From 1959 to 1961, the first two years of the Cuban Revolution, eighty percent of the professional priests and ministers of Cuban churches left Cuba for the United States. This left churches and Cuban Christians with a limited number of professional clergy. Living with a Marxist government compounded the hardships of local congregations. Relationships between the new government and congregations were tense because many Protestant and Catholic churches had collaborated with the Bay of Pigs invasion and, in some cases, had stockpiled arms provided by the United States Central Intelligence Agency for a counter-revolution. The new Cuban government was very limiting and suspicious of church operations.
During the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1954 to 1968, Cuban church leaders, especially those who led congregations with members of African descent, were inspired by the nonviolent social change strategies and movements in the United States. The desire for justice, equality and reconciliation was sweeping the world.
By the early 1970s, the Council of Churches of Cuba (CCC) had been able to organize cooperative church leadership across the country to help congregations survive and grow, building bridges with sister denominations in the United States and other countries. In 1984, under the leadership of the Rev. Raul Suarez, the CCC invited delegations of leaders from African American churches and Historic Peace Churches to visit Cuban denominations. This delegation was successful in opening up dialogue between church and state. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who led one of the delegations, arranged for a meeting with President Fidel Castro. Once Rev. Jackson explained the purpose of his visit, President Castro commented that these evangelical church leaders “support the social goals of the Cuban Revolution, but on moral grounds rather than for material gain.” He promised to work for new religious freedoms and opportunities for the churches of Cuba.
In 1987, the Rev. Raul Suarez asked the CCC to sponsor the Centro Memorial Martin Luther King, Jr. (CMMLK). The CMMLK was founded to provide training and education in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence for Cuban religious and community leadership.
A delegation traveled from the United States in April of 1987 to dedicate the CMMLK. IHRR trustees Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr., and David C. Jehnsen were invited because they had personally worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. An exchange program was envisioned to provide interaction for young Cuban and American leaders trained in Kingian Nonviolence to improve relations between people in both countries.
This dream became reality in November of 1997, when Rev. Suarez and Mr. Jehnsen initiated the 1998-2005 Cuba/US Kingian Nonviolence Exchange Program With the first program event in 1998, a nine-year period of limited exchange with American churches was broken. To date, 660 religious and community leaders have completed the five-day Kingian Nonviolence Leadership seminars in seventyfour areas of Cuba through the CMMLK program. The broad ecumenical partnership that has evolved out of these seminars is emerging as the infrastructure with which churches and community leaders are addressing problems using Dr. King’s strategy and methods of nonviolent social change. In September 2004 and December 2005, 75 regional leaders completed an intensive faculty development and training program to serve as a national Cuban CMMLK Kingian Nonviolence Faculty. April 25, 2007 marked the 20th Commemoration of the CMMLK and its Kingian Nonviolence work in Cuba and Rev. Joel King, Jr. of Columbus, Ohio represented the King Family and the IHRR at this anniversary event.
|The Rev. Raul Suarez
The Rev. Raul Suarez is an ordained Baptist minister and has been pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church since 1971 until his retirement in 2005. The congregation was named after the church pastored by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sr. in Atlanta, Georgia and serves a community with a long tradition of union and social change activism, as well as a substantial population of African descent.
Rev. Suarez is also the founder and was director of the Centro Memorial Martin Luther King, Jr. (CMMLK) until retirement in 2005. He is a past president and continues to be a prominent leader of the Council of Churches of Cuba, one of the most important non-governmental movements for religious freedom in Cuba.
Since 1993, he has served as a member of the National Assembly of the People’s Power and is part of its International Relations Committee. He represents no political party and was presented to the National Assembly by the Federation of Cuban Workers (CTC). Rev. Suarez is not a professional full-time member of the National Assembly and receives no salary as a deputy.
Rev. Suarez has made a significant contribution to the efforts of thousands of religious leaders and their denominations in the United States to become reconnected with their sister churches in Cuba. He has also been witness to the tremendous impact churches have had on Cuban civic life.