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Albany Area leaders take aid to Cuba following hurricane

10/17/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph of Bishop Susan Morrison is available at online.

A UMNS Report By Holly Nye and Don Perry*

A Volunteers in Mission team led by United Methodist Bishop Susan M. Morrison brought supplies and support to the Methodist Church in Cuba immediately after Hurricane Lili struck the island.

The 12 volunteers represented the combined leadership of the church's Albany (N.Y.) Area, which comprises the Troy and Wyoming annual conferences. They had planned to arrive in Cuba Oct. 1, but Lili got there first. The team made the first leg of its journey, from New York to Jamaica, just as the storm was passing over Cuba, but connecting flights from Kingston to Havana were postponed.

The bishop and her team spent three days in Jamaica, where they saw the damage wreaked by hurricanes Lili and Isidore.

"We viewed the heartbreak of families sitting by the roadside, their homes having been washed away," wrote team coordinator Charles Gommer. "We all felt the anguish of their pain and dislocation. How we prayed that people everywhere would reach out to them in their need."

The volunteers finally landed in Havana Oct. 4, along with suitcases full of donations from Troy and Wyoming conference churches for the people of Cuba. They spent the next morning organizing the medicine, food, clothing, bedding and school supplies into boxes for individual families. The medical supplies included over-the-counter medications such as aspirin and arthritis pain relievers, vitamins for adults and children, and salves and ointments for cuts and burns. A New York hospital had donated prescription medications for high blood pressure, ulcers and asthma, along with a supply of antibiotics.

Bishop Ricardo Pereira Diaz of the Methodist Church in Cuba took the boxes via small plane into the hurricane-ravaged area of Pinar del Rio, about 150 miles west of Havana. The gifts were the first supplies to reach that region following the hurricane.

When Pereira returned to Havana, he reported to the Volunteers in Mission the response of the church superintendent in Pinar del Rio: "The crops are destroyed, but we will plant them again. Our homes are destroyed, but we will build them again. Our churches are gone, but the people of God remain, and they will build the churches again." The superintendent embraced Pereira in gratitude for his presence and the supplies.

Once the hurricane boxes were prepared and sent, the Albany Area team turned its attention to its assigned work project at the Guanbacoa church, on the outskirts of Havana. The group painted the entire sanctuary and spent time sifting sand, mixing concrete and cutting rebar for concrete walls being erected as part of an expansion project.

During the trip, the team met with Caridad Diago, director of Cuba's Office of Religious Affairs. Diago is in charge of all relationships between the government and religious organizations in Cuba. Visiting with Diago was a privilege offered to the team because of Bishop Morrison's presence.

Diago said she affirmed the team's visit and its work "because the Methodist Church of Cuba affirms the dignity of the Cuban people and its culture."

When asked about the impact of U.S foreign policy in Cuba, Diago described ways in which the economic embargo has hurt the Cuban people. Morrison pointed out to Diago that the United Methodist Church officially opposes the embargo in its Book of Resolutions. Team members committed themselves to contacting U.S. legislators about lifting "the blockade," as many Cubans call it.

During the meeting, Morrison also presented Diago with a book inscribed to President Fidel Castro.

Worship was a highlight of the trip. On the evening of Oct. 5, Morrison preached at a rally of more than 500 youth and young adults, and the next morning she preached in the Marianao Church, where Pereira serves as pastor.

"Worship in the Cuban church is creative and vibrant," said Barbara Lemmel, Troy's conference minister. Charles Gommer, team coordinator, agreed: "The Methodist churches in Cuba are bursting at the seams with life and love and power and enthusiasm."

Since erecting new church buildings is illegal, new congregations worship in pastors' homes, often taking more and more of the family's living space as the faith community grows. Nearly every small church, the team noted, had a drum set and keyboard to accompany the worship music.

"We were privileged to be there and to help in even a small way with the relief effort," said Alan Delamater, Adirondack District superintendent in the Troy Conference. "We are thankful for the gift of life and hope we received from the people of the Methodist Church in Cuba. We know we remain in their prayers, as they remain in ours."

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*Nye is director of communications for the United Methodist Church's Troy Annual Conference, and Perry is director of communications for the Wyoming Annual Conference.

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