Connecting in Colombia and Cuba

For two weeks in March, Tim and I travelled through Colombia and Cuba, meeting with our church’s partners in mission, trying to understand their context and challenges, searching for connections between their reality and that of The United Church in Canada. It was an opportunity to support our partners, affirming a relationship that goes much deeper than finances. And it was, equally, an opportunity to hear their stories, to let them sink in, and then, to wonder how I might share these stories when I returned to Canada.

Jim Hodgson, who for the last 14 years has been the United Church staff person responsible for connecting with mission partners in Latin America, was our guide (and translator – ¡No hablo español!”) It was good to have someone who knew his way around, from Cali to Bogota, from Havana to Cardenas; someone who could talk about the different kinds of partnerships, with the Colombian Methodist Church and thePresbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba; with CEPALC, a popular communication institute in Bogota, or the Cuban Council of Churches, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas.

A few snapshots:

  • In the past 10 years, the Colombian Methodist Church has grown from 17 to 43 congregations, although they only own three buildings.
  • Colombia has one of the world’s worst records for wealth inequality, the gap between a small, very rich elite and “the rest,” growing wider all the time; the highest level of internally displaced people (five and a half million); the highest rate of assassination of union officials; one of the highest levels of extra-judicial disappearances, as the army and the paramilitary groups and the guerrillas continue a decades-long war.
  • So, what is the role of the church? How to work for peace? And justice? A staff member of one of the human rights groups we are connected with in Colombia is working with a left-wing political party, the Patriotic Union, and ran (and lost) in the recent election. How do politics and faith mix?
  • We visited the Cuban government’s Office of Religious Affairs for a two-hour discussion about the relationship between church and state. Many years ago, the government abandoned its determination that Cuba officially be an atheist country; it now considers religion as one of the many various sectors of civic society, and regularly consults with churches, including some of our partners – the Cuban Council of Churches, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, the Martin Luther King Centre. Frankly, I had a sense that the churches have more possibilities for significant conversation with government than does our denomination back home.
  • On the other hand, the government is challenged to balance its commitment to freedom of belief with the reality that some new evangelical/Pentecostal churches are receiving most of their funding from within the United States, and are working strongly against the values of the revolution. What to do?

I found myself asking questions about how we choose our partnerships; what determines the level of funding; how we make decisions about ending relationships. And then, painfully, questions about the impact of future financial cutbacks in our national budget.

Even more, I wondered about the connections that exist – or don’t exist – between local communities of faith in Canada and our partners around the world. How many people in the United Church know about the work that we are supporting in Colombia or Cuba? Our national staff do such good work – I saw firsthand how much Jim Hodgson’s ministry is appreciated! But are we relying too much on staff to do “our” mission? How could this work be more linked to our congregations? How might we strengthen and enliven the flow of information – probably not more print, but perhaps better use of the website and YouTube? How do we make best use of the personal witness of those who are working in the field? And hear from those who have visited?

When I was in Cali, Colombia, I was invited to preach at Divino Salvador (Divine Saviour) Methodist Church, and I discovered that for a number of years this congregation has been in partnership with Southampton-Mount Hope Pastoral Charge(in southwestern Ontario); in fact, their minister, Rev. Keith Reynolds, chose to come down for a visit while I was there.

The relationship had started slowly – an exchange of letters, information, pictures; then, Keith spent some sabbatical time in Cali, learning about life in Colombia and this Methodist congregation; later, some other members of the Southampton-Mount Hope congregation had an opportunity to visit. After a few years, there was an invitation for United Church folk to assist in the fundraising efforts of the people of the Divino Salvador congregation to build a church in Cali – and they said yes, in a big way! This June, Rev. Maritza Gamboa is coming north, to visit the people of Southampton-Mount Hope (for more, see Jim Hodgson’s blog post: “An Ontario church gets to know Colombia). 

Then, the following week, when preaching at the Luyanó Presbyterian Church in Havana, who should show up but a confirmation group of 10 teenagers from Innerkip-Eastwood United Church, with their minister, Rev. Maya Landell. They believed that part of their faith journey meant connecting with Christians in the developing world, and so were spending 10 days in an exposure/awareness building trip with church partners in Cuba (as well as having some beach time, complete with snorkelling). I was delighted to have an opportunity to be with the group on their last evening, as together we reflected on what they had learned, what they were taking home, and how this trip would make a difference in their lives. I wanted every confirmation class to have such an experience! 

So now I find myself wondering how we might encourage every congregation to become more directly involved in some kind of a global partnership – twinned, perhaps, with a developing-world congregation, or a peace and justice group; or perhaps going on an exposure trip that is committed to ongoing partnership in one way or another. What would that do to our sense of mission? How would we grow in our faith? How might this make a difference in the lives of partners? Perhaps I’m being fanciful, but I saw so many opportunities for connection – with an HIV/AIDS group in Pereira; with a children’s school in Bogota; with an experimental farm ministry in Cardenas; and yes, with “ordinary” congregations.

What do you think – how might we strengthen global partnership ministry? Can you tell me a story of what your congregation is doing?

 (Photos courtesy of Jim Hodgson, unless otherwise noted.)