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Young adults find renewed faith in Cuba

April 10, 2017

By Rev. Angela Flanagan*

Emilee Hrtyanski scrapes an iron window frame in Cuba.
Emilee Hrtyanski scrapes an iron window frame in Cuba.

On March 3-12, four young adults from the Northeastern Jurisdiction traveled with two United Methodist Volunteers in Mission leaders on a journey to Cuba.  The trip was open to both clergy and laity.

As young adults in the American United Methodist church, our age tends to make us the exception to the rule. However, in Cuba we encountered a church with an average age of 25 to 32-years old. 

Many churches in Cuba have a young adult worship service either weekly or monthly, but young adults’ leadership is not confined to those age-specific ministries. Young adults are visible in every area of leadership — pastors, musicians, worship leaders, liturgical dance teams, and administrative positions in the bishop’s office. 

“In the past 15 years, the Cuban Methodist church has grown 15 percent per year,” said Aldo Gonzalez, the U.S. coordinator for UMVIM Cuba missions. 

This tremendous, sustained growth has created challenges of its own that have been met with creative solutions. The need for leaders is growing faster than pastors can be seminary trained, so an extensive apprenticeship process has been established. 

When sensing a call to ministry, these primarily young adult candidates must first demonstrate the fruitfulness of their ministry. They begin as small group leaders who must demonstrate their effectiveness before moving up to missionaries and then assistant pastors. Candidates then serve as pastors while attending seminary. Seminary is structured in two intensive, three-week terms per year for four years, allowing seminarians to serve churches over the entire island, which is 850 miles long, and commute twice a year to Habana. 

Local seminary extensions in 34 locales throughout the island also allow for continued education for not only seminarians, but also laity. After completing an extensive seven-month training to be baptized in the Cuban Methodist Church, these new members are immediately enrolled in additional training such as these local seminaries and begin to learn to preach, teach, and share the Gospel. 

The young adult leadership, extensive (even methodical) nature of discipling efforts, and the sheer passion with which the Gospel is lived out by Cuban Methodists echoes back to our early Methodist roots — both the Wesley brothers’ Holy Club in England as well as the Methodist camp meetings of the American frontier. 

While on the surface Cuban Methodist worship more closely resembles Pentecostalism to our American eyes, a deeper look reveals its strong Wesleyan foundation. 

The Cuban Methodist Church has demonstrated once again the elasticity of our Methodist heritage, living into their Wesleyan identity in a fully Cuban manifestation — complete with dancing, lots of dancing. 

Young adults dance at the Habana District women’s conference.
Young adults dance at the Habana District women’s conference.

Experiencing the intense joy, passion, and hospitality of the Cuban Methodist Church has been a transformational experience for our UMVIM young adult team. We returned knowing that the vitality of the Cuban churches is not a formula that can simply be transplanted. However, we do return seeking to discern how the intense joy, passion, and hospitality — that come from Christ, not just Cuba — might be revived in our own contexts of ministry. 

The goal of this mission was two-fold. As a typical UMVIM team, we built relationships with the local churches and worked on building housing for the Methodist Evangelical Seminary. However, this mission was unique in that each young adult participant was also being trained to be a UMVIM leader. The NEJ matched our funds to help make this a more accessible program for young adults. In return, we promised to lead a trip within 18 months of returning. 

While the average age of UMVIM leaders is climbing, training young adults creates leaders who can continue to serve and lead throughout their entire lives. Our small team had only six people in it, but the reach of this team will multiply throughout the following decades as we lead our own teams to UMVIM sites throughout the world. 

The jurisdiction’s UMVIM hopes to replicate this fruitful and sustainable model for expanding young adult leadership by offering similar opportunities in the future.

As UMVIM leaders, we are busy forming our own teams, ready to guide others into equally transformative mission journeys in which we all might serve, grow, learn, and form bonds across our Methodist Connection with brothers and sisters in Christ who have so very much to teach us about what it means to faithfully follow Jesus.

If you would like to learn more about my experience or UMVIM opportunities in Cuba, please feel free to reach out to me. I would be happy to meet with you or with a group in your local church.

If you know of young adults who would be interested in participating in a similar mission journey and leadership training next year, they are invited to reach out to Rev. Tom Lank, the UMVIM coordinator for the NEJ, at

*The Rev. Angela Flanagan serves as the associate pastor of Calvary UMC in Mt. Airy, and also serves as the Central Maryland district representative on the BWC’s Young Adult Council. She can be contacted at .

 

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