More than History – God's Unfolding Mission in Cárdenas, Cuba
by Juan Sarmiento
“The mission of the church has a specific name: witness. It has a specific characteristic or peculiarity: prophetic. And It has a unique purpose: evangelization” *
Rev. Dr. Sergio Arce Martinez
The picturesque, straight and narrow streets made Cárdenas gain its reputation of being the "Charleston of the Caribbean.” With more than 100,000 people, it represents one of the main cities in the Matanzas province and the place where what was named the first Presbyterian Church of Cuba was established.
Cárdenas was the very first place where the Cuban flag was flown in 1850, signaling the eventual independence from Spain 48 years later. Around that period of time, Evaristo Collazo returned to the island having been exposed to the Christian faith with its Presbyterian emphasis and form of governance while working in the United States. In 1890, after having started home congregations and small schools with his wife Magdalena in other cities while active in the struggle towards independence, Collazo becomes the first ordained Presbyterian pastor in Cuba through the agency of missionaries visiting from Mexico. A year later he began conversations with Rev. John G. Hall that resulted in Hall moving from Mexico to Cárdenas and starting the church nine years later. The congregation in Cárdenas would also give birth to La Progresiva, a school that started in a rented room with one blackboard and 14 students whose purpose was promoting the well-being of the city and its neighboring region by offering solid co-educational Christian instruction when that was not available in Cuba.
Hall passed away shortly after the establishment of the church. Collazo’s visionary leadership enabled him to pioneer several other ministries in other parts of the country. Under the leadership of missionary Robert Wharton, La Progresiva School gradually grew to have an enrollment of almost two thousand students and Cárdenas went on to become, along with the capital Havana, a major hub of ministry. In spite of the multiple challenges that Presbyterians in Cárdenas have faced through decades of trying to find their place in relation to the communist government, the city now has two vibrant Presbyterian churches which are very committed to joyfully witnessing to their communities through a broad variety of ministries among the young and elderly people in their neighborhoods.
Both congregations joined forces with others of different denominations in seeking to respond to the pressures of a changing political system and the atheistic government policies of the 1960s with the development of the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue. The Center promotes community empowerment with emphasis on the poor and the marginalized. On our recent trip to Cuba, we were able to visit El Retiro Farm, a remarkable program through which the Center equips the rural community of the area to undertake efforts of organic farming, afforestation, clean technology and waste management. Among its many programs the Center offers psycho-pastoral attention (workshops seeking to address challenges such as divorce, depression and suicide) and care for the disabled and the ill (home visitations, food distribution, cleaning and hygiene assistance). It was officially recognized by the government in 2012, after more than three decades of dedicated work.
The Cárdenas congregation, now known as Juan G. Hall Reformed Presbyterian Church, stands as an expression of 120-year old resolute mission with and by Cubans, a community of thriving creativity that ministers to the population of the city making use of numerous musical and artistic programs which honor the rich identity of the local culture and promote relationships that communicate the love of Christ in word and deed. The ongoing mission of Christians in Cárdenas, both as Presbyterians and part of the broader Church, clearly displays the witnessing, prophetic and evangelistic elements highlighted by Sergio Arce a graduate of La Progresiva school who would go on to become one of Cuba’s most influential and celebrated theologians.
Associate Director for Mission
*La misión de la iglesia en una sociedad socialista, Un análisis teológico de la vocación de la iglesia cubana en el día de hoy, La Habana, 1965, p. 12 [My translation]