call for partnership, and thanked Griswold, at many points along the six-day itinerary, for visiting Cuba.

"We look forward to new days ahead," said Tamayo, who is well known within the Anglican Communion and is a member of the 2008 Lambeth Conference planning team. He is also concurrently a bishop in Uruguay, where he was elected to the episcopate in 1998.

Cuban-born and -educated, Tamayo has served his homeland as interim bishop since January 1, 2004. He was elected to this post by the Metropolitan Council and divides his ministry by alternating three months in Havana with three months in Montevideo, keeping in touch with both dioceses daily by e-mail.

Tamayo is joined in ministry by his wife, Marta, a deacon who has been instrumental in HIV/AIDS ministries in both nations.

The Cuban diocese has two women priests. Its clergy and laity joined in prayer for the concurrent Anglican Women's Empowerment gathering and the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women's fiftieth anniversary meeting, which opened while Griswold's delegation was in Havana. Cuban representatives wished to participate in the assembly, convened in New York, but travel visas did not come in time.

"In spite of all the difficulties, we are a joyful people," Tamayo told Griswold's delegation. "We are never depressed; we are always in fiesta."

Tamayo said the Cuban Church enjoys strong ties with provinces across the Anglican Communion. "We are in relationship with everyone," he said, underscoring the importance of keeping the Communion together amid recent differences about human sexuality -- a subject not raised in any forum during Griswold's pastoral visit.

Ecumenical partnership was clear as Griswold met with Cuba Council of Churches president Rhode Gonzalez and with Jaime Cardinal Ortega, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana for the past 25 years.

Griswold also conferred with government religious affairs director Caridad Diego and her staff members, Maria de Los Angeles and Marcos Gabriel Yuch -- all of whom helped in hosting the visit and providing insights into Cuba's 47 Protestant denominations, 10 seminaries, and other religious groups.

In addition, the ecumenical Evangelical Seminary of Theology, located in Matanzas, hosted Griswold and Tamayo for a dialogue with students and faculty.

The delegation reached the ocean-view seminary after a scenic two-hour drive from Havana-known to Cubans as "La Habana," a name derived from the indigenous Ta’no-Arawak language, as is the name Cuba, though in Spanish it connotes the image of a "cup of wine."

Classic 1940s and '50s American automobiles, plus a number of vintage Ladas from the former Soviet Union, were among vehicles driving the roadways. The older cars are held together by "Cuban creativity," Tamayo said. "We've invented the parts the cars have needed over time."

The few billboards along roadsides and city streets are given to political messages. Commercial advertising, relentless in other nations, is absent from view.
At the seminary, founded in 1946 through ecumenical collaboration among Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians, Griswold was welcomed by rector and chief administrator Reinerio Arce. A tour of the grounds included a visit to the chapel, a gift of the Episcopal Church.

Dialogue participants included Rene Castellanos, 91, who has been part of the seminary community since its founding. He thanked Griswold for "realizing the function of the gospel" to "come to see how we are doing"-much as the apostle Paul and Barnabas did during New Testament times.

First-year student Deyner Castillo, an Episcopalian, asked Griswold: "Do you believe our two churches will become bridges between our two countries?"

"I deeply pray that our two churches" will do so, Griswold replied. "I think of the mustard seed in the Gospel that is so small but yields such rich fruit. Those of us who are part of Christ's body must work in service of Christ's body, and not lose hope even when things look difficult or impossible."

Lessons in self-esteem, dignity

On another campus, Griswold visited with teachers and students at a Havana school devoted to educating the physically disabled.  

Principal Estelle Lao-Ochoa led a tour around the well-kept grounds, classrooms, and dormitories, where most of the 140 students-many in wheelchairs-live in residence while completing their school years.

Education-about $3,000 annually per student-is fully funded for all. This aid is important for families in an economy where monthly income in most households is said to be 300-450 Cuban pesos-currency valued differently from the "Cuban Convertible Pesos" used by tourists. 

"Here you will see a humble, modest school with no luxuries, but a school with a big heart and love," Lao, a 30-year veteran educator, told Griswold. "Here you will also see all the children smiling-that our students are happy as they learn."

Smiles greeted the Presiding Bishop in the art classroom, science classroom, music classroom, library, gym, computer lab-everywhere students were gathered.

"It's never too late to have a happy childhood," a group of young women sang during a musical presentation for the visitors.

Lao said the school emphasizes psychological health and building self-esteem in addition to its work of rehabilitation -- as well as physical "abilitation," for students who have the most difficult challenges.

She added that beyond its curriculum, the school emphasizes values. "This is one reason why our school is named 'Solidaridad con Panama'(Solidarity with Panama)." The school was founded in December 1989, the same month the United States invaded Panama and bombs were falling on children there, she said.

"No matter the adversity," Lao said, "in this school, we affirm what is most important: self-esteem and dignity."