ELCA NEWS SERVICE
May 13, 2009
Obama, Cuba and a Lutheran Theologian's Journey
CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Hurricane season came faster than anyone expected in 1965. Violent waves shook and tossed the boat carrying 15-year-old Alicia Vargas. Terrified and seasick, she clutched a tiny cross in her hand and prepared to die.
That's how Vargas emigrated from Cuba to Florida with her sister, mother, father and grandmother, Spanish-speaking Catholics. She's now a 58-year-old theologian and ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). She's also a scholar of "mujerista" theology, which she defines as "Latina women's theology."
Vargas supports U.S. President Barack Obama's steps to improve relations with Cuba, a Caribbean island 90 miles from Florida. Her family lived there comfortably before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, prompting a U.S. trade embargo three years later. Her mother lost an executive post with the telephone company, and her father's import/export business tanked.
"The restrictions haven't done anything but make the people of Cuba suffer," said Vargas, assistant professor, contextual and multicultural studies, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif. "In any question of justice, the church is called to add its voice to the public sphere."
Unlike Vargas, many Cubans who fled to Florida in the 1960s and 1970s were staunch supporters of the embargo. Many had supported the regime Castro toppled and were driven by political upheaval and ideology. They poured money into politics, developed a strong anti-Castro lobby and close political allies, particularly among Republicans.
That hard-line stance is no longer a given, particularly among younger generations of Cuban Americans, who grew up in different times. Most Cubans now living in the U.S. arrived since 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Obama received 47 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in 2008, according to exit polls.
"They want to see more openness between the U.S. and Cuba," said the Rev. Raquel Rodriquez, director for Latin America and the Caribbean continental desk, ELCA Global Mission.
"We don't have a reason to stay divided," said Miguel Acosta, 28, of Beloit, Wis., who moved to the U.S. from Cuba three years ago. He's joining the ELCA.
In April the United States eased restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel to Cuba and financial support of relatives there. The trade embargo remains in place. Congress is expected to consider relaxing travel rules to Cuba for all Americans. After the 2008 presidential election, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, joined numerous religious leaders in calling for a U.S. policy "freely allowing religious travel to Cuba."
Vargas said her mother supported Castro before the revolution, but her father thought all politicians were corrupt. Their transition to life in a new country wasn't easy. "My mother had to work in a factory making pants for one cent each. She didn't know how to sew. Her hands would bleed," Vargas said. "My father worked in an athletic shoe factory, burning the rubber."
Vargas excelled in school, eventually earning three masters degrees and a doctorate. She became a Lutheran in the 1980s. In a giant leap of faith, she quit a tenure-track teaching position at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., at age 41 to study ministry. She was ordained a pastor in 1998 at a county jail where she was a chaplain.
Vargas returned to Cuba for a short visit nine years ago. She preached at a Lutheran congregation in Havana, where worshippers spilled into the street. "They worshipped with such hope in the midst of so many problems," she said.
She was in an airport weeks ago when she heard Obama on television talking about improving relations with Cuba.
"I felt a balm in my soul," she said.
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