Odette Naranja said it best. “We have so many programs in the church to reach out to the community, to let them know we are here, to let them know we have good things to offer. It’s what we do.”
Odette’s husband, Ivan Gonzales, is the pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrección in Luyanó, a district of Havana, Cuba, and together, they find a lot of joy in the church. And the church has a lot of joy to offer. When we visited, even though it was a Thursday morning, the church was buzzing. It was International Women’s Day and parishioners were gathered for community time, to meet the PWRDF visitors and to be reminded of the courageous women in the Bible who stood up and did good things for their communities… Ruth, Rahab, Esther, Mary and so many more. “We remember, and thank God for what they did,” said Pastor Ivan. “We are all made in the image of God, we are each and every one precious.”
“Church is joyful when it is a place of doing good deeds,” was the message from Odette, Reina, Rosita, Gaspar, Mercedes and others at the Luyanó Episcopal Church. “We want to stay active and do things because we are grateful, because there are many needs, many addictions, so much loneliness.”
One program that Odette mentioned — in the first minute of our conversation together — is ‘pyscho-ballet,’ coordinated community exercises and stretches set to music. But Odette was quick to explain, this is not just about exercise and stretching. “It’s about us in the church going into the neighbourhood, knocking on doors, inviting people to get fit and join us for the time together. There are a lot of vulnerable people we don’t even see who we know would like to join.”
Another program of the church – and of many churches in Cuba – is a program called ‘laundry services.’ That was the translation that came back to me. As first I assumed that this referred to a washing machine that the church kindly makes available to the neighbourhood, but I was quickly corrected. The church organizes a day for the community to wash their clothes, yes, it’s a social time, a functional time (getting the clothes clean), a community time where the church makes available cleaning products, space for washing and drying and, importantly, water. Laundry services is something that many churches offer, a diaconal project at its best as it meets community needs.
Not all homes have access to water and not all water is safe. Luyanó and churches across Cuba make safe water points available in their nearby community. Indeed, a goal of the Episcopal Church’s Development Program, in partnership with PWRDF and others, is to ensure safe water is always available to everyone in the community. “It’s what we do and what we want to do more of,” says Pepe Bringas, manager of Cuba’s Episcopal Church Development Program. “It’s our dream that all churches are able to offer treated, purified water to all in the community… We dream together and when we do so, the dreams become bigger.”
Small investments in water – upgraded piping and better filters — can have big impact. Some of the churches have even installed safe water points in local community centres to facilitate access for more people and contribute to overall well-being and health. It’s a small way, said Bishop Griselda Delgado del Carpio, of “being a light in our communities.”
Cuban Council of Churches
PWRDF also partners with the Cuban Council of Churches, which includes 50 church members plus associate members like a Cuban Jewish club and a yoga team. Both asked to join because of the opportunities to learn, share and do more together to support the people of Cuba. “It’s all about serving the community,” says Joel Ortega Dopico, President of the Council. For him and the Cuban Council of Churches, that includes support for those in prisons, the elderly, the moms who need child care because they need to work to support their families. It’s about theological praxis, says Joel, referring to the Accra Ecumenical Confession:
Justice is a matter of faith. Economic and ecological justice are not only social, political and moral issues, they are integral to faith in Jesus Christ and affect the integrity of the church. We need to hear the cries of the people who suffer and the woundedness of creation itself.
The Cuban Council of Churches has growing recognition and credibility in Cuba. The Cuban Ministry of Environment has signed a letter of intent with the Council, the United Nations is reaching out to them and Global Affairs Canada, in 2017, provided funds to the Council and its members in the wake of Hurricane Irma. PWRDF also responded, with the funds used for immediate food, water and shelter needs as well as preparedness training for an anticipated increase in hurricanes due to warming Caribbean waters. Today, churches and communities across Cuba are more informed and more prepared. Building practices are changing, such as positioning doors and windows to allow wind to pass through and using more resistant building materials. Communities are better prepared too, arranging for safe and adequate places for food provisions as well as a community engagement plan should there be a next hurricane or other disaster. Prices increased by 30% after Irma and many building and reconstruction items were not available.
The Cuban Council of Churches also provides to church diaconal groups entrepreneurship training and face-to-face support to develop a business plan, required for a small grant to be approved. The grants provide seed money for retail businesses, livestock, gardening, biogas, cheese- and butter-making, local transport, a tractor co-op and many other community-inspired ideas.
Cuban Council church members in Placenta, some eight hours away from Havana, used a PWRDF grant to establish a bakery to help poorer residents buy cake or other sweets, at reduced prices, for birthdays or other special occasions.
Another project was set up to raise and sell pork at 25% below market prices to those with little income.
The entrepreneurial groups we met, such as those in Jantibonico, tithe 10% of earnings back to the church and a further 10% goes to a social fund, like a lunch program for poorer schoolchildren to help them stay attentive in class and not have to walk long distances back and forth from home for lunch.
Roberto, community member and lay pastor in Jantibonico, echoed Odette in Luyanó. “We can’t just grow sugarcane – we need many different supports and activities to stay viable and healthy. But our goal is the same: we want to be a church of good deeds.”