Rarely do worship services in the United States draw attention from the national government and news media.
In Cuba, the May 22 opening worship service of the Sixth General Assembly of the Council of Latin American Churches (CLAI) featured greetings from top state officials, including a vice president and the minister of justice. The event also attracted TV cameras and front-page coverage in a local newspaper.
Some 1,000 people, many arriving nearly two hours early, poured into a cavernous theater in central Havana to participate in the service. The congregation included members of Cuban congregations as well as some 500 participants in the CLAI assembly.
The delegates represent mainline Protestant and evangelical churches across Latin America and the Caribbean who are attending the CLAI Assembly — an ecumenical gathering that has taken place in various host countries every six years since 1982. CLAI was founded in 1978.
Also attending the service were invited representatives of other religious traditions, including Cuban’s small Muslim community, which numbers between 7,000-8,000.
“It is no coincidence that this meeting occurs during the week of Pentecost,” said CLAI President Julio E. Murray, bishop of the Episcopal Church in Panama. This gathering of Christians from multiple regions, he told worshipers, is evidence that “the Holy Spirit is present, guiding and empowering the church so that all may be one.”
Leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Cuba were highly visible at the service. From a pulpit onstage, the Rev. Joel Dopico, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Veradero, Cuba, and president of the Cuban Council of Churches, gave a fervent greeting that concluded with these words: “Welcome to the fiesta of the pueblo de Dios.”
The service opened with a live and audiovisual accounting of the history of CLAI, featuring historical photos, memorial candles for those who have died since the 5th Assembly in 2007, colorful dancers, as well as banners and theme songs from the previous CLAI assemblies.
The featured preacher, Federico Pagura, is a bishop emeritus of the Methodist church in Argentina and is renowned throughout Latin America as a theologian and poet. Before his sermon, he received a medal of honor from Cuban President Raul Castro. The vice-president who presented the medal received a Bible from CLAI to give to Cuba’s leader.
Pagura began his sermon with words of appreciation for Christians who have made a positive and lasting impact in Latin America by living their faith. Included on his lengthy list was Presbyterian missionary Lois Kroehler, who spent more than a half-century in Cuba and is now retired in Seattle.
Pagura praised Kroehler for remaining in Cuba during the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power — a time when most U.S. mission workers fled the country. She stayed and continued to support the Cuban church during the difficult post-revolution years.
Citing biblical passages from the Old Testament prophets Joel and Amos to the New Testament books of Acts and Revelation, Pagura challenged listeners to follow the example of Kroehler and others who have worked to bring about God’s vision for a world of justice and peace.
Eva Stimson, former editor of “Presbyterians Today” magazine, is a freelance writer and editor.