Baptists and Popular Education in Cuba: an interview with Joel Suárez

If you thought there were no churches in Cuba, think again. Joel Suárez of the MLK Center in Havana reveals the active role of religion in social change in Cuba.

The Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba, is at the forefront of promoting Christian social responsibility and progressive change throughout the region. Within Cuba, the organization is involved with the distribution of medicines, HIV prevention programs, and housing projects. In the spirit of popular education, it runs extensive training workshops to empower Latin Americans and promote social involvement. The center also participates in various international solidarity movements such as the Landless Worker's Movement (MST) and the World Social Forum.

YES! editor Sarah van Gelder met with Joel Suárez, the general coordinator of Cuba's Martin Luther King Center in December 2006. In the interview excerpt that follows, Suárez discusses the center's three founding pillars: the Cuban Ecumenical Movement, Popular Education, and international solidarity. He also explains the lead-up to Cuba's constitutional change in 1992, which ratified the secular nature of the state.


Joel Suárez: General Coordinator of the MLK Center in Havana.
Courtesy of Centro Memorial MLK archives

The first pillar of our center is the Cuban ecumenical movement. In the 1960s, ‘70s and halfway through the '80s, lay people and pastors played a very important role in this movement. The pastors were the few who did not leave Cuba after Fidel came to power, and struggled to understand the revolution from the viewpoint of faith.

At that time, no liberation theology existed, so they did not have the tools available today to make the bridge between politics and faith. In fact, our liturgy, which was rooted in the Southern Baptist Convention, specifically spoke out against these much-needed tools. Our beliefs were colored by the work of American missionaries, anti-communist rhetoric abounded and the worship was very Anglo-Saxon. The Southern Baptist Convention advocated a vertical faith – God and myself, myself and God. They restricted worship to the four walls of a sanctuary. In those years there was no room for politics within Christianity.

MLK Center
Martin Luther King Center, Marianao, Havana.

In 1971, a group of pastors who had stayed in Cuba came to this church, Marianao's Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ebenezer Baptist was founded in 1947, and it was just a matter of coincidence that the Martin Luther King Center was built up next to it, just like in Atlanta.

This early ecumenical movement consisted of lay people and pastors from a variety of denominations – mostly from Protestant Evangelical churches, but there were also some Catholics involved. My parents were among this group. My father, Reverend Raul Suárez, was a pastor, and my mother, Clara Rodés, was a graduate from the seminary. According to the Southern Baptist tradition, women were not to be ordained, and there was no role for them in the ministry.

My parents became involved with the movement and began searching for a new theology - a different way to read the biblical texts. At that time they used to talk about that as “reading the Bible without wearing the eyeglasses of the missionaries.” A few years later we broke our relations with the Southern Baptist Convention of Cuba, and we founded our own convention, a new one. We ordained women to the ministry, and my mother was one of the first three female Baptist ministers that were ordained.

My parents tried to shape the movement so that their new way of approaching Bible theology became a process where the entire church was involved. Otherwise they would be generals without an army, so to speak. A lot of ecumenical ideas, but no ground to sustain their ideas.

During that time, the Baptist setting was very hostile. It was next to impossible to carry any type of awareness activity from the ecumenical world into the Baptist setting, because of the anti-ecumenical foundation of the Baptist movement.

Photo of Carter, Arce and Suárez
Jimmy Carter, Reinerio Arce (former President of the Cuban Council of Churches) and Reverend Suárez at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, Havana.
Courtesy of Centro Memorial MLK archives

As we created our own Baptist organization we began to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King and the anniversary of his death. Martin Luther King's thinking helped us a lot. Pedagogically speaking, he was an accessible figure. He was not a Presbyterian or a Catholic, but a Baptist as well. The peaceful nature of his resistance was also appealing. We wanted to walk along his path. He struggled for the Civil Rights movement, and criticized the system that generated poverty. He was also against the Vietnam War.

At the beginning of the 1980s we began to have contact with the Black Theology Project. They were a group of activists and theologians, James Cone and others, who were developing the Black Liberation theology. We organized several meetings in Cuba. While we were conducting a worship service to pay homage to Doctor King, Jesse Jackson visited here with Fidel. So because of all of these activities we decided to name this center after Dr. King. This was in 1987.

Our local church, despite being a community church, used to be a white church. Not because it was racist per say, but because of its culture, its liturgy. It was very Anglo-Saxon. Culturally, the dialogue with the neighborhood did not fit. This is a working-class neighborhood and is characterized by large black and mulatto populations. Many of the religious and cultural traditions here are African in origin. The community found the dialogue with the church sort of boring in a way. It was a cultural, rather than a racist, issue. The name Martin Luther King became a challenge to us in that regard. We began a process of liturgy renovation. We incorporated Cuban and Latin American music into our ceremonies, and revived the multiracial character of our congregation.

Popular Education workshop
Popular Education environmental workshop with farmers of the Escambray region, about techniques in soil conservation.
Courtesy of Centro Memorial MLK archives

The other legacy of the center is that of popular education. As you know, popular education emerged in Brazil with Paulo Friere. Paulo Friere was militant in both his political and religious beliefs. Popular education was rapidly embedded in the groups, organizations, and ministries of the Church in Latin America. In the case of Brazil, the pastoral ministries founded most of the present political movements. For example, the pastoral ministry of land, which is one of the ministries of the church, paved the way for the Movement for People Without Land (Movimento Sem Terra) that is famous in Brazil.

The Brazilian Dominican priest, Frei Betto, visited Cuba frequently in the latter part of the 1980s. In a long interview with Fidel regarding religious issues, he made clear the relevance of popular education practices to Cuba. This was a good time for dialogue, as there was a lot of debate and criticism in Cuba at the time against the mimicry of Soviet policies.

The recommendations stemming from this interview eventually made their way to the Casa de las Américas. In 1986, this Cuban cultural institution organized the first workshops between Latin American popular educators and like-minded Cubans. Participants included members of healthcare campaigns, literacy programs, and those involved with the surge-and-action projects in Cuba's shantytowns at the beginning of the revolution. The idea was to get to know the basics of popular education. This was totally new at that time.

Locally, a large part of our teaching component was based on popular education.
My parents wanted the church to be involved in this pedagogical change. It was not supposed to be an instruction or a command, but rather a philosophy for the work of our institution.

Bible Workshop
Bible Workshop, Santiago de Cuba
Courtesy of Centro Memorial MLK archives

The third legacy that we have in the center has to do with this issue of international solidarity and outreach. We are involved with the training of Latin Americans in the ways of popular education, and we participate in the promotion of social responsibility of Christians throughout the world.

It is important to note that in the year 1990, we had a dialogue with Fidel Castro. Our dialogue was not from the center's perspective, but from the perspective of the former Ecumenical Council of Cuba, as well as the present Council of Churches of Cuba. We were discussing religious discrimination in Cuba. My father Reverend Raul Suárez, the founder member and director of this center, was also the president of the Council of Churches of Cuba. He encouraged this dialogue, which was filmed, taped and aired on television. Ever since, radical changes have taken place in terms of the lives of the churches and believers in Cuba.

The following year the Communist Party removed atheism as a requirement for party membership. The constitution was also changed in order to ratify the lay nature of the state. It is neither religious nor atheist, but lay, secular. The problems of religious discrimination that had plagued our country were left behind. We have since been provided with a lot of space in which we can operate.

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