Perkins School of Theology in Cuba

Dr. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins School of Theology, is leading the Spring 2014 faculty immersion trip to Cuba March 7-16. Nine participants will examine the history of Cuba, its religious and cultural sources, and will visit Christian communities including the Seminario Evangélico de Teología de Matanzas.

Participation of Perkins faculty members in this immersion experience is made possible by The Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions at Perkins School of Theology. The Center is funded by a grant from The Luce Foundation. Dr. Tim McLemore, Associate Director of Public Affairs, Perkins School of Theology, is traveling with the faculty immersion group and writes from Matanzas, Cuba.

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Walk and reflection

The day starts with a generous breakfast in the seminary’s large dining hall. Even with all the activity of the past days, a trend is apparent among many of us – the ample and tasty meals are definitely, shall we say, preventing any concerns about undue weight loss!

Wanda, director of the Kairós Center in Matanzas, in an animated conversation with Perkins Professor Rebekah Miles

Wanda, director of the Kairós Center in Matanzas, in an animated conversation with Perkins Professor Rebekah Miles

A brief worship service in the seminary’s beautiful chapel readies us for a trip to the Kairós Center. (The seminary’s architectural character reflects the fact that this special place is a gift from their Episcopalian partners.) The Kairós Center describes itself as a “Christian center that cultivates and promotes liturgy that integrates art and social work with an ecumenical focus, renewed and contextualized in the Cuban culture.”

The description of the mission is accurate, but it does not capture the concreteness, and more importantly, the joy evident in the huge impact made on the lives of the poor – especially children and the elderly or disabled – the Center is called to serve. The mission of the Kairós Center is “to offer liturgical training to Cuban churches and partnerships that encourage a discipleship of service and human solidarity, integrating art and social work in a renewed fashion that keeps with the spirit and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.” The best way to express the positive energy at work in this place may be to find it in the face of the Center’s director, Wanda.

Nature itself rebels against the excesses of humankind, finally reclaiming its own equilibrium.

Nature itself rebels against the excesses of humankind, finally reclaiming its own equilibrium.

The group takes a walk through the city before driving back to the seminary. Along our journey, a bookstore offers a new volume of contemporary poetry for the equivalent of about 50 cents (USD). An art gallery celebrates traditional and contemporary art, jewelry and sculpture. An old metal gear left long ago leaning against a tree, symbolizing victory over oppression, is now part of a small park. It is intriguing to see how, over the course of decades, the tree has grown, almost handlike, around the powerful symbol. As though nature itself rebels against the excesses of humankind, finally reclaiming its own equilibrium. Equally compelling, a bronze sculpture of liberation, set in front of a statue of José Martí in a city park, invigorates and and inspires several of us.

Bronze statue in front of a José Martí memorial in a Matanzas park

Bronze statue in front of a José Martí memorial in a Matanzas park

As we walk the sidewalks of the city, two local women preparing to enter their place of worship cheerfully respond to a colleague’s inquiry about their striking dress. The women practice Santería, an Afro-Latin religion that is common here in various forms.

Practitioners of Santería, an Afro-Latin religion

Practitioners of Santería, an Afro-Latin religion

The afternoon concludes with a visit to the Cathedral and a striking Afro-Caribbean Madonna and Child, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.

In the evening, an informative series of dialogues, first with the Seminario de Matanzas faculty members and then a separate meeting (sans faculty members) with students and the visiting groups from Perkins, Brite and Boston. I become aware (and ashamed) of my own latent prejudices upon realizing my surprise at finding such fine faculty, possessing Th.D.’s or Ph.D.’s from some of the great theological centers in the world.

A big challenge for the seminary is simply acquiring enough printed textbooks. Another impediment is limited Internet availability: two computers with basic dial-up modem access: one for use by all the faculty, and a second for the entire student body, each mostly restricted to sending e-mails. Both functionality and hours of availability are limited. In the face of such obstacles, I leave quite impressed with the breadth and depth of quality theological educators. This impression is confirmed by our positive experience with the students, who come at great sacrifice and whose openness to the diverse traditions represented among them is advanced far beyond most of the ecumenism I am familiar with.

The decision to attend the evening dialogues comes at the expense of what is, for me, an unexpected option to see members of the Yale Glee Club performing in Matanzas. Ironically,  several weeks ago I declined an invitation to see the famed Yale Whiffenpoofs sing in Dallas because the performance was scheduled for this same day, when I was scheduled for this Cuban immersion experience.

I enjoy the nice quarters provided for us by the seminary. Spare by some standards, but clean and comfortable. The wooden jalousie windows offer a pleasant view, and air-conditioning is available for those who desire it. I share a bathroom with one other person, assigned to an adjoining room. An in-line hot water heater provides slightly warmed water from the shower head. Not the steaming hot torrent I am accustomed to, but pleasant, and more than adequate. And considerably better than the intermittent, or some would say non-existent, hot water at the Saint John Hotel back in Havana.

One of our seminary hosts, Betty, serves us cookies and juice every evening before we trek up the outdoor tile steps of our three-story plastered cement-block dormitory building. Stepping outside for a late-night nip of fresh air, I am aware that Betty is still hard at work hand-washing clothes, an optional service chosen by some in our group that is both invaluable for seminary guests and an important source of extra income for Betty. Eventually I notice that Betty’s schedule begins hours before dawn, when she joins several others to prepare our breakfast. She also helps prepare our lunch. As far as I can tell, she cannot be getting more than four hours of sleep each evening. Betty is unfailingly warm (some might say, motherly) and cheerful.

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