Cuban Baptist Minister Visits Berks as part of Program
The Rev. Antonio Santana, president of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of Cuba, visited several Berks County churches in June as part of "Hands Across the Gulf," a partnership program between the PSEC and his organization.
During a breakfast meeting with a group of pastors, church members and staff of the Southeast Conference, Santana described the workings of the Baptist church in Cuba and praised its partnership with the conference.
"We have many dreams in our church, and we welcome the relationship between the United States and Cuba," Santana said, speaking through a translator. "This relationship will facilitate the exchange of dreams between our countries."
The Rev. Joseph H. Irwin Jr., minister of communication for the PSEC, said the United Church of Christ has a longstanding relationship with Cuban churches, and representatives of the national church have visited Cuba every year for the last two and half decades. The relationship between the PSEC and the Fellowship of Baptist Churches got its start in 2007, when a PSEC delegation led by Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in Philadelphia visited for a week.
Irwin, a member of Old First Reformed, was a member of that delegation.
"I was along on that trip, and I just fell in love with the Cuban churches we visited," Irwin said. "I thought that even though their name is Baptist, they're a lot like the United Church of Christ in their stances on women in the church, and human rights and other issues."
Santana said there has been a major theological shift in Cuba since 1992, when the country's constitution was amended to guarantee freedom of religion.
"People now have the freedom to attend any church they want - Christian or other," Santana said.
The largest religious group in Cuba is made up of Roman Catholics, followed by Baptists. There are a significant number of Afro-Cuban religions, along with smaller numbers of Jews, Muslims, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and others. Seminary training is available for those in the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist and Quaker faiths, Santana said.
A primary focus of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of Cuba is its youth, considered those between the ages of 20 and about 35, Santana said. In fact, he said, youth leadership is essential to the Fellowship.
"Sometimes we think it's older adults who have the experience of doing things, and that they should be the leaders," Santana said. "But in our church, it's the other way around. We are youth centered."
The youth who serve their churches respect their elders and preserve their dignity, he said, and older people are very receptive to youth leadership.
"There is a lot of respect between the generations," Santana said.
Christian education is stressed for both youth and adults, and congregations within the Fellowship of Baptist Churches are working together to promote a sense of community and service, and to establish Gospel-based ministries throughout the country.
Santana, PSEC representatives and local church members discussed possibilities for connecting youth of the two countries using technology such as e-mail and video conferencing. They talked about forging relationships between congregations and building community among Cuban and American Christians.
"We know that where we have good results in when we learn from each other," Irwin said.
Santana has returned to his work in Cuba, but the door between that country's Fellowship of Baptist Churches and the PSEC remain open, with hands and hearts extended across the gulf.