When Maria Josefa Nunez received her long-embargoed pension from the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she knew exactly what she wanted to do with it.
She bought a house. But not for herself — for her church.
Nunez was a Christian educator and her husband was a pastor in Havana during the 1950s, before the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC) achieved autonomy in 1965. Before then, Cuban Presbyterian churches were part of the Synod of New Jersey of the former United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
Thus, its church workers were part of the benefits plans of the Board of Pensions.
When the U.S. government enacted its economic embargo of Cuba shortly after the 1959 revolution, more than 50 Cuban pastors and their beneficiaries were blocked from receiving their pensions.
With the recent relaxation of some of the economic sanctions against Cuba, the Board of Pensions ― primarily Frank Maloney, executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Legal Counsel Jean Hemphill ― has been working with U.S. government officials to get the long-escrowed pensions to the retired Cuban pastors. In numerous cases the pensions will go to the pastors’ survivors, as many of the pastors are deceased.
“There were originally more than 50 Cuban plan members whose pensions were blocked,” Maloney said. “We have managed to clear all but 21 of the pensioners’ accounts.”
One of those to finally receive her pension was Maria Josefa Nunez, now in her 90s. A few months ago she received her pension in a lump sum payment of more than $30,000.
Nunez was a founding member of La Fernanda Presbyterian Church on the outskirts of Havana. La Fernanda was originally a mission of Luyano Presbyterian Church in central Havana, where Nunez served as a Christian educator.
As with many churches in Cuba, the now-chartered La Fernanda ― which has met and worshiped in a small house for many years ― is growing rapidly.
“Sometimes the people need to stay outside in the street to hear the sermon and liturgy,” said the Rev. Ofelia Ortega Suarez, one of the IPRC’s leaders. “They need to have more space.”
Shortly after Nunez received her pension, the house next door to the La Fernanda “storefront” came up for sale.
“The choice for Maria was clear,” Ortega said. “She gave the church $30,000 from her pension to buy the house. With more room, La Fernanda is greatly expanding its activities.”
Hemphill and Maloney are determined to clear as many of the remaining 21 blocked pensions as they can before Maloney retires at the end of this year. “This has been going on since the revolution,” Maloney said. “Jean and I talk just about every day about getting this done.”
With so many of the eligible pensioners deceased, Hemphill said, “there’s a lot of family research to do to establish beneficiary eligibility.” And neither the Board of Pensions nor the IPRC even knows where more than a dozen of the eligible pensioners are located.
But everyone is praying that there are more like Maria Josefa Nunez out there.