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Methodists from Florida, Cuba forge relationship

A Cuban cleric's visits strengthens a growing relationship between the churches in vastly different lands.

If reports are accurate, the toe-tapping Latin beat that vibrated through a local church hall Wednesday is an apt metaphor for the spiritual energy that pulses through Cuba's Christian community.

And the Rev. Moises Isla Duenas is solid evidence of it.

For almost two weeks, the Cuban cleric zealously adhered to a schedule crammed with church services, Bible studies, dinners and talks, organized by his hosts to promote a budding relationship between Cuban and Florida Methodist churches.

Early in his visit, Isla, the Cuban church's district superintendent for the Matanzas province, east of Havana, capsulized his mission to area Methodists.

"'My message is that we need to recover the primitive church vitality. Pentecost is an experience that can be repeated in today's church," Isla, 43, insisted, referring to the fervor that accompanied the Holy Spirit's descent on Jesus' Apostles.

"We need the fire of the Holy Spirit," was his urging to Florida's believers.

Those were challenging words from a man whose impoverished Christian brothers and sisters flock on foot and bicycle to worship in hot, crumbling churches, tiny houses, barns and even open fields. For them he begged for old accordions to make music during worship. The instruments, he joked Wednesday evening, are unaffected by Cuba's frequent power outages.

That night, before he began his talk at First United Methodist Church, 212 Third St. N, Isla unpacked his own accordion and coaxed his audience to join him in singing songs of praise.

His visit, which ended Friday, was designed to enhance the relationship between Methodists in Matanzas and those in the St. Petersburg District, a geographic area that includes 48 Methodist churches and about 40,000 believers in Pinellas and south Pasco counties. Other Florida districts are paired with specific regions in Cuba.

Formally referred to as the Cuba/Florida Covenant, the partnership was established in 1997 after discussions that began three years earlier between Bishop H. Hasbrouck Hughes, former head of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Cuban church leaders.

The purpose of the alliance was to establish ministries that would benefit churches in Florida and Cuba. Methodists on the island indicated that they would be helped best by continued visits from Florida's United Methodist Volunteers In Mission teams. Among other things, the Cubans asked for help to train their clergy and laity and for donations of medicine, hygiene items, sheets, blankets, shoes and clothes.

Florida's Methodists, for their part, envisioned a relationship that would help them catch the fever of Cuba's Christian revival. They said they wanted to use similar Bible study guides for simultaneous study during the seasons of Lent and Advent and to learn more about Cuba and Cuba's Methodist church. Also included among their wishes was a request that Cuban Methodists host American mission caravans and prepare educational materials for visiting delegations.

Though it is recognized that the Cuban church is in dire need of financial help, money should not be seen as the essence of the Florida-Cuba relationship, said Bishop James Lloyd Knox, interim leader of about 345,000 Florida United Methodists east of the Apalachicola River.

"We try to de-emphasize money," said Knox, who in his early years as a minister served as a missionary to Cuba and Argentina and helped establish relief programs and churches in Florida for Cuban refugees.

"The whole idea is that we learn from them about evangelizing, because they are so good at it. And they learn from us about some of the deeper understandings of the Christian faith," Knox said.

Nancy Burkholder, who traveled to Cuba a year ago with her husband, Bill, and other members of a mission team, still speaks with awe about the faith of the island's Methodists.

"Being able to meet Christians in another culture was very spiritual, especially to see them acting out their faith in such scarcity and deprivation. . . . There was not enough food, medicines, and yet these people showed such a joy and freedom in the church," Burkholder said.

"They have a lot to teach us as far as commitment and evangelization."

Lawrence A. Rankin, head of missions for the Florida Conference, agreed.

"When the Cubans come here or we go there, we are impressed by their spirituality in the midst of opposition," he said.

"How can we complain that we don't have air conditioning on Sunday morning, when there are new Cuban churches that meet under trees?"

The resurgence of the Methodist community in Cuba pleases Florida church officials, who point out that the state played a key role when the denomination was introduced to the island during the late 19th century. The relationship thrived and, for many years, Cuba and Florida had the same Methodist bishop.

Change came when Fidel Castro wrested power from Fulgencio Batista in 1959. By 1961, a vast number of Cuba's Methodist clergy, foreign missionaries and their congregations had escaped the country. Isla's father, then a prominent layman in the Methodist church, was not among them. Not only did he stay behind, Isla said, his father also decided to become a pastor.

"I remember only my father and me at the altar, praying," Islarecalled. "It was a difficult time."

In the decades that followed the revolution, religious beliefs were denounced by the officially atheist nation. And since 1959, the government has forbid the building of new churches. Only recently has permission been granted to repair those that still stand. Cubans were forced to give up Christmas in 1969, when the government ordered them to help harvest that year's sugar cane crop. It was not until 1997 that the holiday again was sanctioned and temporarily reinstated in deference of the pope's expected visit. Last year, it was permanently restored.

Approval to celebrate Christmas is among the latest concessions Cuban Christians have received in recent years.

Human Rights Watch, an international group based in New York, remains unimpressed. In a study released last month, it listed religious and human rights activists among those who continue to be victimized by the Cuban government.

Nonetheless, Cuba is seeing a rebirth of Christianity, and the Methodist Church is growing steadily.

"We have 8,000 members, but we have an attendance of about 30,000," Isla said.

Although eager, new converts are welcomed, Cuba's Methodist Church requires an intensive period of study before they are allowed to join the denomination.

"We want committed members," said Isla, adding that the yearlong initiation is important because the new Christians, most young, have no religious background.

"They do not know anything about the Bible, the Methodist Church," he said.

For their teachers, that is a problem. There is a shortage of Bibles and training resources. But that is being addressed by Florida churches. Locally, Jim Gee, coordinator of the St. Petersburg District's half of the covenant, also is organizing teams to repair and refurbish long-neglected churches. Gee's next trip to Cuba will be in September.

For his part, Isla is grateful for the help his community is receiving from Florida's Methodists. And he is optimistic about Christianity's revival in his homeland.

"God is opening the door. I think what is happening in Cuba today is the result of prayer. The groups that stayed prayed fervently that the Lord would send a revival to our island. They were praying for 30 years," Isla said.

"We believe that prayer changes things. . . . We know that God will hold the future in his hand. . . . We want the best for Cuba. We want Cuba for Christ."