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Evangelical Seminary in Matanzas trains students for integration of theology and life

Despite many challenges, seminary has endured and thrived

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Matanzas, Cuba—Refusing to succumb to political upheaval, economic uncertainty or mass emigration, the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Matanzas, Cuba has remained open and focused on preparing the next generation of ecumenical leaders.

October 1-4, a large contingent of current and former students, faculty, staff and faith leaders, celebrated 70 years of continuous operation at the seminary.

The view from the seminary campus at Matanzas. Photo by Kathy Melvin.

The view from the seminary campus at Matanzas. Photo by Kathy Melvin.

The Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches founded the Evangelical Seminary in 1946, one of only 10 Christian seminaries in Cuba and the only one operated by different denominations. It is governed by a board of directors elected from two of the establishing denominations – the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. Enrollment has included students from all of Cuba and 18 foreign countries from more than 30 different denominations and religious institutions. There are currently 52 Presbyterians enrolled.

Although normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba began last July, Presbyterian World Mission began preparing to send mission co-workers two years earlier. Last fall, David Cortes-Fuentes and Josey Saez-Acevedo became the first Presbyterian mission co-workers sent to live and work in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. David was invited by the seminary to teach New Testament and Greek and Josey is serving at the invitation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba to work in Christian Education.

Presbyterians began working in Cuba in 1890, and until the Cuban revolution in 1959, Presbyterians in Cuba were part of the Synod of New Jersey of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a PC(USA) predecessor denomination. In 1967 the Presbyterian- Reformed Church in Cuba was established as an autonomous denomination. Today, the 15,000 member Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba ministers to a population of 11 million.

Although the doors have never closed, the seminary has adapted. In 1961-62, 80 percent of the students left when Cuba declared itself an atheistic society. Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez, the first woman ordained in Cuba and president of the seminary from 1996-2004, said in 1984, they had 4 graduates, 2 were from Angola. The campus was virtually empty. “There was a 180 degree turn in the 1990s between the state and religion that provided a tremendous infusion of new professors and students,” she said.

The seminary endured.

Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez was the first woman ordained in Cuba and president of the seminary from 1996-2004. Photo by Kathy Melvin.

Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez was the first woman ordained in Cuba and president of the seminary from 1996-2004. Photo by Kathy Melvin.

Dr. Ortega Suarez, now 80, said when she entered the seminary only men could study theology. Women were only allowed in the Christian Education program because they did not ordain women at that time. She led the charge to change that.

Today the seminary’s mission is “promoting experiences that allow for transformation of church and society in the obedience to the reign of God and God’s justice.” In the past two years, the seminary has enrolled more than 500 students across all programs and has added several distance programs in recent years for lay leaders in Cuban churches. Additionally, they offer religious studies degrees, in conjunction with the University of Havana, in a country where the study of religion has not been offered for decades. There are now residential, non-residential and distance learning students enrolled in theology, religious sciences and special programs such as prison chaplaincy and biblical and theological training for lay people.

The seminary is involved in both social and community projects in Matanzas, in which students participate. Sitting high on a hill above the city the campus has terraced organic gardens it shares with the community. It’s seen as a permanent integration of theology and life.

“This is the theology of seeing the face of God in all people with whom I share everyday life,” said one student. “This is the theology I am learning at the seminary.”

The small campus has dormitories, a dining hall, classrooms and a library, nestled into an intentional space of tranquility. One student said, “This aids in our study and in our formation, as human beings.”

The seminary‘s goal is to raise $53,000 for the 2017 budget to cover funding priorities such as increasing the number of computers and printers in the library’s computer laboratory, funding internet access for the campus, publishing seminary publications adding distance lay leader degree programs taken to several sites around the island, fully funding a master’s degree in theology and the Pentecostal studies program.

To support the work of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, go to https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E862510/.

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Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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