By Elliott Wright

New York, NY – The moves toward more open doors between the United States and Cuba, including relaxed rules on visits, are in keeping with United Methodist positions. While they will no doubt improve interaction between U.S. and Cuban Christians in the future, they are not likely to immediate change The United Methodist Church’s current relations or activities in Cuba.

“We welcome the steps that may normalize U.S.-Cuba relations, and are glad that we already have strong ties with our Methodist brothers and sisters in Cuba,” said Thomas Kemper, chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s mission agency. “This includes a regular program of Volunteers In Mission (VIM) journeys in partnership with the Methodist Church in Cuba.”

Positive but cautious analyses were also offered by Aldo Gonzalez, the coordinator of the CUBA VIM program, and Icel Rodriguez, director of global missions for the Florida United Methodist Conference, which has a long-standing covenant with Cuban Methodists. The covenant includes stipulated visits between the two church entities.

The United Methodist Church through its policy-making General Conference has long advocated the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, including termination of the U.S. embargo of Cuba enacted more than a half century ago.

Agreements between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro last December strengthened a process that may lead to mutual diplomatic relations and more person-to-person visits. Only the U.S. Congress can end the embargo. The joint announcement projected more family visits and cultural, educational and religious contacts without obtaining a “specific” U.S. license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. A general license would still be required for travel.

“Religious activities” are among the 12 categories of “legal travel” with the general license for U.S. travel to Cuba under the proposed new rules. Prior policy in both countries has permitted visits for religious purposes, but according to Gonzalez, this history has been one of “ups and downs.” Restrictions on licensed visits were relaxed on the U.S. side in 2011 by President Obama, after having been tightened by the Bush administration.

On Jan. 28, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators announced plans to introduce and hold hearings on legislature that would lift restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. The fate of the proposal is uncertain, as is its convergence with the earlier Obama initiatives.

“A process is just beginning and we will use every new opportunity to its fullest to strengthen our joint mission and ministry with the Methodist Church in Cuba,” said Kemper, who also noted collaboration between his agency’s relief agency and the Cuban church in the wake of Super Storm Sandy in 2013. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in August 2013 allocated $500,000 to rebuild homes destroyed by the storm when it hit Cuba at hurricane force.

Currently, according to Gonzalez, Cuba allows two monthly U.S. United Methodist mission volunteer teams of no more than 12 each. Those teams primarily work on church and personage reconstruction and were instrumental in building Camp Canaan, a Cuban Methodist facility, and the Methodist Theological Seminary in Havana. The program has been in effect for some 20 years. Gonzalez says that the present level of visits is in keeping with the capacity of the Cuban church as host. The Methodist Church in Cuba has more than 40,000 members and a worshiping community of 50,000, according to the latest available figures.

The Florida Conference’s 17-year-old covenant with the Cuban Methodists incorporates person-to-person visits for spiritual enrichment. Florida can send 24 persons per district to Cuba each year and there are nine districts in the conference, according to Rodriguez. A limited number of Cuban pastors can visit Florida churches each year. The relationship is of great value to congregations and church members in both countries, she added.

Elliott Wright is an Information Consultant with Global Ministries.