Friday, February 9, 2018

Phil Wingeier-Rayo: A reflection on the Methodist Church in Cuba on the occasion of its 50th anniversary

This is the second of a four-part blog by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, that will discuss the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church.

Arguably no mission church faced a more difficult path to autonomy than the Methodist Church in Cuba. Before 1960 a group of Cuban leaders had conversations with the Methodist Mission Board about autonomy, but the response that came back from New York was that the Cuban church was not ready. At the time of the revolution in 1959 there were 54 U.S. missionaries, 108 churches, and 51 Cuban pastors with 9,209 members of the Methodist Church.[1]

However, Fidel Castro and his group of rebels claimed power on the island on January 1, 1959, when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country and change happened quickly. Many Cubans were excited about the revolutionary goals of land reform, education, and health care for all. Most Christians were sympathetic with these egalitarian goals and nationalistic sentiments, as were the majority of the population. The problems with church-state relations began when Castro declared the Revolution to be socialist on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. The United States had broken off diplomatic ties with the island three months earlier and imposed an economic embargo.

There was a growing spirit of nationalism in Cuba and anti-American sentiments. Cuban Methodists were being stigmatized for being pro-U.S. and the presence of American missionaries contributed to this sentiment. In 1961 the Board of Missions recalled all the missionaries back to the U.S. for their safety and for the well-being of the work in Cuba. Indeed the revolutionary Cuban government took over the 22 Methodist schools and universities, six clinics and campground. Many people thought the church buildings would be next.

Some missionaries invited their favorite Cuban pastors and helped them escape to the United States. Later in the 1960s the Cuban government organized a Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Produccion (UMAP) where several counterrevolutionaries, gays and religious, including some Methodist pastors and lay leaders, were lumped together as “anti-socials” and placed in forced work camps to be “re-oriented.” Eventually all but eight of the Cuban pastors would flee the country and only three of them were ordained elders.[2] How was the church to survive with only eight pastors for over 100 churches? Certainly Cuba’s path to autonomy was challenging but it is also a tribute to the power of the Holy Spirit that is an example for all of Methodism.

The Process toward Autonomy
Methodism in Cuba had historically been a missionary conference under the episcopal area of Florida. In 1923 the Cuban Annual Conference was formed with the bishop of Florida as the presiding bishop. Before 1960 Cubans considered autonomy but were told that the church wasn’t ready. Finally under strained U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations the bishop from Florida was unable to travel to Cuba in December 1963 to conduct annual conference, and the Cuban superintendent Rev. Angel Fuster, did all the appointments.

As a result, the Cuban leaders wrote a letter to the 1964 General Conference requesting autonomy. General Conference responded by asking them to submit drafts for consideration of their own Book of Discipline and Articles of Faith to the COSMOS commission. These were received and reviewed by COSMOS during the quadrennium and the recommendation went forward to the 1968 General Conference that the Methodist Church in Cuba become an affiliated autonomous church.

In the interim, the Cuban church was facing more adversity. Lacking trained pastors and confronting the growing anti-religious sentiment, the Methodist Church faced an extremely challenging period in the early 1960s. Not only was the church weakened through emigration, in addition many lay people left the church for greater opportunity or out of loyalty to the revolution.[3] The membership dropped to 5,000 in the mid-1960s.[4] The membership continued to drop to the low-point of 1,800 in 1973.[5]

Nevertheless, there was a faithful remnant. The District Superintendent of Cuba’s Oriente region, Rev. Armando Rodriguez, had trained a group of young men and women to be lay missioners. As the churches were being left without pastors, he asked this group to replace those pastors who had left. Lacking theological education and experience, these young lay people heroically served those churches, often living on the premises, thus protecting church property from vandalism and confiscation.[6]

Not only had the U.S. missionaries been recalled, leaving a leadership vacuum, but the Cuban church was also facing a financial crisis. They had been receiving nearly 70 percent of their financial resources from the United States, and had also lost the income generated from Methodist schools after their nationalization by the Revolution. In July 1963, Rev. Angel Fuster, president of the Cuban Annual Conference, received the news from the head of the Latin America desk of the Methodist Mission Board, Dr. Eugene Stockwell, that financial support could no longer be disbursed due to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

In response the Cuban cabinet proposed three options: 1) lay off half the pastors (those who enjoyed less seniority), 2) ask the revolutionary government for compensation for the nationalized properties, or 3) request the local churches to send apportionments to the national church. The Cuban leadership valiantly chose the third option and sent pledge cards requesting all the members to tithe their support. They received 3,000 financial commitments within two months the national church was solvent.[7] The early enthusiasm and nationalistic spirit also influenced the church leaders’ desire to be independent.[8] Financial self-sufficiency prepared the groundwork for autonomy.

In late 1966 Superintendent Rev. Angel Fuster traveled to a World Methodist meeting in Ireland and stopped in Miami on his way home to visit two daughters. On January 5, 1967 he died in Miami from injuries sustained in an automobile accent. The following year, February 1-4, 1968, the Cuban church held its founding annual conference and honored Rev. Fuster as the first Cuban bishop elected posthumously. Then they elected Rev. Armando Rodriguez the first active bishop of the Cuban Annual Conference, but the Cuban government did not grant a visa to an outside bishop to consecrate him. Finally, a week later, Bishop Alejandro Ruiz was allowed to come from Mexico and consecrated Rev. Armando Rodriguez. All this was subject to the pending approval of the General Conference in April later that year.

In spite of losing most of its clergy to emigration, the financial crisis, decline in membership and tense church-state relations in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Methodist Church in Cuba has not only survived, but has actually has thrived. Today the Methodist Church in Cuba retains its affiliated autonomous relationship to the UMC and has approximately 43,000 members, which is more than four times its 1959 membership and has 400 churches with 1,000 other mission sites.[9]

One of the concerns discussed about affiliated autonomous churches is that they would become so nationalistic that they would not want to relate back to the U.S. However, Cuban Methodism continues to have many partnerships with monthly Volunteer in Mission teams, and prayer partnerships with the Florida Annual Conference and many sister churches.

On Saturday, February 10th at 7:00pm there will be a celebration held at the Iglesia North Hialeah, 5559 Palm Avenue in Miami in honor of 50 years of Cuba Methodist autonomy.

[1] Clyde W. Taylor, Protestant Missions in Latin America: A Statistical Survey , Washington: Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, 1961, p.110.
[2] Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Cuban Methodism: The Untold Story of Survival and Revival, Atlanta, GA: Dolphins & Orchids, 2006, 67.
[3] Shawn Malone, “Conflict, Coexistence, and Cooperation: Church-State Relations in Cuba,” The Cuba Project, Center for Latin American Studies, Georgetown University, August 1996, 2.
[4] Clyde W. Taylor, Protestant Missions in Latin America: A Statistical Survey , Washington: Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, 1961, 110.
[5] According to church statistician Generoso PĂ©rez. Email with Rev. Rinaldo Hernandez, February 1, 2018.
[6] Telephone conversation with Bishop Armando Rodriguez, Sr., February 1, 2018.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Linda Bloom, “Cuban Methodists Are Packing the Pews,” UMNS, January 31, 2017.


  1. For more on the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the autonomy of the Methodist Church in Cuba, see this UMNS article:

  2. See also this video interview with Bishop Rodriguez:

  3. There was a developing spirit of nationalism in Cuba and anti-American sentiments. Cuban Methodists were being stigmatized for being seasoned-U.S. and the presence of yank missionaries contributed to this sentiment. In 1961 the Board of Missions recalled all the missionaries again to the U.S. for their protection and for the well-being of the work in Cuba. indeed the progressive Cuban authorities took over the 22 Methodist schools and universities, six clinics and campground. Many humans idea the church homes could be next.