Leonel Linares is a gay Cuban man. He has attended many masses and other church services in his life, but never felt comfortable when he was there. Four years ago, a friend told him about the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in the city of Matanzas, about 100 kilometres east of Havana, the capital of Cuba.
Today, Linares is a deacon in the Cuban branch of the MCC, an international Protestant denomination that openly welcomes people from the LGBTIQ community, enabling them to find a space to practise their faith and express their identity.
Founded in California in 1968, the MCC expounds a liberal interpretation of Christianity based on respect, love and justice. It encourages its members to further its aims through social activism and a radical approach to inclusion. In Cuba, the MCC welcomes not just the LGBTIQ community but people from other spiritual traditions including Afro-Cuban religions, which are frowned upon in most of the country’s churches.
“The thing I like most about it is that it makes me feel useful, because of the work within the community,” says Linares. Since the Cuban branch was established in 2015, the MCC has formed links with several socially progressive organisations, including the National Centre for Sex Education (a government-funded organisation led by Mariela Castro, the daughter of president Raul Castro); the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre, a group that unites Christians of all denominations, provides popular education and links up with community development projects across the Americas; and the People’s Teachers Network.
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The MCC’s activities include holding public discussions about sexual health, and handing out condoms and information leaflets. Members of the congregation also help clean up rivers and beaches, and host activities for children.
“We always seek to create alliances with projects that relate to what we believe in. The more alliances, the better,” says Reverend Elaine Saralegui, an MCC minister in Cuba.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the church has supported elderly people without families of their own. Members have brought them food and kept them company. They also rescued stray cats and dogs, and tried to find them new homes.
As Cuba went into lockdown, the MCC set up a WhatsApp group where the congregation could pray together and share their worries. “We’re not a chapel or temple-based church – we’re a church without walls,” says Yivi Cruz, another MCC pastor. “We go where we are needed.”
The personal is political
Lidia Portilla speaks slowly when telling her story. The Methodist Church in Matanzas was the place where she took her first steps towards embracing Christianity, and the origin of much of her suffering. “Of course, being homosexual is a sin for them. I was confused and I thought: ‘My God, how can I love you if I’m a lesbian? I’m being a hypocrite.’”
She remembers fasting, praying on her knees, asking for God to change her, so that she could find a man to marry and make her happy. She decided to stop attending church, although she found herself returning every so often. “It was a state of constant, terrible instability,” she says.
But then Portilla found the MCC, which embraces sexual and gender diversity as part of its mission. She turned her life around by accepting her sexual orientation. “I felt so good, freed from all that weight I was carrying.” To Portilla, the MCC’s healing attitude and its constructive message have the power to change many people’s lives.
Yet the MCC is pursuing its mission at a time of growing religious fundamentalism in Cuba. Last year, the government proposed constitutional reforms that included the legalisation of same-sex marriage. But conservative Christian churches launched a campaign in favour of the “original design” of the family, and the proposal was dropped. The issue of same-sex marriage has been moved from the constitution to the ‘family code’, which is now under review and will likely be put to a referendum.
After several Protestant churches circulated a letter opposing same-sex marriage, the MCC published a statement arguing that God was polyamorous and inclusive. “We aspire for them to speak to LGBTIQ people and not about LGBTIQ people, so that they’re not excluded from their dialogues, which turn into monologues when we are not represented,” said the statement. The MCC stressed that it would continue to support any public policy that favours human emancipation.
According to Saralegui, fundamentalism is not just an issue for churches, but affects wider society. “Those who have been indoctrinated in religion will go to secular spaces with such ideas, which then turn up anywhere,” she says. Cruz adds that it’s important to lead by example, because in the end it’s people who will vote to defeat fundamentalism.
The MCC blesses non-heteronormative ‘weddings’, although such events are not yet legally recognised. For Saralegui, these ceremonies represent an end to the spiritual violence that participants have experienced.
“They’re beautiful ceremonies, and exciting. I shudder during every single one of them,” she says. “[Even] if I’ve been tired, it’s in those moments that I look at the people seeking a blessing from God and the community and I say to myself: ‘This is why it’s worth continuing.’”
A sense of purpose
The MCC’s Cuban branch had a difficult birth. It grew out of Somos, an LGBTIQ Christian group to which Saralegui belonged, which used to meet at the First Baptist Church of Matanzas.
Some of the meetings, in which they would share stories or debate gender and theology, were open to the public. Gradually, other parishioners started to attend, but as LGBTIQ couples were open in their affection, it tensions soon grew.
When Troy Perry, the American founder of the MCC, visited Cuba in 2015, members of Somos decided to accept his proposal to set up a local branch of the church. At first, recalls Jorge Alfonso, an MCC deacon, services were held at Cruz’s house. “These were unifying times, when we lived with whatever we had,” he says.
“We would sit on the rooftop,” Cruz adds, “although when it rained, we would all cram into my room – we were about 20 or 30, almost on top of each other.” The building they use today welcomes arounds 30 people on an average Friday evening: members, new visitors, family and friends.
The MCC has also established a small group in Havana. It is trying to gain greater recognition from the Cuban authorities and other faith groups, including by establishing itself as a legal entity.
Many of the MCC’s members use the word “family” when talking about the church, and are proud of its role in advocating for wider social change. As Mariaelaine Pérez, one of the Cuban branch’s founders, says, “It’s not a church that sits down waiting, but one that is out fighting and offering support.”
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