In January 1963, four years after the Cuban Revolution, W. Donald Harris, director of the Board of National Missions’ Departmento Hispano Americano, made a two-week trip to Cuba, visiting congregations across the island and speaking with many pastors, staff, and church members.
Harris reported finding a “deepened and fearless spiritual life” among members of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba, thriving congregations and mission projects, and a number of Presbyterians who had obtained exit permits but planned to remain in Cuba to carry on their work for the church.
This snapshot of the situation on the ground, while reflecting the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.’s commitment to maintain its long-standing support of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba, did not convey the complex and wrenching decisions faced by the thousands of Presbyterians who lived through the end of the Batista dictatorship, the revolution, and the Castro government’s shift toward communism. The Presbyterian Historical Society has in its holdings the unpublished memoir of one such Cuban native—a pastor who grappled with the excruciating choice of staying to serve his home church and country, or fleeing with his wife and young daughters to a new life in the United States.
Manuel Rodríguez grew up in Caibarién in the province of Villa Clara. After graduating from the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Mantanzas, he was ordained in 1950 by the Presbytery of Cuba. Part of the Synod of New Jersey, the Presbytery of Cuba traced its origins to the early mission work of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., initiated after the Spanish-American War and operated under the Board of Home Missions (later the Board of National Missions).
In “Memoirs of a Nightmare,” completed in 1968, Rodríguez recounts his experiences during the revolution and his initial optimism—even enthusiasm—about the possibilities for a Cuba newly freed from the depredations of the Fulgencio Batista regime that Castro toppled. In June 1959, Rodríguez left Cuba with his family for a year of study at Princeton Theological Seminary. Friends in Cuba and the United States advised him to remain in the U.S.A. after finishing his Master’s Degree in Theology, but Rodriguez felt his place was in Cuba.
Over the next two years, he watched with growing alarm and dismay as the revolution’s reforms encroached on the work of the Cuban church, and as ideological divisions among church leaders deepened. He gradually became convinced that he could continue serving the church “only at the expense of surrendering … to the will of the regime.” At the April 1962 meeting of the Presbytery of Cuba, Rodríguez requested and was granted dismissal. With the assistance of U.S. friends and the Board of National Missions, he and his family left Havana in September 1962 and were met in Miami by the Reverend Ernest Sosa, pastor of the First Spanish Presbyterian Church.
Rodríguez describes his joy to be back in the United States and in the company of old friends, but also his stark awareness of his status as a refugee—starting a life from scratch and depending on the aid of those with whom he had formerly interacted on an equal footing as a colleague.
With the assistance of friends in Miami, New York, and New Jersey, Rodríguez soon found a position as assistant minister at the Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church in Plainfield, New Jersey. Less than a month after his arrival in the United States, he attended the annual meeting of the Synod of New Jersey, where he shared his thoughts on religious freedom in Cuba with his colleagues. Less than a week after that, he watched a television broadcast of President Kennedy announcing that the Soviets had installed missile bases in Cuba.
Rodríguez remained at the Crescent Avenue church until the mid-1970s. He served briefly at churches in Florida and Illinois, and then was called as pastor of the Second United Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he served until his retirement in 2000.
The following articles provide additional history about the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.’s relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Cuba, the efforts of the Board of National Missions to continue to support the staff and mission of the Cuban church, and Presbyterian involvement in the reception and resettlement of Cuban refugees.
Theron Corse, “Presbyterians in the Revolution: An American Missionary Church and the Challenge of Castro’s Cuba, 1959–1970.” Cuban Studies, Vol. 31 (2000) pp. 1–33.
Karla Ann Koll, “Volcanic Revolution on the Home Mission Field: Response of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to the Revolution in Cuba.” Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Fall 2004), pp. 149–68.
Cuban refugees at Newark Airport, 1962. Radio broadcast by Good News Radio on the arrival of Cuban refugees, resettled in Newark from Miami in 1962. Includes brief interviews with refugees deplaning. Concludes with remarks by Eugene Carson Blake. Listen here.