In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively firsthand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, member churches have contributed stories of people, events, achievements and even failures, all of which have deepened our collective search for Christian unity.
The following story was written by retired Bishop Rolf Koppe, former bishop for ministries abroad of the Evangelical Church in Germany and member of the WCC Executive Committee as well as co-moderator of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the basic principles of the World Council of Churches.
The trip to Cuba from 29 July to 4 August 2005 was undoubtedly a high point of my ecumenical career.
Under the leadership of WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia, Bernice Powell-Jackson from the United Church of Christ in the USA, a WCC president, Marta Palma from Chile and Guillermo Kerber from Uruguay (WCC staff) and myself from the German Protestant Church as a member of WCC’s Executive Committee formed a delegation. As the Cuban Council of Churches and the Cuban State Office of Religious Affairs had extended an invitation, we were able to visit many churches, attend many services and establish contacts with the authorities, including a long night conversation with Cuban president Fidel Castro.
After waiting more than two hours on a Tuesday evening, we were informed that the president was expecting the delegation at the Convention Centre. It took us two tries to find the right entrance. We seated ourselves in the heavy armchairs in the entrance hall. After a further one-and-a-half hour wait, we took the lift to the first floor, accompanied by an official who had clearly learned his German in the GDR.
As soon as we exited the lift, we were met at ten minutes to midnight by a good-humoured, jovial president, who looked bigger than in the official pictures. He inquired thoughtfully about the health and home country of each delegation member.
In an impressive room, we were invited to sit down around a large table, opposite the President, an interpreter and an official accompanying our delegation. Castro had before him tables with lines of numbers, which he immediately began to comment – not, however, before apologizing for the delay: “If you weren’t Christians, you wouldn’t excuse me.”
He explained that at the moment, 10,000 patients had come from Venezuela over a 10-day period to the new university clinic for eye operations. The corresponding figure for the previous year was 20,000. “I give them my time”, said he, as he bent over the figures and drew an eye with dilated pupils on the linen tablecloth with a pen.
The 78-year-old man in the olive-green uniform with reddish-black epaulettes sporting a star with golden acorns spoke in a rapid, focused manner, sweeping the room with his eyes. Big ears were one feature, while large liver spots on his face betrayed his age.
He wore a digital watch. His sparse full beard was thinner than in the photos. He wasn’t wearing glasses. His remarks described the situation in Cuba. Thanks to early diagnosis, it had been possible to reduce the number of blind people from 15,000 to around 1000, he said.
Castro suddenly asked whether there were religions that prohibited organ transplants. Samuel Kobia, who was taking the floor for the first time and was the only delegation member to speak during the three-hour meeting, mentioned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and reservations in Islam. He then told how, a few days previously, with the intervention of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, he and Marta Palmer had boarded a plane chartered to bring eye patients to Cuba. “God took a decision”, Castro interjected, characterizing president Chavez as a “Christian Socialist”. After asking how long the project had been running, Kobia was told that there were only 3000 doctors in Venezuela for some 24 million inhabitants. The present campaign was the second of its kind.
In Cuba today, there were 20,000 doctors and 25,000 students undergoing training, Castro added, saying that 5000 were destined for Africa, where the local doctors do not want to work in rural areas and the “barrios”. Many would also die of Aids. In fact, 670,000 doctors were needed to cover the African continent at a ratio of one doctor per 10,000 inhabitants. Calculating feverishly on a roll of paper, Fidel Castro said with a smile: “I have to learn all that.”
Kobia recalled that the WCC had first taken up the North-South divide at Uppsala in 1968. Castro asked if Kobia had been present. “No,” replied Kobia, “but now at the WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre we have an opportunity to take up this topic once again. The delegates from Cuba could help in this respect.” “Claro”, answered Castro: “570 million people in Latin America need more doctors. You know that through your pastors; we know it through our doctors.”
Kobia referred to the plans of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the slogan “A Better World Is Possible”. Castro interjected: “God is punishing this world: we are having our 14th hurricane this year, which is sweeping across the country at 150 kilometers per hour. On the Nile, the heat is accelerating mutation; a disease has been spread by birds.” And he meditated on Revelations in the Bible: humanity had been disappearing since atom bombs were dropped in 1945 and the environment had been despoiled. There were mad cows and new diseases. Ninety per cent of research was devoted to new weapons. “I need counsel from the World Council of Churches.”
Kobia began with the Apostle Paul’s statement that all creation longs for redemption, noting that things had started to move with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and the Kyoto Protocol. The WCC could join efforts with many governments. Castro commented: “God needs some instruments to punish us.” When he was told that the WCC’s Central Committee was preparing the topic of globalization, he began to laugh and asked incredulously whether the WCC also had a 150-member Central Committee. When Kobia replied in the affirmative, he received a knowing smile.
Castro enquired about relations with the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church. He was told that most Orthodox churches were already WCC members and that cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church was good. The latter was represented on 70 out of 120 national church councils, as for example in Brazil.
Kobia emphasized that the Protestant churches were growing and that new church buildings were needed, in Cuba as well. The religious and public spheres were intertwined, as the Bible covered the wholeness of life. Castro noted that the Roman Catholic Church had many orders, mainly female orders, which it used for proselytism. Protestantism was more disciplined in his view. Since Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, the relationship with the Catholic Church was more relaxed. Prior to that, American circles had sought to use the Pope against the Cuban Revolution, to bring Cuba down, Castro said.
Referring once again to the problem of building churches, Kobia received the following answer from Castro: “We are going to analyse that.” Kobia gave Castro a gift of a stone sculpture from Kenya symbolizing people’s solidarity with one another. Castro thanked him, noting that many Africans studied in Cuba and that colonialization had been the tragedy of the African countries. The Nigerian president had paid a visit to Cuba and asked for doctors. There was also a shortage of human capital.
Photos were taken at 2.45 a.m. President Castro took leave of our delegation, saying that another delegation – from Venezuela – was waiting for him.