Cuban Christians have done ‘so much with so little,’ says mission volunteer McAtee

This is the gist of what 14 trips to Cuba have taught Bill McAtee, a retired presbytery executive from Kentucky. In Cuba, where for decades the practice of Christianity was discouraged, "they have done so much with so little. And we have done so little with so much."

In January, after five years of service, McAtee will step aside from his position as a volunteer in international mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which means he no longer will regularly lead groups of Presbyterians to the island to learn about Cuba, although he does have one last trip scheduled for March.

The work that McAtee had been doing will be taken over by Tricia Lloyd-Sidle, who is leaving the PC(USA)’s national staff to become a mission co-worker with responsibility for Cuba — a new position created in part, she said, because Cuban Presbyterians have stressed that, with McAtee stepping down, they are eager for someone who can spend even more time building relationships between Presbyterians there and in the United States.

Already, there is a whole constellation of partnerships between the Cuban Presbyterians and U.S. presbyteries and even individual congregations. Many Presbyterians in this country have a deep interest in Cuba, and “the Presbyterian church in Cuba has undergone a huge revival” in recent years, Lloyd-Sidle said. “It’s a church that lost most of its leadership, both pastoral and its lay leadership, at the time of the revolution. It was never outright persecuted, but it was certainly subdued.”

And over the past 15 years, she said, “it has just exploded with vitality.” The involvement of U.S. Presbyterians with Cuban Christians is long-standing — U.S. Presbyterians played a role in founding a Presbyterian denomination in Cuba more than 110 years ago, and relations were renewed after 1990, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who’d been challenged to allow more religious freedom for Cubans, changed his country’s status from an “atheist” to a “secular” state. For decades, after the revolution that brought Castro to power, hostility to religion in Cuba had made life for Christians there very difficult — with many churches closing or seeing attendance reduced to a very loyal few.

But Castro’s declaration of a “secular” state, effectively meaning it is neutral toward religion rather than opposed to it, has led to a tremendous rejuvenation of Cuban congregations — with churches being built or restored and people worshiping with enthusiasm and gratitude, even though for many of them economic conditions and the U.S. embargo means that money is scarce and the daily living conditions remain hard.

Creation of presbytery partnerships

For Cuban Presbyterians, one source of joy has been the creation since 1990 of a series of partnerships between presbyteries in the United States and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba (in Spanish, the Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada en Cuba, or IPRC). That’s how McAtee got involved, around 1990. When he was executive presbyter of Transylvania Presbytery, that presbytery decided to undertake an international partnership, and McAtee was asked if they’d consider establishing a relationship with Cuban Presbyterians. McAtee thought “It would be less expensive to take people to Cuba than to Africa, so I said, ŒYeah, we’ll do it.'” The partnership lasted six years, but McAtee’s fascination with Cuba never quit.

When he retired as Transylvania’s executive presbyter in 1996, “I had been 16 years executive and I was just coming to the end of that career and that calling, and was getting kind of burned out,” McAtee said. But “this re-energized me,” so he signed on as a PC(USA) volunteer in international mission, and began leading PC(USA) trips to Cuba — often bringing people to that country for the first time, and watching them experience the joys of a land that he has grown to love.

Last fall, on a trip that McAtee did not lead, 27 Presbyterians from presbyteries that have been involved in partnerships with Cuba traveled together on the island for more than a week, meeting with representatives of the three IPRC presbyteries and worshiping, reading the Bible together and ultimately signing a joint statement called “Sharing God’s Vision.”

McAtee said he’s been changed by what he’s seen in Cuba — by the excitement of worship in humble places; by meeting people who get by on less a month than Americans sometimes spend eating lunch out on a single day, by what he calls “great paradoxes” in a complicated country. He has opinions about the U.S. embargo of Cuba — saying he doesn’t believe it’s accomplishing what it’s supposed to; that “It’s hurting people, not the government.” He has seen U.S. Presbyterians humbled by the rich faith and dedication they have seen in a country economically much poorer than ours.

On the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, McAtee said, he felt sadness and hurt, but not anger. He said Cuba has taught him “an awareness of our excess,” and “knowing how other parts of the world perceive us and that we do not recognize that perception . . . . I was not surprised there are folks in the world who want to do us harm.”

Early in November, Hurricane Michelle ripped through Cuba, killing at least five people, destroying thousands of homes and farms, flattening acres of sugar cane. Hector Mendez, pastor of First church, Havana, reported by e-mail that his church lost about 200 roof tiles, in winds of more than 150 kilometers per hour that he described as “terrifying,” but the stained glass survived. “It is a very difficult time for our country and we ask for your prayers,” Mendez wrote.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has already committed $50,000 in humanitarian aid to Cuba following the hurricane, and is continuing to accept donations.

Despite these difficulties — and the impact of the U.S. embargo on the Cuban economy — McAtee said it’s clear that the faith of the people continues to grow. Cuba now has about 30 Presbyterian churches, plus other Protestant churches ranging from Pentecostal to Baptist, along with a significant Roman Catholic presence. There are too few pastors, not enough trained lay leaders, but the people keep coming to God.

In the PC(USA), “a lot of the things we get involved with are probably not as important as we are led to believe,” McAtee said. “There are so many basic human faith issues going on” that the internal battles of a denomination seem, to him, less and less important. On Sept. 11, he was speaking on the floor of Transylvania Presbytery when word of the attacks came. McAtee said he thought, “All these amendments — they don’t amount to a row of sticks compared to what the world is dealing with.”

Eyes opened to the larger church

McAtee, who’s 67 and says he’s “going for 100,” grew up in Mississippi, a fourth-generation Mississippian and the son of a Presbyterian pastor. He graduated from Louisville Seminary, where he’s now on the board of trustees, and served two churches in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s before moving to Richmond, where he worked for the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

In 1971, he moved to Kentucky, when PCUS agencies were being reorganized and, “being one of the young Turks, I got surplussed, twice,” McAtee said. “That was one of the most important things that ever happened to me . . . . I was confused at the time, and thought I’d lost a calling. But I’d just lost a job.”

McAtee worked in Transylvania Presbytery for 26 years, the last 16 of them as executive presbyter. For about half that time — until the reunion of the Northern and Southern branches of Presbyterianism in 1983 — Transylvania was a “union” presbytery, meaning it was a full member of both the Southern-based PCUS and the Northern-based United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA).

McAtee said that situation opened his eyes to the larger church. “I had no idea there was another denomination where I grew up,” in southern Mississippi, McAtee said. “I thought everything north of Memphis was in New Jersey.”

Since his retirement in 1996, McAtee has taught seminary courses and, with funding from a foundation, is working on an oral history project involving the union presbyteries — by 1983, there were 17 union presbyteries, most of them in border states. “We were accused of everything from back-door reunion to no matter what,” McAtee said, but he contends that the existence of the union presbyteries accelerated the process of reunion, as “we kind of field-tested the process” before the denomination took the plunge.

So far, he’s done 90 oral history interviews — McAtee calls it “going to visit my friends before they die off” — and is having them transcribed by graduate students. When the project is finished, he hopes the material will end up in Presbyterian historical archives.