Rev Prof. Dr Ofelia Ortega Suárez is a retired professor of Theology and Gender, and Christian Ethics for the Reformed-Presbyterian Church in Cuba.
Ortega Suárez was born in Cuba. After her undergraduate studies in Theology and Christian Education at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, she completed her post-graduate studies in Ecumenical Theology at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Institute at Bossey. She returned to Cuba and obtained her master's degrees in Divinity and Education.
Ortega Suárez was ordained as a pastor of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba in January 1967, being the first woman to be ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Cuba. She also served local congregations as a pastor until 1985.
She began teaching as a professor at the Ecumenical Institute in 1985. From 1988 to 1997, she served on the WCC staff as executive secretary for Theological Education. She was selected in 2006 as a WCC president, serving until the WCC 10th Assembly in 2013.
WCC Communication interviewed Ortega Suárez during the recent Global Consultation on the Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women in Jamaica.
Q: What are the challenges you have faced on your journey into the ecumenical world?
Dr Ortega Suárez: My challenges began when I was very young, from the very beginning, coming from a very poor home, I understood very well how difficult it was for poor women to go on have a position in society and even in the church. At the beginning, I felt that God was calling me to be a disciple even more than a pastor. To be a disciple of Christ, that was my first vocation.
When I finished my bachelor’s degree, it was the year of the revolution: 1959. I was 23 years old. I began teaching at the seminary in 1959, many years ago, and I loved to teach. I continued there for several years. In 1967, I was the first woman to be ordained in my church, and then I went to the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey. There were students of many churches there. For the first time, I had a sense of communion, a sense of community that was central to me. Then, it was 1968, and I attended my first WCC assembly, and that was something unique. In that time I said to myself: ‘If this is the ecumenical movement I want to be in!’ I was very impressed with the community. It organized my thinking.
Q: Cuba has a unique tradition and culture but also many socio-economic challenges. How would you describe the situation for women, now and in the past?
Dr Ortega Suárez: After the revolution, in the 60s they organized a women’s federation to take care of women, give them the right to study, to have a place of work, and to continue to develop their lives. I also saw that this really enriched the life of the churches. We understood that it if society was going to a great effort to educate women we needed to do it in the churches too. I learned from the WCC a great deal about “theology by the people.” I learned from the WCC that theology needs to be coming from the grassroots level. I also discovered that the churches were sending the women to Christian education school and the men to the school of theology. The churches were sending men, and they needed to send the women for classical languages and theology, and be together with men in the same classes of theology, and so on. And it came to be that men and women, together, were part of the curriculum. I organized every summer in Bossey a seminar for women using the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women, and at the end of the decade we published a book that I edited called “Women Bishops.” It is a result of the Decade.
Q: What is your vision for women and young girls in the future? How would you like to see the next generation?
Dr Ortega Suárez: First, I will say that this week has been wonderful. I need to affirm that. This meeting has been wonderful. You see why? Because we have young people here. The WCC is striving that in every meeting we have young people. We have young women and young men here and they are wonderful.
Also I want to bring up the question of human dignity. We learn from the gospel, we learn from the ministry of Jesus Christ that we have the image of God in us. When you do something violent against a person, you are doing it against God because the image of God is in this person. Since people have the image of God, we need to take care of them. It is important to the ecumenical movement. Be ecumenical; never be only confessional. To me, if you are ecumenical, you are international.
Q: Violence against women is a global phenomenon. What are the concrete activities and steps that churches can take?
Dr Ortega Suárez: I think we need really to use the Bible, because it’s so clear what the Bible is telling us. We also need to keep in contact with all the social organizations, with the UN, for the rights of the people, and work together with them and work together with the governments, too. There are many governments that defend the rights of the people.