Bishop tells story of Cuban church growth

By Neill Caldwell, Special Contributor…

STAFFORD, Va.—Even those in the audience who do not speak Spanish could grasp the meaning of a word that Bishop Ricardo Pereira kept using over and over: “corazón” . . . “heart.”

As in you have to have a heart that burns with the desire to do the Lord’s work. You have to have a heart for expanding the church. “Methodists are called to have that burning heart,” said Bishop Pereira of the Methodist Church in Cuba, through translator Aldo Gonzalez. “We can’t sit still. . . . If your heart does not burn, no program is going to fix it.”

Former Cuban refugee Aldo Gonzalez (right) translated for Bishop Ricardo Pereira of the Methodist Church in Cuba during a vital congregations teaching event in Stafford, Va. PHOTO COURTESY NEILL CALDWELL

Bishop Pereira’s story of the exploding church growth in Communist-controlled Cuba inspired the attendees at the latest 5 Talent Academy teaching session, held Feb. 23 at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Stafford.

The event marked the sixth and final session of the first three-year cycle of the 5 Talent Academy, part of the “All Things New” Virginia Conference strategy that targets the vitality of existing congregations. At annual conference in June, an invitation will go out to a new class of congregations to begin the 5 Talent Academy process.

As part of the plan, existing churches are encouraged to help start new faith communities. Bishop Pereira and several church planters from the Florida Conference helped Virginia Conference clergy and laity envision what that might be like.

The Rev. Mont Duncan, the Florida Conference director of Congregational Development, compared it to having a baby. “You go through a lot of pain and suffering, but then you are very proud of the result,” Dr. Duncan said.

Bishop Pereira was elected an episcopal leader in the Cuban Methodist Church in 1999. He also serves concurrently as senior pastor of the largest church in Cuba.

Faced persecution

He became a minister when Christianity in Cuba was at a low ebb. “No one wanted to be a pastor.” He was threatened and beaten by the Communists, ordered to leave the country, but he persisted in trying to rebuild the church.

“In the 1970s we tried every program that came along, but the church continued to grow older and decline. We had no other option but to pray and fast with all our power,” Bishop Pereira said.

Some of his statistics were staggering: There were 3,000 members in 1985, today there are more than 30,000. In 1999 there were 90 Methodist churches in Cuba; now there are 361. The church there has averaged 10 percent growth each year, but in the past quadrennium it has been more than 60 percent. When he was elected bishop there was a Methodist presence in less than half of the nation; now it’s up to 90 percent, “and I know we can finish the last 10 percent before I end my episcopacy!” he said to much applause.

Cuban pastors are encouraged to go out and speak to every member of their community (“and one DS required his pastors to get all their signatures to prove they had it,” the bishop said). All clergy have started at least one new church. Incoming lay members must take a written exam on the basic tenets of the Methodist faith.

“What does it mean to be a Methodist?” Bishop Pereira asked with a smile. “It means don’t make any noise [in worship]. We did not have hymnals, so we did the same thing John and Charles Wesley did: We took the music of our people and added words from the Bible. Now we have a service where Cubans feel like they are Cuban and can move their bodies! . . . My people come to church and after three hours we have to tell them to get out of there. Here [in American services], if it’s an hour and five minutes, people start to get upset.”

Bishop Pereira also joked that the need for pastors is so urgent that when people respond to an altar call, he asks them “when do you want to be a pastor? There are always a couple of crazy people who say yes.”

Unexpected paths

United Methodist Bishop Charlene Kammerer (Richmond Area) extended a welcome to the Cuban bishop in Spanish and had him officiate with her during Holy Communion.

Bishop Kammerer shared her faith journey with the audience, talking about how she and her two siblings were raised by her grandparents in central Florida because her father was away in the Army and her mother was diagnosed with a mental illness. Her grandmother was a “notorious” teacher in the local schools, a strict disciplinarian but one who “also offered unconditional love to all her students,” the bishop said. “She was also a peacemaker, working with the migrant workers on my grandfather’s citrus farm. I didn’t appreciate her leadership until I was grown.”

Bishop Kammerer said she was the first member of her family to graduate from a four-year college. “When the chair of the religion department asked if I was interested in the ministry, I said ‘no.’ I had never met a woman preacher.”

She went to Garrett Evangelical Seminary with her husband, Leigh, but assumed that because of her gender she had to follow the Christian Education track. When she realized she was called to ordained ministry, she finished her Masters in Christian Education and then re-enrolled to complete the Masters in Divinity as well.

“There was a sign in the church where we worshipped in Evanston that read ‘The sign of God is that you will be led where you did not plan to go.’ . . . God has given us new life, new friends and new purpose all along the way.” She said that Romans 8:28—“in all things God works for the good of those who love him . . .”—has been her favorite Scripture verse.


Mr. Caldwell is the editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate.

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