Balancing institution and mission: Lessons from change in the Cuban church

"With God’s guidance, everything we are called to do—to fulfill, to dream, to serve, to examine error, to transform, to love—gains meaning, consummation, joy and light," writes Maria Griselda Delgardo del Carpio, bishop of the Episcopal Church of Cuba. Photo: Asher Imtiaz/The Living Church
Published January 21, 2020

“In the wake of political change, “congregations collapsed; a handful of women and some men remained in each. But those who stayed did not permit the faith to be snuffed out, the doors to be closed, or the light of the gospel and the sacred teachings to be lost.”

To my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church of Canada:

The story of a church caught amidst worldly change is one familiar to Cuban Episcopalians. While the Canadian and Cuban contexts have many differences, Canadian Anglicans may have some interest in the experience of the Cuban church—an experience with which some will be very familiar. In the essay below, I humbly offer some details on how the Cuban church has faced change, as well as some reflections on the challenges Christians face across the globe, and a few observations based on my experience with Canadian Anglicans. I hope this offering is of some use to the Canadian church.

I begin by acknowledging that the Cuban church, like the Canadian church, is an historic church—a denomination whose origins and life, in the Cuban case, go back to the end of the 19th century. Thus, the church is an institution that has been and still is a bulwark—a church that attempts to guide a human group, however small, in the midst of a larger society.

From its inception, two dimensions of the church emerged: the church as an institution that signaled guidelines and norms, and, on the other hand, the missional, sacramental and living church.

The missional quality of the church can be seen at the beginning—history tells us of the young priest Edward Kenny, Bishop Henry Whipple from Minnesota, and Canadian bishops arriving in Havana to do works of mission and of service among society’s most vulnerable and fragile groups at the end of the 19th century. That century had not ended when Cubans familiar with the Episcopal Church in the United States—some of them already ordained—returned to Cuba and began a vigorously patriotic, pastoral effort in the midst of a society oppressed by the Spanish government. These priests founded congregations and social works, always for the benefit of the most economically, racially and socially vulnerable groups. This incarnate faith among the people has been and remains an important quality of the church.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the institution emerges: the first bishop is consecrated, the first cathedral is built and solid bases are laid for the institutional life of the church. This permitted the consolidation of congregations, formation of clergy and education through local schools. Ministries characterized by service were born.

Throughout the last century, these two dimensions of the church worked together—not always in balance—and a large part of this history was owed to the surrounding social and political factors. What we can affirm is that in their hearts, Episcopalians always strove to serve others through the faith that inspired them.

The sociopolitical disruptions that followed the Cuban Revolution—and the configuration of an atheistic state in public education—must be recognized as the beginning of a critical challenge to Episcopalians in Cuba. Congregations collapsed; a handful of women and some men remained in each. But those who stayed did not permit the faith to be snuffed out, the doors to be closed, or the light of the gospel and the sacred teachings to be lost. Rather, these people remained firm and loyal to the cause of Christ. The very deep loyalty of that generation is one of the roots that nourished a new generation of Christians, even to this day.

In these years the church (institutional and missional) lived underground, invisible to the eyes of society. If lay leaders and clergy, with their small congregations, had closed their doors and abandoned the church, today we would not be sharing this story—or sharing the Good News—let alone cultivating hope in the midst of the unending challenges of our present. Today, our missional and sacramental identity tasks us with expressing a lively faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. This missional dimension gives meaning to the church as an institution.

In this past decade, and within this frame of reference, the Cuban church has gained new perspectives. A revival began to happen through renewed focus on leadership. The diocesan bishop, in her responsibility of guiding the diocese, centred her attention on building an inspiring movement around the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth, with a clear dimension of outward service. We recognize this central axis: the sacraments which give us new life and mission come from God, who guides us toward the construction of his kingdom and his justice. With God’s guidance, everything we are called to do—to fulfill, to dream, to serve, to examine error, to transform, to love—gains meaning, consummation, joy and light.

In 2011, the people of the church came together in a great collective project: women and men, lay and clergy, youth and adults put all their ideas, reflections, doubts, hopes and goals on the table. From there we began to organize our missional route within the Great Commission, which Jesus Christ frames when he says “Go, make disciples, baptize them and teach them.”

Some questions arose in this process as we asked, for example: How might we carry out this commission concretely in our time and context? How had this been done previously, what worked and what must change? What are our challenges, necessities and goals?

This communal project, which set out a vision and mission for our church for three years, turned out to be difficult and complex. Many came with little disposition for change. But we didn’t lose courage. The three-year plans that followed were made more comprehensible to all, welcoming greater participation of individual congregations. We recognize that there is still a lot to do, all with the goal of drawing our mission together. We are currently working toward our fourth three-year period.


The project’s initial call to all the diocese was to build a diocesan family, what we call a “community-family.” This would have to be our frame of reference from which common good could arise for one and all—and from which we could share that goodness with those joining this family. Each person, respective to his or her background and gifts, would have to realize with greater clarity our shared call to a single vocation, to a sure faith—definitively toward following Jesus Christ, our God and Lord!

Nourished by the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians (2:17-22), we want to carry out the promises of the gospel in today’s Cuban dynamics. But this isn’t the work of a day or a year. It requires time, energy, generosity, simplicity of heart, patience and mutual understanding. It is an effort in which all of our community-family must be involved, walking side-by-side—and with clear assurance that both direction and guidelines, which permit us to be united and advance toward the horizon, do in fact exist.

But what, in such times as these, should our guidelines look like? And to what horizon do we look?

In my view, old guidelines of being church that no longer work are those which have tended to relativize and dilute the gospel of Jesus. A tendency has arisen, following decades of growing secularization and postmodernism, to “tune” the gospel message to the day’s fashions.

Whether this tuning has conformed to ideological overtones or lines of superficial thinking, it has given rise to a tremendous lack of values among young generations. Across the world, cultures—not only the Cuban one—are dominated by a secularization that proposes and promotes godless ways of life. This dilutes the gospel, and everything becomes relative: the Son of God, his life, his miracles, his promise of abundant life, his suffering and death and his resurrection, which overcomes death and gives life in full to each human being—all of this lacks meaning. Jesus has turned into nothing more than a good man, liberator, friend of the poor and an enemy of power.

This transformation threatens the very foundation of our being, starving us of the spiritual sustenance that every human being needs. Under such conditions, there’s nothing solid to cling to, no clear horizon to advance toward. This lack of faith has created loneliness, alienation and fragmentation. This dearth of prayer and gratitude creates selfishness and arrogance; only power, money and status have value, a value derived from crushing others. Since “life is short,” momentary pleasure is easily justified. Anything goes.

The creation of new guidelines would turn the church toward vision, effort, life and mission; toward our origins, toward Jesus—his gospel, his innate transformative power in each person, his Way toward accomplishing his kingdom. Such new guidelines would point to a person’s encounter with Jesus, in the midst of daily ups and downs, and the community’s encounter with Jesus—allowing communities to share and develop new life purposes in their surroundings.

New guidelines would also ask communities to discern a coherent and true testimony to the gospel—and to be able to offer their lives in loving service. Such a call requires ongoing and deep formation, allowing people to be disciples of Jesus—that is, living witnesses in all times and places.

In Cuba, such reflections have outlined a life-giving project, “Renewing Spaces,” in which both congregations and people with no connection to the church are involved. In its essence, “Renewing Spaces” attempted to renew, refresh, reinvent and remake lost or invisible spaces in people and communities. It allowed the renovation of mental spaces, spiritual spaces, spaces in the heart, physical spaces—and also renewal of fallow spaces in fields and gardens to plant food, to nourish and preserve the creation of God using new ecological systems. Above all, it aimed to renew the space for meeting with Jesus Christ and his gospel, and the possibilities for following his path.

The combination and interaction of certain factors has produced qualitative changes in the Episcopal Church of Cuba. Among them are the remodeling of the role of the church in its community; the formation of church leaders and a clear process toward pastoral vocations; the development of biblical-theological formation, together with training in community service projects; the involvement of clergy and lay people in the process of change, especially women and youth; the race against time to rebuild all over the diocese—old buildings where the communities can celebrate and serve, as well as the creation and consecration of sacred buildings for new faith communities; and a greater opening to the opportunities for cooperation with other churches in our environs. To the last point, we have found partnerships with the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church and groups like the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and Episcopal Relief & Development, along with the Commission of Theological Education for Latin America and the Caribbean and Trinity Wall Street.


In the face of many challenges, the Cuban church has found vibrance in a few places worth noting.

The vitality of the Cuban church in this last decade—in both institutional and missional dimensions—can be explained by an emphasis on its witness of being “salt and light” for its people. We began to combine aid with development from within church. Its people, grouped in congregations, aren’t seen as entities waiting for the help of external forces that will solve their problems—but as persons who, when properly formed, can change their spiritual, socioeconomic and environmental circumstances. In this framework, as we indicated earlier, evangelization and mission take on greater meaning for everyone. Communities of faith are filled with life, and their experience spreads.

In general, the Cuban church is also blessed by the historic roots of the Cuban people. Spirituality has been a key characteristic of the nationality for more than 500 years. This historic antecedent gave the Cuban nation a lively, creative, happy, tenacious and optimistic social fabric, thanks to which wars, political instability and scarcity could be faced—along with, in the last 60 years, the complexity derived from the construction of a different society. Cuban spirituality has always been an alternative to crises. And in the case of Episcopal identity, its vitality comes from our practice of faith that is incarnate in the day-to-day reality of the Cuban people.

In the 1960s, the church found itself trapped between the tensions of the Cold War. Because Cuba and the United States had broken all diplomatic links, no dialogue was possible. The Episcopal Church, then known as the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), lost communication with the Cuban church to an unexpected degree, which moved ECUSA’s House of Bishops to concede to the Cuban church autonomy without any process in place. The Cuban church ended up isolated abroad—and at home, in the middle of a difficult sociopolitical context that was hostile to religious expression.

Faced with these challenges, the generation that had to confront this situation accepted—in the midst of many limitations and on the basis of a great fidelity to God—a deep faith and a search for new ways to continue passing along the faith. Historians affirm that “they took into their hands the legacy and the living traditions, the glorious history, and they set themselves to creatively construct an autonomous church and to increase self-sufficiency little by little.”

Our vitality, of course, has also come from our relationships. In the six decades that followed that break in communication, the Cuban church and its bishops had to confront much solitude and many limitations, needing to carry out mission with very few resources and little hope of finding solutions. The unconditional help of the Anglican Church of Canada, through its primates, was fundamental for the Cuban church throughout these years. Canadians offered spiritual and pastoral support through the constant presence of primates and their teams in the life and ministries of Cuban Episcopalians; support in matters of faith and order; and support with economic resources that sustained the work of the church across a wide spectrum of needs. The church and its leaders knew how to value these resources and advance every pastoral effort toward all corners of the diocese.

I have seen, in those companionships in mission, notable traits in our Canadian brothers and sisters: their own sources of vitality. Canadian Anglicans are a people of profound respect regarding other cultures, especially the Cuban-Caribbean idiosyncrasy, as well as their own multicultural society. They value the other person and wish to learn about their culture. They have minds open to accepting what is different. They clearly understand the meaning of colonialism and its consequences—from this vantage point, they relate to others, especially with the Cuban church. Their field of action is clearly focused on just causes. On the other hand, they have the sincerity to recognize their failings and to channel them without arrogance. They have an attentive ear and responsible manner, key to maintaining relations with others. And in their leaders we have observed a deep spirituality with which they advance both pastoral and missional work, inside their church and toward the Anglican Communion.

We have also recognized that this very vision of respect has distanced, perhaps, Canadian Anglicans from a livelier, more passionate faith. The shadow of secularism seems partly cast upon their lives and their spirituality. They may likewise struggle with a societal indifference to the faith, to the person of Jesus Christ and to his promises of transformation—owing, I respectfully believe, to a strong current of dominant secularism in Canada’s technology-driven society.


It is in the hands of each believer to work with his or her community, be it small or large, to strengthen their witness of the faith; to teach, to form and to share from a very early age, and especially to youth; to focus pastoral labour on the construction of a vast family of faith; to be constant in prayer; to not be afraid, pessimistic and uncaring, but active and passionate about sharing the message of love and service; to not dilute the gospel but to return to its origin—to be disciples and authentic followers of Jesus of Nazareth; to work with passion so as to discover the depth of life that the gospel offers to each person; and to see the horizon that opens ahead.

Canadian Anglicans have great possibilities of deepening faith in the lives of many, precisely because of the sense of loving service they offer to others with such solidarity. May the Spirit of God guide them and bless them always.

This is what I willingly share from my heart.

Translation: Iris Salcedo, Matthew Townsend


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