Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cuba, the embargo and the Church meet in Manhattan

Episcopal News Service

While the rest of world was reacting to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez calling President Bush 'the devil,' the Cuban delegation to the United Nations found a warm reception inside a northern Manhattan Episcopal church last week.

"This parish is part of the Episcopal Church which has long opposed the blockade of Cuba," said the Rev. Gerald Keucher, vicar at Intercession-Washington Heights, which drew unanimous applause.

Speaking in both Spanish and English, Keucher welcomed nearly 500 people who filled almost every chair in the vaulted ceiling nave. Many had waited in long lines for hours outside the church on Broadway at 155th Street before passing through metal detectors and the watchful gaze of U.S. Secret Service and New York police officers.

Keucher quoted Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold who preached a sermon during a visit to Cuba last February.

"During my visit here I have been moved greatly by the faithfulness and vibrancy of your Church," Keucher said quoting Griswold's sermon. "Also, I have been saddened to see the suffering caused by the policies of my country's government. The Episcopal Church in the United States strongly opposes the Blockade against Cuba. In the four decades of its existence, the Blockade has done little except exacerbate the suffering of the Cuban people. Reconciliation must begin, and people of faith must lead the way."

Keucher concluded his welcome by inviting the crowd to come back often. The audience included city council members, civic leaders, actor Danny Glover, and Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general. The event was sponsored by Pastors for Peace and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO).

Felipe Perez Roqué, foreign minister of the Republic of Cuba, announced that Cuban President Fidel Castro is "getting stronger every day." Speaking through an interpreter, Roqué said Cubans live everyday with the fear that the Bush administration has preemptive war plans against their country, but he predicted "one day there will be normal relations between our two countries."

"Since we are in an Episcopal Church," said the Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., executive director of IFCO, "we're going to do something they call Prayers of the People." For several minutes Walker made statements and invited the audience to respond, "We give you thanks, Cuba."

The call and answer style was picked up by Esteban Lazo Hernandez, vice president of the Cuban Council of State and leader of his country's delegation to the U.N. Also speaking through an interpreter, Hernandez asked members of a youth group, who had presented him with flowers, several questions about Cuban history and accomplishments. The answer to each was, "Fidel," which eventually captured the voices of all in the historic gothic church.

Hernandez told the assembled of full employment, free health care for every citizen and the plan to train more 100,000 doctors from underdeveloped countries over the next 10 years.

He also told the young people that he recognized some of the faces in the crowd and acknowledged it as an act of solidarity with the people of Cuba.

"There is so much value in solidarity, not just in words but in deeds," said Hernandez. It was reminiscent of the words read in that same church just three days prior at Sunday Holy Eucharist from the Letter of James: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

For nearly three hours, the 90 miles between Cuba and the U.S., and the reconciliation of members of the Body of Christ, seemed bridged on one late-summer evening at a church in northern Manhattan.
-- The Rev. Dan Webster, a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, is editor of the National Council of Churches USA's news service.

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