My Application for Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War in 1968

On Conscientious Objection by Stephen D. Clemens. November 1968

[In October 1968, at age 18, I was required to register for the Military Draft under the provisions of the Selective Service Act. I chose to register as a conscientious objector, Classification I-O, and submitted these answers in response to the 4 questions from my Draft Board in Norristown, PA as required.]

1. It is my belief that participation in war of any sort or in any form is wrong, and I am thereby opposed to service in an organization (the Armed Forces) which is actively engaged in such activity. I believe that it is wrong to kill, and this is the basic goal of the Armed Forces in defeating an enemy. I believe there is one God, a Supreme Being, and it is his right alone to decide who should or should not continue living. If I am fighting as a soldier and kill a man, I am essentially playing god, because I have decided that I should live while my enemy must die. Who am I to judge that I deserve to live; yet he doesn’t?

My religious training and beliefs have led me to believe that I am to love my enemy, and I feel that taking up arms against someone is contrary to this. Although the ultimate goal or purpose of war may be honorable, such as the purpose of peace or freedom from tyrannical rule, I believe the goal may be reached through other means than the taking of other men’s lives. In the instance of war, I do not believe that “the end justifies the means.”

I believe that by participating in any way, shape, or form in the Armed Forces, not only am I condoning, but I am actually helping something with which I am religiously opposed. I am commanded, I believe, by God in Exodus 20:13, that I must not kill and therefore participation in war is morally and religiously wrong for me. In the situation of war, one is obviously subjected to the emotions of anger and hate when je sees his buddies killed before his eyes, or after he has been forced to crawl through swamps, trenches, not knowing when he will be killed or have to kill to protect his life. I believe that [the Apostle] John was correct when he claimed that hatred of the other man (in this case the enemy) is essentially the same as murder (I John 4:15), when one realizes that although only one may be a physical act, both are morally alike. The Bible claims that “man only looks on the outward appearance” (murder as a physical act) “while God looks on the heart” (hate as a state of mind), found in I Samuel 16:7.

I believe we are to be “our brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9-10). This does not mean that we are “our brother’s keeper” for just our allies but also for our enemies. In taking their lives, this concept is violated. I receive this concept through the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The Good Samaritan was praised because he helped his enemy, not because he took his life or ignored him.

I do not believe in the use of force for revenge or retaliation, which is a purpose of the Armed Forces. I put my trust in God and in the Bible, which I believe is God’s word to men. It claims, “The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ commands us to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9), a direct contrast to the idea of war. Christ instructs us to “not return evil with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17) – not armed force. We are commanded to pray for, comfort, and feed our enemies, not destroy them.

We are instructed to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Surely we don’t wish to be killed. Maybe if we take the initiative and love our enemies instead of warring with them, peace might finally be established. It is man’s natural instinct to resist force, but “love conquereth all things.”

I base much of my belief on the exemplary life of Jesus Christ. One relevant example can be seen in Christ’s actions on the night before he was crucified. His enemies came to capture him and one of the disciples, Peter, drew his sword and lopped off the ear of one of the guards. Christ could have helped in the use of force against force but he didn’t. He not only told Peter to put away his weapon of force, but even went to the extent of showing love to his enemy in that he healed the man!

The Bible instructs: “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). In the verse following the former, He also instructs us to feed and give drink to our enemies, not to heap vengeance on them. The prophecy of “beating swords into ploughshares” (Micah 4:3) shows that our efforts should be turned toward a constructive goal (plowing to support life, rather than using the sword to take away life). Christ claimed, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Bible instructs to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). God has said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another” (I John 1:5).

2. I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and as early as I can recall, I attended Calvary Mennonite Church in Souderton. I was dedicated to God by my parents in March 1951 in that church, and have attended there regularly prior to my sophomore year in high school. Since that time I’ve been away at prep school on Long Island and now I’m attending a religiously based college in Wheaton, Illinois.

It was from my parents, my father being a deacon in the church, and from the church itself along with personal investigation into the Bible, that I have arrived at my beliefs. I’ve attended Sunday school, church, youth fellowship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday prayer meetings ever since I was a small child. I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I have been taught that what I believe should not be so much how my church or parents believe, but how I feel God is causing me to believe through the personal relationship which I have established with his Son, Jesus Christ; and through reading the Bible, I found in the majority of cases that I totally agree and believe in what my church and my parents believe in. However, this is from my personal investigation rather than being molded into believing and never questioning that which my parents and the church as a whole believe.

I was baptized and accepted as a member into the Calvary Mennonite Church at age 14. Most of my religious training I received through Sunday School, vacation Bible school, discussion of topics with my parents who supported their beliefs with the Bible, and trough hearing scripturally based messages.

Through daily reading of my Bible, I have my beliefs affirmed so that presently I know that God wants me to serve in some peaceful program, rather than being connected in any way with war and killing. I mentioned in the above paragraph that I feel this is an individual decision concerning one’s beliefs and therefore, I feel my decision must be a personal one. I have no right to condemn others who do not believe the same as I do.

Most of the articles, books, and related material which I have taken in probably do more to affirm my already established belief and strengthen it rather than “instructing” me as such. Most of the influence of such works merely strengthen my conscience toward the subject of nonresistance and opposition to war. I have read several articles in magazines such as Christianity Today and Christian Life on conscientious objection to war. Another work which struck me as a relevant commentary on this idea was Hemmingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms. Also reading books aimed with another point of view in mind, or at least on the surface, such as The Red Badge of Courage, has convinced me that I thoroughly believe in the position which I am trying to explain.

Many people have caused me to think about my position; many disagree with the viewpoint for themselves but see how it is valid for me. A lot of times I, or someone, will bring up the question of military service in “bull sessions.” Some in the discussions help build up my belief either by saying things which I do believe but never have expressed in their way, or by opposing my beliefs, making me analyze my stand in view of their new ideas.

A special speaker here at college on Veteran’s Day unconsciously helped me see the aspect of me being “my brother’s keeper” in relation to war – in this case a specific war – Vietnam. Colonel Robinson, the speaker, emphasized that the people in South Vietnam are our “brothers”, so we must protect them by helping them militarily. But this point caused me to consider the fact of the enemy too. Just because they live under a different political structure and have a different religion, does that mean they are not are “brothers” too?

I have also talked to several people who have been classified I-O because of similar beliefs and we discussed our position. I have talked to two of my friends from my church, and also two or three friends here at college who are conscientious objectors. These talks have helped to affirm my belief and clarify it in some areas where I didn’t know how to articulate my feelings, while some of the others could understand and verbalize my beliefs.

Another encounter which points me to the stand of conscientious objection to service in the Armed Forces is my present experience in ROTC here at Wheaton. ROTC is mandatory the first two years. In there, I find myself thoroughly disgusted with the pervasive emphasis on killing and bloodshed. I strongly object to the fact that the basic “mission” of the Rifle Infantry is to seek out and “destroy (kill) or capture the enemy.” I all good conscience, I could not support such a mission.

Probably the source which I have used the most to arrive at my position is the Bible. I find that Christ preached a message of love and peace – not destruction and war. Not only have I received ideas from God (the Bible), but also through the songs of contemporary men. Donovan in his song, “Universal Soldier”, proposes that without the soldiers “there is no War. He decides who lives and dies.” I think that decision must rest with God, not the “universal soldier”. Eric Burton informs the listener in “Sky Pilot” that just the “sky pilot praying” won’t “stop the bleeding or ease the hate.” Bob Dylan also reminds us of the serious crimes of war in “Masters of War.” He goes on and adds that the soldier coming back from battle “remembers the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

3. According to my beliefs, I want no connection whatsoever with the Armed Forces because by being associated with them, I would be condoning something against my conscience. I have nothing against helping those injured or sick, but I could not do so within the confines of an organization with whose mission I am at odds.

I feel that it is my duty and patriotic privilege to serve my country in a program where I know I would be doing good rather than in the Armed Services as a non-combatant where my conscience would not permit me to serve. I am anxious to serve in a capacity similar to the Peace Corps, or work in inner-city problems. I hope to major in sociology, and I feel I could do a positive good serving my country in such a manner.

I have received information and am very interested in an organization called “Christian Service Corps,” which is similar to the Peace Corps but is not supported through the Federal Government, and whose aim, along with loving people by helping them with physical and social problems, is to help people fulfill a basic need of man, a spiritual one. In such a program I feel I can spread goodwill for the United States and also do something I know to be worthwhile.

I am not afraid to die – here, in Vietnam, or elsewhere – but when I do die, I want to die doing something which I consider to be worthwhile and morally acceptable to me. Serving as a medic I would have to face a dilemma which to me presents two distasteful choices. If while serving as a non-combatant, the base would be overrun, I would have a choice of taking up arms or not. If I take up arms and kill, I know it is wrong for me, and if I stand by and refuse to interfere while helpless patients are slaughtered, I feel I am guilty there. My only solution is to avoid such a situation, if possible, by completely cutting myself off from the Armed Forces.

4. Although I have never formally presented the views stated herein, I have discussed them in detail with several individuals. I have discussed my views with my professor of Military Science of the ROTC department. I have discussed them with my [academic] advisor and his assistant here at Wheaton [College] also. In my speech class we have briefly exchanged views. And numerous times I have been glad to explain my views to them.

I feel (as expressed in #2) that the decision of one’s military service should be on an individual basis, and I feel that I have no responsibility to persuade others to adopt this opinion against their will. This is why I have never formally presented my views on war or service in the Armed Forces. However, if someone is not sure of their position, I will explain my position to him so that he may have a clearer idea of what stands he is deciding on. It is up to the individual’s conscience in deciding this matter, and I believe it should be settled with the individual and God alone.

Learning from Cuba, Part 2

What Has Become of the Revolution? By Steve Clemens. December 3, 2010

My friend Colin really liked an oil painting of Che Guevara that he saw in a little shop in the “Old Havana” part of the city. Che was one of the intellectual and military leaders of the revolution to overthrow the corrupt Batista regime in Cuba in the late 1950s. After his death in 1967 in Bolivia where he was trying to organize another revolution against another US-supported dictator, (both Batista and Hugo Banzer were trained at the US Army School of the Americas), he was accorded almost mythological status throughout Latin America but especially Cuba. Some say Che was more useful as a martyr for the movement than when he was alive. Anyway, today his image is a marketable commodity. His face adorns T-shirts, hats, postcards, coins, and posters.

There is no little irony in having two Americans barter with two Cubans over the cost of two paintings of Che. Colin had spotted another painting – larger and more colorful – a more impressionistic image with a hint of a twinkle in Che’s eyes. The artist and his grandfather wouldn’t budge off the $40 CUC price for it but were willing to drop from $20 to $15 for the smaller canvas; if we bought both, we could get them for $50.

As a seminary student, Colin’s budget was tighter than mine so I told him I’d pay $20 for the smaller so he could get the larger one for the $30 he could afford. A deal was struck and the artist and his family should be able to get some extra mileage out of the sale amounting to about $55. US. Viva la revolution – everyone seeks to profit off Che but does anyone still share the reasons for the revolution? As one oppressive system replaces the other, when will a real human liberation movement succeed?

Dependency on Tips

It was suggested to us by our government-hired tour leader that we tip our bus driver $10 CUC for his 4 partial days with us. Some of us suspected that Maggie was hoping for an even bigger “score” when she got her tip from us at the end of our stay. One delegation member observed that at $10 CUC each, given that our group was 18 persons strong, the $180 CUC would be well in excess of a year’s salary for most Cuban residents. Certainly many of us could afford it but is tipping like that a way to move forward or to create a new dependency? With most things being government-run and government-owned, I feel better paying our CUC pesos to the local Episcopalians for meals and staying in the church dorm rooms in Itabo and at the Cathedral.

First the Crowing of the Cock and Then the Clop, Clop, Clop.

[The small town of Itabo is almost 4 hours east of Havana. It is the town where Griselda Delgado served as priest for the small Episcopal Church of the Saint Virgin Mary for the past 20 years. Our visit was brief, just less than 24 hours but it gave us a taste of the community and a hearty appetite to return for more.]

The roosters in Itabo must have started, timidly at first, about 2 AM and then by 4 AM it wasn’t just those few extraverts, it must have been all their cousins as well. By 6 AM they were all in the chorus and I dragged myself out of bed realizing no more sleep was forthcoming. Soon the clopping of horse hooves on the pavement of the street in front of the Iglesia Episcopal de Santa Maria Virgen joined the morning’s music. We slept in the church’s dorm located behind the sanctuary and had a bracing cold water shower to bring me to full consciousness. By 7 AM, the hens and other chickens began clucking, a sound more pleasant than the raucous rooster screeches. I’m surprised the dogs in the neighborhood didn’t join in the singing – or the overly friendly church cat that had sidled up to us at supper.

The wonderful, friendly hospitality makes it quite evident that the parishioners treasure our visit. As a few of us sat around visiting and trying to understand one another (fortunately 4 of the 7 of us on this extended stay portion of our Cuba trip are somewhat proficient in Spanish), someone raises her glass filled with a fruit cocktail and offers a toast in Spanish. Another one follows and then another. So I add (in English) my toast: “End the embargo, ahora!” Everyone smiles and says, “Si, yes!”

This parish had “irregular” services for a period of 20 years and then no priest at all for another 4 years; we were told the church building itself was infested with bats, the roof leaked, and the place was mostly in disrepair when a new priest, a recent graduate from a Protestant seminary in Matanzas, Griselda Delgado, arrived in 1988. After replacing the roof, adding some additional buildings and rooms, and building a wall to enclose the back of the property to protect what is now a verdant garden with fruit trees and a variety of vegetables and herbs, the makeover is simply amazing. But this makeover was not the work of that one priest, now the newly consecrated Episcopal Bishop of Cuba, but of a partnership with several Episcopalian parishes in the US and tremendous work from the Itabo parishioners.

“Sy”, the hospitality coordinator of the Cathedral in Havana and Carlos, our bus driver, accompanied us on the four hour drive east from Havana, skirting the northern coast of Cuba for about half of the trip along with the Bishop and her husband. [What a wonderful sound to hear “and her husband” or “and her partner” added to any phrase describing church leadership today!] We stopped briefly at a rest area at the border between the provinces of Habana and Matanzas, one of the highest spots in Cuba for a wonderful look around. We also stopped briefly en route so the Bishop and her husband could see their grandchildren in two towns we were driving through. The second town/city was Cardenas, hometown of Elian Gonzales, the young boy taken to the US in the 1990’s by one parent and then returned to Cuba after a prolonged political storm of controversy in the US.

Now is the time for those storm clouds to lift. We need to restore diplomatic relations with our neighbors to the south and allow for a free exchange of ideas and goods, carefully – so the giant empire to the north doesn’t overwhelm but rather find ways to learn how to survive –and thrive- in a post-oil world. We have much to learn if we can humble ourselves and act as partners rather than as patrons and beneficiaries.

Learning from Cuba: Observations and Reflections of My Pilgrimage

Learning from Cuba: Observations and Reflections of My Pilgrimage by Steve Clemens. December 2010

[From November 27-December 4, 2010 I traveled (legally!) to Cuba as part of a 18 member delegation from St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis. We went to celebrate the installation of Griselda Delgado as the new Episcopalian Bishop of Cuba. As one of two non-Episcopalians on the trip, I felt thoroughly included and welcomed by both my fellow travelers and those we met in Cuba.]

Two weeks before leaving to fly to Havana, many of those traveling together met at the Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis to talk about plans for the trip. As part of that gathering, we received our plane tickets and a schedule of our itinerary. Included in that was an essay adapted from material from Paul Strickland entitled “Why Do Pilgrimage?” It encouraged us to travel not as tourists but rather as pilgrims on a transformative journey. Rather than go as observers, we were urged to “become pilgrims who come with searching hearts”.

Our trip gave me much “grist for the mill”, things to think about and ponder for a while. It is not “sound bite”-ready, nor is it likely to be. Our nation has a complicated (and mostly shameful) history with our island neighbor and decisions made by both governments over the years have squandered many opportunities for a healthy reconciliation. The experience was sobering yet celebratory. We have much to share with each other: it should not be a one-way street modeling the colonial past or the domination of empire present.

The Cuban experience since the collapse of the USSR in 1989 has left the island with some harsh economic realities but a resilient population. Like the Iraqis I met in Baghdad three months before our present war, the people I met who were ostensibly my “enemy” greeted me with warm hospitality, curiosity, and much enthusiasm. Both peoples have lived under repressive regimes yet still enjoyed benefits many within our dominant empire lack: access to free healthcare and education for all. Both societies, suffering under economic sanctions imposed by or at the bequest of our government, lacked affordable consumer goods that many of us take for granted. The assumption being that when the people hurt enough, they will rise up and overthrow their governments. It didn’t work in the 13 years before our invasion in Iraq; it has been tried for more than 50 years in Cuba, so far without “success”.

Here are a few stories I wrote during my first few days in country; hopefully more will come as I find time to process the events but I wanted to share some initial impressions soon after returning.

The “Old Man” and the Sea

There is a statute at the end of The Prado, a walkway umbrellaed with trees overhead that proceeds from near the Capitol building in Havana to the wall protecting the city from the ocean to the north. At the end of the walkway, looking out over the expanse of water ahead is a sculpture of marble and bronze. From a distance I assumed it referenced Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea but the front it tells me that it is dedicated to a poet/martyr, J.C. Zenea, and dated in 1871 while Cuba remained under colonial rule of Spain. Since Hemingway did much of his writing at a hotel nearby, maybe he was referencing this statute. As I cross the Malecon, the street parallel to the sea wall, I enter the area of the remains of one of the two forts that attempted to protect the entrance to Havana Bay and the harbors within.

After listening to a lone bagpipe player greeting the Sunday morning by playing tunes over the Florida Straits toward Key West, and watching a fisherman cast his line into the sea, a dark-skinned Afro-Cuban man greets me as I take photographs of the forts and surrounding vistas. He inquires, “Que pais?” asking what country am I from. (Many Cubans I encountered on the streets asked me if I were from Spain or Chile because they don’t expect to encounter many Americans because of our country’s travel restrictions.) When I respond that I am from the U.S., he asks what state and proceeds to tell me in English that is better than my Spanish that he once visited Des Moines.

He asked me to sit down with him on a nearby bench by the waterfront sea wall and tells me a slice of his life: he is 58 and helps take care of his 90 year-old father – the only family he has left. He works from 7 PM to 7 AM as a security guard at a local school – paid 2 Cuban pesos (worth about $0.15 U.S.) to guard the computers and other school equipment.

I could see the sadness in his eyes when I told him I was 60 and my own father was 89 – we were almost the same – but he said, “look at my wrinkled face compared to your smooth, young-looking face”. He did appear to be 10 years older than me. Life here is hard.

When I commiserated and denounced my own country’s embargo, he responded, “No, it is also the embargo that my own government sets up”. (Cuba’s government has strict limits on TV stations available and allows no access to the internet other than email. Certain other goods aren’t allowed in and prices are prohibitively expensive for many consumer goods, all blamed on the US embargo.) He shook his head and observed, “I don’t know if I’ll live to see the day of change here.” When I asked who would succeed the aging Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, when they die, he told me “nobody knows”. They’ve hung on to power without a clear succession plan that the people support.

What hath the revolution wrought? Many Americans rightly praise the Cuban ingenuity of keeping 1950s era automobiles running but much of “Habana” is crumbling from the lack of care for the infrastructure. Although not naming Fidel and Raul, this Cuban man felt the government was hoarding the resources for themselves and stifling other initiatives.

The high blood pressure he suffers from greatly restricts his diet and although he tells me he shouldn’t eat bread and pasta, he says he has only had bread and coffee for breakfast (it being the end of the month and his food ration long used up) and “soon it will be lunchtime”. It felt like it with the hot sun beating down on us although when I looked at my watch it was only 9:30.

Where is the investment in solar collectors? Clearly this “managed economy” has failed; is the rapacious capitalism I so often deplore and denounce the answer here?

He doesn’t ask but I hand this brother a $10. CUC note (worth about $11-12. US) and tell him to get some breakfast and to share it with his father. He had told me he was too old and not inclined to “hold a gun up to someone’s head” to get money to survive. “Besides, that’s not how I treat people”. But he is waiting, hoping that his countrymen and women will rise up and demand a government that can help lift them out of the grinding, urban poverty.

Returning from my walk, a teenage boy approaches me in the area in front of the Museum of the Revolution with his cart, broom, and two waste receptacles. He tells me his job is to clean up the park/walkway in front of the museum for which he is paid one Cuban peso a month. He is the only son of his mother with whom he lives. He asks if I can give him some money for food. I hand his a $3. CUC note and continue my walk.

Tuna For My Baby

I went into the small tienda/store looking to buy some bottled water in larger containers than our hotel carried. After spotting some (everything being behind the counter) and noticing a price sticker of $.70 CUC for the 2 liter bottle, I was approached by a 20-something Cuban young woman who asks me to buy her an ice cream treat from the locked freezer in front of me. After determining the price to be $1.55 CUC, I noticed that I had to get in line and wait my turn to make a purchase.

Waiting for the 4-5 customers ahead of me, my new “friend” points to a can of condensed milk in the display case and then pats her protruding belly and says, “You buy this for my baby”. I make no answer of committal and when the cashier approaches us for our turn to buy, she quickly points to the condensed milk and asks for 3 cans and then points to a huge can of tuna fish and asks the clerk for that. I quickly told her “no” but the clerk removed the price sticker and took one of the cans of milk over to her register and began ringing it up. I had no time to tell her I just wanted to purchase the bottled water.

When the clerk tells me the total price (which I didn’t understand with my limited Spanish), I told her I wanted “dos aguas grande” and she added that to the bill. She handed me her calculator that read “$13.75” so I fortunately had a $20. CUC note with which to pay. As I got my change, an older woman carrying a one-year-old child behind me taps me on the shoulder asking for “leche por mi hijo” – milk for my son – but my shopping adventure was finished for now. I asked for a plastic bag to carry my water, the expectant mother having already disappeared with her milk and tuna, leaving me with the thought that I hoped doctors’ warnings about too much tuna during pregnancy (due to mercury contamination) was less risky than the lack of protein.

An Encounter of a Different Kind

Colin, a third-year student at the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, VA asked if he could accompany me on another foray into central Havana, the area near our hotel, a former hotel/casino during the mafia-run days of Cuba under Batista before the success of the revolution was assured with Batista’s fleeing on New Years Day of 1959. I had told him of my earlier walk down The Prado to the sea wall and back while he was studying prior to his ordination exam that will occur later this spring. We walked near the Capitol building and took photos of the 1950s era cars and then continued down a narrow alley/street that was now bustling with people. Right away a couple with their school-aged son approached us asking where we were from, probably overhearing our conversation in English. The father added that he had visited New Jersey. Colin tells him “Washington, DC” and the man recognizes that but looks puzzled when I say Minnesota. Mentioning Minneapolis brings no more recognition but when I add “close to Chicago”, he lights up in recognition.

He tells us “Welcome to Cuba. This is a special festival day – Do you like beisbol?” [Our tour guide on the bus ride from the airport the day before had told us the baseball season officially opened on Sunday as we drove by the stadium for the Havana team.] He wants to tells us about it and shepherds us into a small bar down the alley where only the bar maid is present and tells us to have a seat. He asks Colin in Spanish if we can get some “refreshments” and Colin agrees. The barmaid quickly making 5 drinks and I quickly stop her before she adds rum into my drink.

So Colin’s and our new friend’s mojitos have rum, the other 3 do not. They want to talk to us about our impressions of Cuba, telling us that everything is good for them here – except they don’t get enough food. They blame the US embargo as the source of their troubles unlike my first encounter by the sea where the Cuban “government” was the main culprit.

We got the bill for our “education” – it was $25 CUC (about $30. US). I figure it is the government’s way to gain income since it owns virtually all the restaurants, stores, and bars in the nation. Do “tips” go to the wait staff or does the government take those as well? I paid the bill and started to leave. Although this man told us he worked at the nearby government-run hospital as a radiologist and his wife worked as a schoolteacher, he asked Colin to give him $20. CUC “for food”. Colin was rather surprised and came up with $10. so he turns to me to ask for more. I decline and we both left the bar asking ourselves if all encounters we will have with the locals will be on this basis. I try to avoid eye contact as we leave the area and return to the now-bustling Prado where artists are displaying their wares, hoping for a sale.

Our hotel is nearby and we return to our rooms to change clothes and get ready for the installation ceremony of the new bishop- not knowing then that it would run 3 hours in the very crowded Cathedral – but joyous nevertheless.

The Private-Public Conundrum

Our Cuban guide took us to a “private” family-owned restaurant for our supper on Monday evening. Located on the second floor of a building which was ostensibly their residence, I noticed the fancy woodwork design as we climbed the stairs. Named “La Gardenita” or Little Farmer, the d├ęcor of this restaurant and ambiance were noticeably different and the wait staff extremely welcoming and friendly in their cowboy hats and plunging necklines. The menu was impressive and the food presentation and quality was excellent.

Unlike the government-owned and run restaurants, this “palador” was an outgrowth of some limited private enterprise now allowed by the government since the Soviet largess dried up after the collapse of many communist economies and governments in 1989. I am a strong supporter of government programs for education, healthcare, social security, and a safety net for the poor – all of which Cuba seems to do better than the US – but it appears to me that there seems to allow little incentive in their economy for this kind of initiative. It was refreshing but it also caused me to wonder how far to let it progress lest it fester into the incredible gaps between the rich and the poor so evident in the US today. Tonight was a powerful argument in favor of a mixed economy that also allows room for private initiative and resourcefulness.

Jaded as we Americans often are, some of us wondered if “Maggie” our tour guide got a kickback from the restaurant for bringing in 18 customers. We are told “there is very little corruption here in Cuba” but one must wonder about the temptation when government wages are so low and consumer goods are rare and expensive.

Meeting With the “Obispa”

There is no word in proper Spanish for a woman bishop of the church - the language being so traditionally linked to an exclusive male-dominated hierarchy which continues today in the Roman Catholic Church. (A practice, I suspect, which leads many would-be Catholics to become Episcopalians!) Some argue that newly installed Bishop Griselda should be referred to as La Obispo, using the feminine pronoun with the masculine noun. Doug and his Catholic priest friend Gilberto, from the St. Vincent DePaul Order in Mississippi who has been living in Havana for seven years, discussed this back and forth after one of members of Gilberto's parish, a copy editor said it is incorrect. Doug triumphantly pointing out to his friend the Order of Worship program passed out at the service with the title: La Obispa. As old prejudices slowly die (too slowly for some of us), so too must the language change.

I could see the surprise on the taxi driver’s face on the return ride from the Cathedral as Susan explained to him where we had been (installing a woman bishop in the church!) – and then told him that she, too, was a priest – “sacerdote” – and her bishop (this time a male, Brian Prior, Bishop of Minnesota) was seated in the taxi directly behind her! The driver seemed to accept this in stride; after all, being under a secular and, some might say, an anti-religious government since 1959 has already changed many of the attitudes of younger generations. (It is said that more than 70% of today’s Cuban population has only known the government under “the revolution”, having been born after January 1, 1959.)

We met in the Bishop’s residence next to the Cathedral two days after her installation for two hours. With the retired Suffragan Bishop, Ulysses, translating, Bishop Griselda talked about her desire to help her parishes to become self-sustaining. She wants her parishioners to come up with the plans for what they would like to do (agriculture/gardens, cattle or chickens, crafts, …) and then she will work to train the priests to help the congregations implement that dream.

The Minnesotan Episcopalians want to “walk alongside” their Cubano sisters and brothers, assisting where needed. Do they need computers? If so, is there IT help when needed when the computer laptop crashes? Is there enough infrastructure in the far away eastern end of the island for good internet/broadband service? (We learned later that the government doesn’t allow Cubans to surf the net, just get email – and often without any attachments.)

The bishop explains one of her priorities is getting money to pay for transporting priests and key laypersons to a central gathering place to learn from each other. Santiago de Cuba, a parish on the eastern end of the island is a 14-hour bus ride from the capital city although only a one-hour plane ride which costs considerably more.
Should the folks at St. Mark’s in Minneapolis try to raise the $8-15,000 CUCs it would take to buy a car for the bishop to use – if they could find one in Cuba for a fair price? Many of the newer cars on the street are made in China, Korea, or Europe. Most of the buses in Havana are made in China we have been told.

If only there was the political will and courage in the US to lift the damn embargo! The Cuban people we meet are warm and hospitable – they are not our adversaries. Why can’t the political elites left the people enjoy the ability to share with each other across the boundaries of nation and language? This is clearly a peacemaking and justice issue to add to an already long list that our leaders must confront – and soon!