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Friday, December 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Widows: Pensions for Cuban Pastors

Imagine going on a trip to track people down and give them tens of thousands of dollars. What a joy that would be!

But what a challenge it would be as well, if the place you're visiting is Cuba!

That task has been the passion of several very persistent staff members of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions for a great many years. It's a tale of knocking on the door of U.S. government bureaucrats again and again, for years, and simply refusing to take "No" for an answer.

An article referenced in a recent Board of Pensions newsletter tells the story. The heroes of the tale are Frank Maloney, a longtime Vice-President of the Board, and Ernesto Badillo, who made a number of trips to Cuba, even as he was receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

There was growing urgency to complete the task, because many of the surviving pensioners are now in their 90s. Were they ever to benefit personally from this money they'd earned decades ago - as opposed to simply knowing that their heirs might see it someday - something had to change, and soon.

Which is where Frank and Ernesto came in. Like the persistent widow in Jesus' parable, they just kept banging on the government officials' doors until someone finally took action.

The backstory here is that, until a few years after the Cuban Revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, Presbyterian churches in Cuba were part of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Cuba was part of the Synod of New Jersey, and Cuban pastors would travel here for Synod meetings. Their churches contributed money into the Board of Pensions, so their pastors would have retirement benefits.

The Revolution changed all that. The U.S. regarded Cuba as being behind the Iron Curtain, and so embargoed all financial transactions. Long after relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (later Russia) had normalized, the Cuban embargo remained firmly in place - as it does even today. Meanwhile, the pension payments from the 1950s and 1960s sat in designated accounts, earning interest.

The Cuban churches subsequently formed their own national Presbyterian church, independent of the U.S.A.

A few of us - including myself - have managed to travel to Cuba as part of presbytery-to-presbytery mission partnerships, and have been able to receive occasional Cuban visitors as sisters and brothers in Christ (as our government granted them permission to come, on a case-by-case basis). During my two trips to Cuba, I've been impressed by the strength of this vibrant, rapidly growing denomination. Since Cuba adopted its new Constitution in 1990, they have been free to pursue their denominational life in a country that now practices religious tolerance.

Speaking of widows in Jesus' parables, there's another tale he told about a widow. This one is the familiar tale of the widow's mite. The widow in that story contributed a small coin - all the money she had - to the Temple treasury, while a nearby Pharisee took great pride in giving a larger sum that represented only a small portion of his great wealth.

La Fernanda Presbyterian Church
This story also includes a tale similar to the widow's mite. An earlier Presbyterian New Service article tells the story of one of the retired pensioners, Maria Josefa Nunez, a Christian educator. When Maria - who is in her 90s - learned that she would be receiving a $30,000 windfall from the Board of Pensions, she decided to use the money to buy a house adjacent to the overcrowded house-church she attends - La Fernanda Presbyterian Church, near Havana - so they could expand to accommodate their overflow crowd of worshipers. Thirty grand sounds like a lot of money to us here in the U.S.A., but in Cuba - with its controlled economy where U.S. dollars are worth a good deal more than Cuban money - it's a huge fortune.

So, the tale of the widow's mite - or, The Widow's Might, as the PNS article puts it - takes on new life in this present-day context.

Praise the Lord for good news stories like this one!

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