A Cuban Church Where God Loves Gays


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Photo: Claudia Padrón

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The Metropolitan Community Church’s message to all Christians is it doesn’t matter “if you’re gay, God loves you equally.”

Inside a small apartment in Vedado on Monday, September 8, 2018, Pastor Elaine Saralegui leads a service for a Christian church accepting of those who are not heteronormative, of the polyamorous and those who believe in other gods.

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Despite the small size of the living room, 12 people are squeezed in sitting on two large armchairs and plastic chairs that they have taken from a stack in the corner. They are facing a large mirror, which reflects the cross hanging on the wall. In the center an altar candle, a Bible and bread and wine for communion rest on small table covered with a rainbow flag.

Some people smoke and relax while they wait for worship to start. Others are engaged in passionate conversations about neighborhood meetings to discuss the draft constitution. Miguel Ángel, dark and thin in sportswear, ignited the debate by arguing, “Rights shouldn’t be voted on.”

Despite the country’s homophobia, which is reflected in television coverage, a man united with another man, “should have the same inheritance and reproductive rights as everyone else.”

Meanwhile, Niurka, a lesbian woman, wonders whether the majority of people are against same sex marriage in Cuba. Next to her, Ana, mother of a 5-year-old daughter and partner of a trans man, has no doubt that “that’s the way it is.”

Elaine lights the altar candle, and a Christian song playing on her laptop fills the small room signaling to pause the debate so as to start the ceremony. Everyone comes closer and forms a circle around the Bible. They close their eyes and pray to God evoking Christ together with Yoruba deities.

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 Photo taken from the Facebook Page “Somos ICM en Cuba”(We Are MCC in Cuba)

Traditional Christian groups have many “reasons” to criticize the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which accepts members who are not heteronormative, from lesbians to queers, it ordains trans pastors, promotes LGBTI+ activism and does not condemn Afro-Cuban religions.

Later Elaine explains, “God has many names and takes many forms.”

***

In 2012 the group Somos (We Are) was born inside the First Baptist Church of Matanzas to support the gays, lesbians and bisexuals who attended the church. The project survived through discretion and anonymity, only the pastor and a few members of the congregation were aware of its existence or mission.

Little by little other believers from different faith communities joined until the group became a kind of refuge for people who had been excluded or marginalized because they were not heterosexuals.

Three years after Somos was established the MCC’s founder, Troy Perry, visited Cuba and recognized his church’s values in their project. On that trip Reverend Perry suggested that Cuba should have its own Metropolitan Church. So on August 20, 2015, Somos ICM (We are MCC) founded in the city of Matanzas and led by lesbian pastor Elaine Saralegui.

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Founded in Matanzas in 2015, MCC has spread to Havana and Santa Clara. In the image, Elaine Saralegui prepares to officiate a ceremony in Santa Clara. (Photo: Maykel González Vivero).

The first, and currently only, MCC pastor in Cuba is 41 years old, with dark hair and an ichthus (an early Christian symbol of a fish silhouette) tattooed on her right wrist. She wears a silver cross around her neck.

Elaine has never hidden her liberal theological orientation. A few years ago in her degree thesis she argued that churches should be more inclusive of sexual diversity.

Now, her master’s goes even further, covering queer theory (based on queer theology spearheaded by the MCC), which emphasizes that gender, sexual orientation and identity are not biological truths but social constructions.

Since Elaine’s graduation from the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, her unprejudiced attitude has scandalized fundamental Christians. The pastor has made news for blessing homosexual unions, officiating a symbolic wedding between two young women and participating in days against homophobia and transphobia together with the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).

MCC has received CENESEX’s approval to expand and promote itself in Cuba. CENESEX’s director, Mariela Castro, has publicly supported the congregation from the start and has even attended several religious ceremonies. Although it is not clear if former President Raúl Castro’s daughter has any religious faith, last May she accompanied Elaine at a blessing ceremony for Cuban families and homosexual couples.

***


Argelia, a transformista, or drag queen, who coordinates the Cuban Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women, reads a verse about love beyond fear and rejection. An hour earlier Argelia had arrived at apartment number 20 with her girlfriend; it’s one of her first times worshiping there. Five days later Argelia and her girlfriend go to the electronic music festival at Castillo del Morro as LGTBI+ activists. In Havana the MCC is essentially an activist collective.

“In our faith communities our activism is based on respect for others and debate,” Elaine explains while smoking a cigarette after the service. “We don’t respond with violence, we don’t aspire to impose our spiritual or sexual code on others, but we do defend our right to live with dignity.”

The Metropolitan Community Church was the only religious denomination that publicly responded to the letter signed by five churches protesting against same sex marriage, in June 2018.  

The MCC stated: “To our sisters, brothers with non heteronormative sexual or gender identities, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, transsexuals, queers and heterosexual people who defend these causes, to diverse families, to those who have lost faith because of medieval theologies, we want to tell you: God exists and loves you! God is polyamorous and radically inclusive.”

Non-Christians like Argelia and her partner have joined and they stand side by side with people who have been bought up Protestants, who have found a space where they are not rejected for the first time.

Before joining the MCC some members had had to give testimony of their “sin” in front of other congregations. Often they were submitted to exorcisms until they could assure their congregation that God had “cured” them of their homosexuality.

If MCC did not exist, Argelia, Ana, Miguel Ángel, Niurka and even Elaine would not be fully accepted by any other Cuban church. None of the five Christian denominations opposed to same sex marriage and the ideology of gender would have allowed them to receive communion without referring to their “sin.” The Catholic Church would not have blessed their unions either.

Every Monday service ends at about seven in the evening with communion. On this Monday, the 12 people in the living room embrace each other as they listen to their pastor. Elaine breaks off some communion bread to place it an on the tongue of an older lady who has come forward.

Marisabel, the first person to receive the body and the blood of Christ today is a teacher, Presbyterian by tradition and the mother of a boy rejected by his previous church. “I come here because I receive a message of love for my family. I have a gay son and I am proud of who he is.”

Elaine concludes, “As a pastor of this denomination my job is to raise awareness about LGTBI+ issues with the general public, and also to show that it can be inclusive, but still be Church”

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Claudia Padrón Cueto

Claudia Padrón Cueto

Nació en Pinar del Río en los años 90 pero ha eligido para vivir La Habana y su caos. Es incapaz de llegar a algún lugar sin perderse antes. Rompe con un par de estereotipos de lo que se espera de una persona cubana: nunca ha bebido café y no le gusta la salsa. Es periodista porque no ha sabido, ni querido, ser indiferente a las demás personas. Y porque cree que aún queda demasiado por mostrar. Tiene la romántica idea de quedarse para contar su país.

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