There was little familiarity with community networks in Cuba until Apr. 25, 1987, when the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center (CMMLK) was founded. Today, this ecumenical Christian organization links up local initiatives with others in the Americas.

The CMMLK, located in the Havana neighborhood of Marianao, “has helped broaden our horizons about social and religious questions, and about how to live in community. At the same time, we apply, in our neighborhoods, what we learn at the center,” Adiel González, a young man who lives in Matanzas, 87 kilometers from the capital, told IPS.

González is part of a Christian group, the Faith for Cuba Ecumenical Network, which was launched in April as part of the activities that are being organized throughout this year for the center’s 25th anniversary. The new organization is part of the National Network of Popular Educators, which has about 1,500 members.

These two groups ― the first religious and the second for lay people ― bring together people who have received training in the CMMLK’s workshops on social and pastoral theology and popular education. The pedagogy for liberation, a teaching concept created by Brazilian educational thinker Paulo Freire (1921-1997), is the guide used in its courses.

The center helps religious leaders, especially young ones, explore pastoral issues with a critical eye. It also provides a space for bringing together different religions in the country, especially Protestant churches.

“It’s a place for sharing,” said María Teresa Álvarez of the Presbyterian Church of los Palos in Mayabeque province, southeast of Havana.

“We are one big extended family, spread all over the country,” Álvarez told IPS, describing the network, which is seeking to build on earlier ecumenical movements in Cuba.

According to the group’s principles, its members try to contribute to community development and advocate “a socially-committed church, which dares to transform itself and the world and which reaffirms love, compassion, respect for diversity, justice, gender equality and the integrity of all human beings.”

Founded and led by the Rev. Raúl Suárez ― a Baptist ― the CMMLK describes itself as an organization “that, as part of the Cuban people and their churches, contributes to solidarity and popular participation” and honors the memory of civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).

The center was created on the initiative of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, pastored by Suárez, and is located next door to it. Its early years coincided with a period in Cuba when professing any religion created obstacles, to a certain extent, for social integration of the religious community.

In the 1990s, however, the Cuban government began to show a new openness to religion that included amending the constitution to ban discrimination on religious grounds, and allowing believers to join the ruling Communist Party.

The CMMLK gained new social recognition and began to expand the scope of its activities. It has helped people in low-income areas to build housing and is one of the sponsors of the annual Pastors for Peace caravans, which since 1992 have been bringing people and resources from the United States to Cuba.

The center also has helped to build bridges between people in Cuba and the United States, whose governments broke off relations more than 50 years ago. The CMMLK is part of the World Social Forum International Council, and is a member of international networks such as Jubilee South and Vía Campesina.

Beyond Cuba’s borders ― especially in Latin America ― the CMMLK supports “initiatives that come from the people and their struggles against neoliberal policies, free trade, debt and militarization.”

The center’s general coordinator, Joel Suárez, said the organization “has been involved in the struggle against social exclusion, the plunder of nature, racism, homophobia and gender-based discrimination.” These concerns are part of its training programs, which are helping it build social networks in Cuba.

The CMMLK’s workshops, which are held both at the center and elsewhere, “have the goal of empowering people to develop their political, organizational and management capacities, so that they can be innovative in their experiences, churches, ecumenical spaces and local governments,” Suárez, who is also a researcher, told IPS.

Outside the classroom, the National Network of Popular Educators is made up of researchers, teachers, community leaders, people who are involved in agro-ecology and social and community work, and others.

The CMMLK has affiliated groups in 17 Cuban cities. Idania Pérez belongs to a local chapter in Granma province, 730 kilometers southeast of Havana. People who completed CMMLK training courses founded the De Manos group in Bayamo, the capital of Granma province, and the rural community group Las Tamaras.

“We do community work, leadership training and other activities in support of different projects, especially gender-related ones,” Pérez told IPS. The activist said that participating in the network and its work “is a very important alternative for our society. We have to encourage it, and we are determined to continue doing so.”