For years, people in the United States have nurtured common perceptions about the officially communist country, with its socialist economy, Cuba. The country might be economically poor, but it has a high-functioning health, education, and tourism trade. To challenge certain perceptions about the country, the Cuban Council of Churches invited the United Church of Christ in 1978, to send down a delegation to become better acquainted with the life and mission of the church there.
In 1979 the UCC sent down a nine-member delegation sponsored by the United Church Board for World Ministries and Justice and Witness Ministries: three national executives, three Conference ministers, and three local ministers, and the association has been going on since. The Reverend Ted Braun was fortunate to be one of those local pastors chosen.
After his final trip to Cuba in 2013, Rev. Ted Braun passed the leadership of the Cuba Study Seminar over to Reverend Tom Warren and his wife Kim Miller who had been on Ted’s trip in 2003 and spent a month in Cuba in the summer of 2009. The new custodians have kept the trips going and this will be the seventh year that Rev. Warren and Kim have been the organizers.
The two-weeks-long trip, which typically takes place in late January or February, has been postponed to late Spring of this year, with no set dates yet.
“It’s a yearly cultural immersion trip to Cuba, typically a 14-day trip in January or early February. We take between 12 to 30 people to Cuba, and every year the numbers are different. We try to show people varied experiences of Cuba. We had a special concert with their National choir while we were there,” said Rev. Warren.
The Reverend is the Pastor of the Peace United Church of Christ and the 2022 UCC Cuba Study Seminar will include visits to various churches, two Protestant seminaries, the Latin American Medical School in Havana, an afternoon concert with the Cuban National Choir, a visit to the Che Guevara National Monument, conversations with government officials, a meeting with the Cuban Federation of Women, a tour of a local health clinic, and a party with a neighborhood association.
“It's a very stimulating experience for people, because in the United States, people have a very negative view of Cuba. Most of the time people who go on this trip come back with a very different interpretation. The goal of the trip is to connect with the Cuban people and learn about their lives, good and bad. The U.S. has a very dramatic embargo and sanctions against Cuba for over 60 years which is quite destructive. We try to be in solidarity with the Cuban people, but we try not to come with solutions, or be looked upon as people coming in with U.S. goods, etc… but this is very difficult,” he confirmed.
Over the forty years of annual visits, the groups have numbered from eight to twenty-six, for a total of over 500 participants. The groups have been ecumenical, not only from the UCC but from many different denominations and faith families, including Roman Catholic (the director of Pax Christi), and a Jewish professor. Trip members have been primarily from the U.S., but also from Canada, Australia, and South Africa - people who had heard about the seminars. The trip has also had participants from the faculties of Eden Seminary, Lancaster Seminary, New York School of Theology, and Yale Divinity School.
The opportunity for a week to see first-hand all the new things that were happening in Cuba, an ever-developing system of values being lived-out, and the vibrant life of the church in the midst of it all, was a powerful and rewarding experience for all the participants in that first delegation. When Reverend Ted Braun discovered that the UCC had no specific plans for continuing this new contact and relationship, he inaugurated, with the blessing and support of the United Church Board for Global Ministries, an annual UCC Cuba Study Seminar program that formally began in 1980.
The first UCC delegation to Cuba consisted of four people -- two men and two women. For transport they secured a Church World Service six-passenger plane and pilot to fly the group from St. Petersburg, Florida to Havana and back again. Within Cuba, the visit each year is sponsored by the Cuban Council of Churches, and the schedule and on-the-ground transportation is set-up by the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP) according to the wishes of the delegation. The length of the UCC trips quickly expanded to two weeks and included exploring the greater part of the country from Havana and Matanzas in the west over to Santiago on the eastern coast.
The NAI shares office premises with the Peace Church and collaborates on the day-to-day needs that the NAI has. As partners, the two share a deep understanding of each other’s work ethics, and a deep respect and understanding of what they are trying to achieve.
“The biggest event where we collaborated was the Thanksgiving dinner. Every year, until Covid, the NAI had a big Thanksgiving dinner for all clients at the church premises. Our church prepared some of the food and also served it. That was a real nice back and forth,” said Rev. Warren.
“We’ve had representatives from the NAI come and speak to our Church on different occasions. Sometimes, during worship, they’ve come in and there’s been speakers who've told about the refugees. It’s a constant day-to-day relationship, where we’ve really come to the benefit of clients, even though those events happen once in a while. Having said that, we are always open to partnerships like the Thanksgiving dinner,” he confirmed.
Rev. Warren teaches Sociology in Guildford Technological Community College, another partner of the NAI. Born in Oneida NY, near Syracuse, the Reverend comes from a family of three older sisters. He went to college in Pennsylvania to study English and Sociology and worked as a counselor in a hospital in Pennsylvania. He graduated school in Tampa, Florida with a Masters in Sociology. Then he taught for a year at the University and the Community College. Then went to Seminary in Eden Seminary in St Louis Missouri, which is a United Church of Christ Seminary. That was a three-year program.
Rev. Warren has an image of Cuba, that is post pandemic, and is gearing himself to witness a very different Cuba this year. “The pandemic has shut down the island for the past two years and it has been very difficult for the Cuban people. I haven’t been there, so I am very anxious to see how things have changed. Their economy is highly dependent on tourism and when that shut down, it completely nailed them,” he said.
Talking about Cuba and the Cubans he’s known for years now, the Reverend says: “We have been very warmly welcomed. They are very kind people, and they are very reserved in terms of telling you how life is in Cuba. Life there is economically very difficult. There are quite a few things that work very well in Cuba, like the healthcare system is quite impressive. Universal healthcare and education, all part of their socialist revolution, is very impressive. Their economic equality is way down at the bottom and everyone struggles. The poverty there is very real.”
“On the other hand, everybody has access to decent healthcare and education. They have recently started to introduce and encourage small and medium sized businesses and Cuba is opening up to international investment in different ways. People were opening up their houses to Airbnb, restaurants in their living rooms, people who had skills of making furniture, for example, would have it for sale. So, you could see it taking shape. But that was dependent on tourists and was all starting to emerge until the pandemic hit. and that shut it all down.”
“The most frustrating part of Cuba for me is that it’s hard to know where the problems lie. The Cuban government says that a lot of their problems are related to the U.S. embargo, I think that’s partly true. But that’s not the only one. When you see the struggles Cubans have, it’s very hard to tell what’s the cause. Is it mismanagement of the Cuban government? Is it the embargo that’s created havoc? Or is it the combination of both things? So, there’s a part of the trip to Cuba that pulls on your heart's strings. Because people are so beautiful and I’ve fallen in love with the Cuban people, with the ideas of the Cuban Revolution.”
The Reverend Warren feels that there are lessons that the U.S. could benefit from. “The Cuban government is quite authoritarian and strong. As members of the church, we meet with representatives of the Cuban government in the religious affairs department, and that is very positive. There is religious freedom in Cuba that many Americans don’t understand. It’s a Caribbean island, so it's a beautiful place and there are no guns, that is one of the charms of Cuba. There are very few drugs. Lots of alcohol. So, when you are a tourist, you would feel very safe. The kind of crime that happens in the U.S. is unheard of,” he said.
"I’ve learnt a lot about Fidel Castro, autocratic, brilliant, charismatic. In Cuba he is their ‘papa’ - that’s what we need, our own American version of good leaders that can bring us together," believes the Reverend.
It is clear that the trips open the eyes of all the participants. They see Cubans and their lives, shedding the stereotypes and misconceptions. First-hand experiences bring understanding and an appreciation of a culture that, although different from their own in some key aspects, can still provide inspiration for a better world, for all countries. It just takes that step of getting to know them a little better and those who are willing to make that possible.