The Wafer and the Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro

I woke up this morning to read “Pope calls for ‘justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation’ in Cuba. He was greeted by Cuban President Raul Castro, who promised religious freedom in his Communist nation.”  What follows is my reflection on this piece in light of three weeks in Cuba in 1979..

Curious. The headline and the story are curious.

Pope Benedict arrives in Santiago, Cuba. In Mexico he has just criticized Cuba’s Marxist model as obsolete and has called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation” in Cuba.

The President of Cuba, Raul Castro, welcomes the pontiff to Cuban soil.

The media focuses on the Pope’s call for change in Cuba, on the one hand, and Mr. Castro’s promise of  religious freedom in Cuba, as though the latter were a new development.

In 1979, on the heels of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico, I spent three weeks in Cuba, one of 75 churchmen and theologians invited by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba.

Most of the guests were from Central and South America. Others were from France, East and West Germany, Rumania, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe. There were four of us from the U.S: Professors Harvey Cox, , Robert McAfee Brown and a tag-along practicing pastor and college chaplain from Wooster, Ohio.

What do I remember most about that trip? Five memories:


1) Approaching Cuba from the air, looking down at this island 90 miles from the coast of Florida, asking how this little David had managed to slay Goliath at the Bay of Pigs, and wondering what was so threatening to us that the U.S. government continued to punish it with an economic embargo. I felt like a bully. Guilty. Ashamed. Humble.

2) Getting sick on a collective farm, sitting under a tree after drinking a complementary glass of banana juice. I was quickly tended to by Cuba’s medical and pharmaceutical system. They continued to check on me until all was well. Everyone gets health care.

3) The Cuban pastors’ response to a long breast-beating speech by Robert McAfee Brown, one of the foremost theologians in the U.S.  Brown spent 45 minutes in a biblically based sermon apologizing to the Cubans, a kind of cathartic confession in full public view. I was with him all the way. The Cuban response? Stop that. You didn’t do this. The American people haven’t done this to us. Your government has. Wallowing in guilt won’t help you and it won’t help us. We all need to find ways to promote justice and peace in our own contexts. We are all here as friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

4) Walking through the streets of Matanzas in the evening. Children playing freely in the streets. Windows and doors wide open. Neighbors talking and laughing with next-door neighbors. This could not be staged. This was the real Cuba.  As Harvey Cox, the charming professor from Harvard Divinity School who is fluent in Spanish, led the three of us through the streets, children followed him like the Pied Piper. Harvey would laugh with them and they with him. We would sing and walk. It was playful, like nothing that was happening back home.

5) A conversation with Communists on the veranda of the home of the President of the seminary. Raul Castro was among them. They were there to welcome us to Cuba. They also wanted to talk theology and society. They wanted to know what we really believed about God, about the Kingdom of God, and about social justice and economic equality. I don’t remember his name now, but I do remember the long one-on-one conversation during that cocktail hour with a member of the Communist Party. He had grown up Roman Catholic but was no longer a believer. The Church, he said, had kept the people in their place before the revolution. The Party had raised them up to believe in themselves. The Church had given them a wafer; the Party gave them bread, real food, real nutrition. The Church proclaimed the Kingdom of God after you die; the Party proclaimed a society of justice and peace that could be achieved in this world.

He asked what I thought. I told him that the version of Christian faith that he had described was not my faith. It was something else, but it was a very popular distortion of the life and teaching of Jesus. I told him that I shared his hope, that what he called “the classless society” I called the Kingdom of God, and that, to the extent that we were each working for the elimination of poverty, the end of starvation, and the health and joy of all God’s children, we were working toward the same goal under different names.  I rehearsed my history of Christian-Marxist dialogue dating back to seminary and the summer of 1966 living in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Experiment in International Living Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. I told him of Josef Hromadka, the Czech theologian who had begun this dialogue because, said Hromadka, there was only one reason that the Bolshevik Revolution was atheistic: the sin of the Church. Its failure to align with the poor rather than the rich. The Church and the Czar had become of one cloth, just as he had been describing. The Church was giving people nothing but a wafer; the bread would come only after death. Lenin and Trotsky were insisting that to be genuinely human was to eliminate the economic structures that produce poverty and despair and that delay the distribution of real bread until an afterlife. Like Marx, they saw religion as the opiate of the people, the ideological blanket that blinded people to their earthly reality. But the biblical Kingdom is not about the Church, it’s about the new society in which the love of God reigns everywhere. It’s the NEW city, the new Jerusalem, and, in that new city, there is no longer any temple. There is no longer any need for the church because the Kingdom has come.”

The man from the Party’s eyes were wide.

I asked the man on the veranda where he thought his hope for such a society came from. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s just part of being human.” “Yes,” I said, “but why? How’s that hope get there? Why should we hope unless there is something in being itself, something in the deepest part of us, that holds out the promise of its fulfillment, an inner sense that beckons us beyond the present conditions? The name for me is God.  None of us has ever seen God, yet I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, a worker, a carpenter, preacher of the Kingdom of God. I hear in your visions an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. I get the clearest sense of it when we share the meal at the Lord’s Table, the sign of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom will not come by Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. We have to work for it, but we also ‘wait for it with patience.’”

“Thank you, I’ll have to think more about that. You sound like Jose.” There’s a long pause. “Well…We’ll have to wait and see. I guess only time will tell who’s right,” he said. Like Harvey and the kids on the street that evening, we shared a good laugh, shook hands, and moved on to another conversation.


It’s now 33 years later and I’m reading about Raul Castro’s “promise” of religious freedom, the very same Raul Castro who was on the veranda at the seminary, who graciously welcomed the guy with the wafers to Cuban soil, except for kissing his ring. Priests and lay people from throughout Cuba throng to the site. None of them is hungry for bread.

Curious…for a country with no religious freedom. Don’t you think?

15 thoughts on “The Wafer and the Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro

  1. Pingback: Cuban Altar Boys, the Pope, and Occupy | VIEWS from the EDGE

  2. Thanks Gordon for the Cuba experience. I’ve always wanted to go there to see what you describe. The site below I think you will find interesting. BTW as I think I mentioned to you a couple yrs. our own local Cooper’s store was founded by the family of Jake Cooper who passed in 1990 but you see him when you check out at the store staring down at you in his cowboy hat. He was Trotsky’s bodyguard when Mercator the assassin killed Trotsky in 1939? in Mexico City. He was also active as a young man in the 1934 Mpls. Teamsters Strike. Jake had gone to the corner store to get something when Mercator put an ice pick in Trotsky’s head. There was also a firefight at some point in the event. Jake came home and subsequently was a major cog in the Chaska teachers strike back in the late 70s when he provided food for the strikers. He also sent semi loads of food throughout the Austin, Mn. meatpackers strike in the 80s. He is not a favoroite of the Chaska Chamber but his family has a granite bench on the far side of the store parking lot with some relevant engravings on its edges. He should have a statue in the town square. I think I’ll push for that at the next city council mting.


    • Gary, So glad you brought this piece of Chaska history out of the mothballs. It’s a most amazing story. Coopers, for those who will have way of knowing, is a grocery story unaffiliated with any national chain. An independent grocery story like my grandfather once owned and operated, where people were given food during the Depresson and subsequent hard times, and where schools and community organizations regularly benefit from Coopers; donations of food and funding. Thanks, Gary. I haven’t yet looked at the link. Peace. Hope to see you Sunday.


  3. OK. I’ll sound like a Minnesotan. This is awesome! So much to learn and to feel. What’s required now is a chance for an hour’s face-to-face to explore the depths of what you’ve said. I can say that for a long time I haven’t understood why we as a nation continue to embargo Cuba. Are we afraid of the contact?


    • Yes, we’re afraid. Afraid of the truth. Before the Cuban Revolution, Cuba, you may recall, was under an American-supported dictator named Batitsta. Veradero Beach was the playgorund of the American upper class. There is no good reason under the sun to keep Cuba underf embargo except… go figure. It makes no sense. Or does it?


  4. That was very interesting. I often hear mixed reviews of Cuba and its government, yet many people revere Che Guevara – when he actually fought the revolution that brought the current government into control! Also, it was mind-blowing to watch a documentary I saw once about Cuba, and realize that those people who jump in boats and come to Florida – are actually the equivalent of the 1% in our country, who found sharing with their fellow man unbearable so came to the US where that is not necessary. But strangely enough, they are usually portrayed as the poor people who are suffering so much they would rather risk their lives to come here than to stay (the boat rides are relatively short compared to those who have come here from Vietnam, for instance, just as a side note). Few realize the implications of the fact that it is the business class that are defecting. Perhaps if they knew, they would stop the embargos which only hurt the very people they were meant to help: the Cubans who have stayed in their country. Keep writing – I am very interested in your experiences there.


    • Thanks, Christina. We’re not supposed to think. Thinking about these things is bad. I was only there three weeks, so my impressions hold little weight. I did stand on Playa Jeron (Bay of Pigs) with two pastors who were wounded there defending their country. I’ve never felt so low as I did that day. Westminster Presbyterian Church in Mpls and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Matanzas have a partner relationship. People go back and forth all the time. Wonderful reciprocal relationship of sharding the faith.


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