On a warm and windy afternoon, the bishop of Cuba is inspecting tomatoes. Dressed in a crisp purple shirt, she bends into a garden patch and finds a tomato as big as her hand. She weighs it, plucks it, and holds it up—the first fruit of a new crop.
This community garden in Itabo, Cuba, is second home to Bishop Griselda Delgado del Carpio, Cuba’s first female diocesan bishop. Before her installation in November 2010, she led this parish of Santa Maria Virgen for 22 years.
When she first arrived in Itabo, Bishop Delgado found an old church with a leaky roof. Under her leadership, the parish gradually transformed to become a multi-faceted community centre, with dozens of large beds bearing vegetables and herbs, pens of rabbits and chickens, and programs on fruit preservation, gender justice, and more.
At the front of the complex is the parish church, where birds now nest in the repaired rafters.
Bishop Delgado is only back in Itabo to visit. She now lives 175 kilometres west, in Havana, where she guides the ministry of some 40 congregations and 10,000 parishioners in the Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba (IEC). At her first diocesan synod in February, Bishop Delgado led the church to the adoption of its first ministry plan, developed after cross-country consultation.
Many synod members said this was the most productive meeting in years, thanks in part to the new bishop’s calm and focused leadership style.
Bishop Delgado credits her Andean temperament. She was born in Bolivia and belongs to the Indigenous Aymara people, who she describes as quiet and slow to speak.
The IEC needs her stability. Once a mission church of the Episcopal Church (USA), the IEC has struggled for self-sufficiency since the U.S. church withdrew financial support in 1967. Since then, the Cuban church has been governed by a Metropolitan Council composed of the leaders of U.S., Canadian, and West Indian Anglican churches. The IEC tried to elect a Cuban coadjutor bishop who would succeed the Uruguay-based interim bishop, Bishop Miguel Tamayo Zaldívar. After two failed elections, the council appointed Bishop Delgado.
A leader from the outside
“Obispa,” the feminine Spanish word for “bishop,” is now the name Bishop Delgado hears most often. The mother of three is still a Bolivian citizen who says she can’t dance (though her Cuban husband Geraldo can) and that she doesn’t understand baseball, Cuba’s unofficial religion. Yet she loves Cuba and says that Cubans have welcomed her, a foreigner, with open arms.
Bishop Delgado came to Cuba in the early 1980s, a former student activist who no longer felt safe living under military rule in Bolivia. She came to communist Cuba with her mother and young daughter, curious about how some of her ideals were being lived out, but also intent on pursuing her call to ministry. She began to study at the Matanzas Evangelical Theological Seminary.
But these were “paradoxical” times, she said. The Republic of Cuba was officially atheist and many of her political peers considered the church irrelevant. Enrolment was down at Matanzas; there were around the same number of students and teachers.
“I was questioning myself at the time,” said Bishop Delgado through a translator. “I wondered, ‘What do I understand the mission of the church to be?'”
Yet she continued toward her call. In 1986 she became one of the first two women ordained in the IEC, alongside Nerva Cot Aguilera (now deceased), a suffragan bishop of the IEC, and Latin America’s first woman bishop.
A passion for community development
Over 25 years of ministry, community development has been one way that Bishop Delgado has integrated her politics and faith. The Itabo project helps empower the poor with economic stability, yet the core of this community is worship life and Bible study.
“It’s important for people to see that the gospel isn’t isolated,” said Bishop Delgado. “Community development is a passion of mine, and now that I’m a bishop all these experiences have helped me develop a vision for the church.”
Finances may be her biggest challenge in applying this holistic vision. The Cuban church’s annual budget is close to $85,000 CUC ($90,000 CDN), which is stretched to cover around 30 clergy salaries, travel, and program work. Parishes often seek foreign funds to get their projects off the ground, and some IEC buildings are falling apart, like the dilapidated church of La Trinidad, Bermeja, where concrete slabs are stacked outside, awaiting funds for construction.
Economic insecurity is also a national reality. In September, the government announced that it would lay off 500,000 state workers, and more economic changes will be announced at the Communist Party congress in April. In the meantime, IEC clergy are anticipating an increased demand for their social services, and senior leadership is working with the Cuban Council of Churches to prepare an official response.
Although many Cubans are anxious about this shift, it is also an opportunity for churches to contribute to political life. In recent years, there has been a sense that the IEC and other Cuban churches are growing in both membership and national influence.
In November, Bishop Delgado and other church leaders travelled to Washington to discuss the easing of religious travel restrictions. The leader of the Cuban Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, has also helped negotiate the release of political prisoners in Cuba.
Bishop Delgado has a vision for the role the church can play in this shifting Cuban culture. “Up until now the church has seemed invisible to society,” she said. “In Cuba, all people have education, all have professions, but the people are lacking values. The church is a place to bring people together, to give them identity and dignity.”
Back in Itabo, the elderly kitchen staff are keen to feed the obispabefore she travels to for the next parish. Fried local rabbit is the main entrée, but Bishop Delgado smiles and moves on to the next dish. She has a soft spot for small creatures and won’t eat anything that resembles her scruffy white dog, Lily. Instead, she joins her team in enjoying other local fare: fresh guava juice, chicken, tomatoes.
Then Bishop Delgado suggests that they pray together before she leaves. All gather round, hold hands, and bow their heads. “Bless this ministry,” she begins.
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