Fla. churches helping brethren in Cuba
By ALFONSO CHARDY
From a Catholic bake sale to an Episcopal fund drive to a synagogue's trip to Havana to celebrate Purim, South Florida's religious institutions are raising money for Cuban churches and temples -- seeking to deepen contacts in the aftermath of the island's leadership change.
But those efforts may have been hampered by the recent visit of the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was the first foreign dignitary to meet with Fidel Castro's brother, Raúl, after the former defense minister was tapped to be Cuba's president.
Caller after caller on South Florida Spanish-language radio talk shows complained that the cardinal had missed an opportunity to press for democratic change in Cuba.
Bertone's visit marked the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's historic trip to Cuba in which he urged the international community to help churches on the island and called on Castro's communist government to open up to the world. Unlike the late pope's calls for change, though, Bertone did not publicly question Cuba's human rights record or meet with dissidents or their families.
The cardinal's silence on human rights is raising concerns that the Vatican has turned its back on Cubans seeking democratic change after 49 years of the Castro brothers' rule.
Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a Radio Mambí commentator and a director of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council, said she wasn't surprised by Bertone's seeming inability to confront Cuba's dictatorship. Many exiles, after all, have long been upset with the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, because he does not speak out against the regime.
''The church is paying a price for the actions of Cardinal Bertone and Cardinal Ortega in Havana . . . with a very comfortable relationship with the Cuban government,'' said Pérez Castellón.
Nevertheless, she said exiles should distinguish between what church leaders do and the aid programs that benefit churches and their followers in Cuba.
''A parish church is probably doing a lot of good for a small community with the help of exiles and this has nothing to do with the policy taken on by Cardinal Bertone,'' Pérez Castellón added. ``It's the same as when people help the dissidents to promote civil society in Cuba -- parishioners feel that this is a humanitarian way to help the churches in Cuba.''
Humanitarian aid to Cuba has often been fraught with political peril. Although many Christians and Jews in South Florida have collected money for churches or temples in Cuba and periodically ship medicine, food and clothes there, their efforts are conducted mostly behind the scenes.
The reason: opposition by some exiles to any kind of aid because it could help prop up the Havana regime.
Even members of South Florida's Jewish community are careful about publicizing their efforts.
Last Sunday, about 40 members of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton left to visit Jewish sites in Havana and a Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa, outside the Cuban capital. Temple officials said Rabbi Merle Singer would talk only after the group returned.
The group was taking medicine for some of the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Cuban Jews on the island -- down from more than 12,000 before the revolution -- and planned to celebrate Purim on Thursday.
The Cuban regime's opening to religion in the early 1990s helped revive the Jewish community on the island. But many Cuban Jews credit the Canadian Jewish Congress with keeping the faith alive by annually sending Passover food throughout the worst period of government religious hostility in the 1960s and 1970s.
The New York-based Joint Distribution Committee now sends regular shipments of food and religious items to Cuba along with communities from Canada, Mexico and elsewhere.
''Since the early 1990s, JDC has worked closely with each of the communities throughout the island and with the Cuban Jewish community in Miami to provide a lifeline of medicine and support, which has led to the renewal of Jewish life in Cuba,'' said Will Recant of JDC's international development program.
Although many Catholics were hesitant to talk about their work in Cuba, South Florida's Episcopalians spoke enthusiastically about their contacts.
Bishop Leo Frade, the Cuban-born head of the Diocese of Southeast Florida, has led delegations to Cuba and has established a relationship with the Episcopalian Diocese of Cuba.
''We have an extensive relationship with the church in Cuba,'' said Bishop Frade. ``The purpose is to bring aid, to help the church.''
The Rev. Eric Kahl, rector and chaplain at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Coral Gables, said a $60,000 donation is headed for Trinidad Episcopal church in Bermeja, southern Cuba, to help rebuild that crumbling church.
Kahl said most parishioners support aid to the Cuban church but that ''a couple'' of Cuban exiles left the church in protest.
Kahl said that as a result of the Episcopal church's Cuba relationship, a Cuban-born pastor -- the Rev. Rafael García -- recently became the first to preside over Spanish-language services at St. Philip's.
García arrived from Cuba in 2006 and planned to return home after only a few months, but said he decided to stay because his 2-year-old son Brian, who suffers from cerebral palsy, would receive better medical treatment in the United States.
''I found the United States to be totally different from what I expected,'' said García. ``Cuban political propaganda against the United States is very strong and they paint a distorted picture of what to expect. When I arrived, it was like the difference between night and day.''
García said that what impressed him the most was the bright lights at night in Miami compared to cities in Cuba.
''When I got off the plane it felt like I was getting off a time machine or a spacecraft, landing on another planet, or another dimension in the future,'' he said.
Other religious groups also have kept bridges open to Cuba, including Santería followers who have been sending ritual supplies for decades, said Ernesto Pichardo, president of the Hialeah Santería church Lukumi Babalu Aye.
The 745 Methodist churches and missions in Florida, including the estimated 80 churches in South Florida, regularly send money, food and supplies to Methodist churches in Cuba.
Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of missions and justice ministries for the Florida Conference United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said shipments and regular visits by Florida clergy are part of a 10-year-old covenant with Cuba's Methodist churches.
Rankin grew up in Cuba when his parents moved there in 1951 to serve as Methodist missionaries in Camagüey. When the Cuban revolution turned hostile against the church in the early 1960s, Rankin's family left. He has since been back several times.
María Cristina Herrera, founder of the Cuban Studies Institute and a Catholic, noted that exiles have long helped churches on the island. ``Aid to church people in Cuba has been going on for a long time. But it has been done largely in silence.''
At St. Agatha Catholic Church in west Miami-Dade, a group of parishioners, mostly Cuban-born women, sells pies, breads and sweet rolls each Sunday after Mass -- all to help a church in Holguín, in eastern Cuba.
One of the women involved in the bake sale, who initially was enthusiastic about sharing the group's work, changed her mind after talking to others who help with the weekly fundraisers.
''They felt uncomfortable,'' she said, asking that her name not be used.