Manny Sardinas was glad to learn last summer that Cuba and the United States had reached an agreement to fully open diplomatic relations. The Cuban native and Superintendent of the Gateway North District in The United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey knew that restoring diplomatic relations would allow the church to rebuild relationships with sister churches in Cuba.
The Methodist Church of Cuba had been a part of what is The United Methodist Church today up until 1968. At that time, because of the challenges of travel between the U.S. and Cuba, it became its own denomination, The Methodist Church of Cuba.
Sardinas, Bishop John Schol and 13 others were part of the GNJ contingent to visit Cuba in February. The team witnessed how a partnership could benefit both The Methodist Church of Cuba and GNJ.
The reasons for the trip were to explore experiences with protestant churches in Cuba and identify connections for future missional possibilities, identify the missional component of the Cuban church in the community and social structure and to learn about the expansion of Cuban churches.
“It was a very productive trip,” Sardinas said. “We established strong connections and did some mission work. At the same time, we were able to learn about the changing Cuban Church and society and learn more about the needs in Cuba.”
The GNJ team visited retirement homes and a Salvation Army home, broke and consecrated the ground where a water well will be dug to supply clean drinking water for a town, prepared meals for a church mission, visited the site where a Cuban church needs to be rebuilt, visited the ecumenical seminary and met with Bishop Ricardo Pereira and leaders of the Cuban Methodist Church.
The trip was also served to strengthen the relationship between The Methodist Church of Cuba and GNJ. New Jersey has the second largest Cuban population in the U.S. behind Florida and has several Cuban pastors. The Cuban Methodist Church is also the fastest growing protestant church in Cuba and has more than 2,000 house churches. After a meeting between Bishops Pereira and Schol they emerged to announce a commitment to explore a partnership that will:
- Participate in a pastor cultural exchange
- Have Cuban church leaders teach GNJ how to develop and grow house churches (a growing movement in the U.S. among millennials)
- Establish an exchange of students and professors of Drew School of Theology and the Methodist Seminary in Cuba
- Develop and grow Communities of Hope in Cuba and GNJ
“This is an important time in the church and society of Cuba,” Bishop Schol said. “We look forward to learning from and with the people of Cuba and we are blessed to explore a partnership. A partnership with the Cuban church will be transformative.”
It’s a potential partnership that Drew is anticipating as well.
“We are excited to explore partnership possibilities with Cuba,” said Drew Theological School Dean and Professor of Theology Dr. Javier Viera. “We believe we can add to their theological experience and we also believe students and professors in Cuba can be a tremendous resource for Drew.”
One refreshing part of the trip for team members was to see how the Cuban people made the most of what they have.
“They are incredibly resourceful people,” said Nicole Caldwell-Gross, GNJ’s Director of Missions and Multi-Cultural Ministries who was also on the trip. “Their interpretation of the gospel translates into every resource they have being a blessing.”
A couple of resource examples included people purchasing a milk cow and using the milk to feed the elderly in their small community and one man using thrown away magnetic strips and attaching them to the back of clay models and selling them to tourists.
“The people there are not waiting for outsiders to come in and begin transformation,” Caldwell-Gross said. “When you have less it creates a certain ingenuity and it was refreshing to see.”
The Methodist Church’s impact in Cuba has been significant. Methodist Church attendance grew from 8,000 to 36,000 between 1999 and 2012. The GNJ team was also impacted by worshipping in a Methodist church that was next door to Communist party headquarters.
“The worship was a reminder of what real love is,” Caldwell-Gross said. “I have always felt that in worship as we experienced in Cuba, we see how worship transcends poverty and politics. You could not leave there without feeling some resonance of joy that the world can’t take away. If your life is grounded in something material, it can be taken away.”
While recognizing impactful worship is part of a vital church, Sardinas pointed out a good church isn’t defined solely by its worship.
“That church was packed and they were singing and dancing and it was great,” Sardinas said. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate to mission with the community. That’s what Communities of Hope develops.”