Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Lebold Dinner

Last night I attended a fund raising dinner a Conrad Grebel University College. The speaker was Jack Suderman, General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada. He spoke on identity and leadership formation. One of the more intriguing moments in his speech was his experience in the 1980s of being part of a small group to have a personal meeting with Fidel Castro. Here are some of the excerpts,

We talked about a lot of things. He asked us what we had seen in Cuba and what our impressions were. He talked about his passion to provide health services to Cubans, and make sure that education was freely available to all. He talked about providing shelter for the homeless and more equality for the poor. He talked about the achievements of the revolution and compared conditions to the pre-revolution Batista times. And we indicated that we had seen fruit of these efforts, and that we were there to learn more. And he began to talk about the church, and about the Christian faith. He said that Christians are good and spiritual people, and he joked that we were surely concerned about getting to heaven. And he said: “You know, I think I should get to heaven too. From what you’ve seen about how we have helped the poor, do you think there’s room for me in heaven?”

And he held up a copy of a brand new biography of him that had just come out that week. And he pointed to page 29, and he said: “This biographer says here that the Cuban revolution was inspired by Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto. You know, that’s wrong. It was not inspired by Marx. The Cuban revolution was inspired by a carpenter from Nazareth who went up on a mountain to teach. And it was inspired by the sermon from that mountain.”
And he talked to us about his education in the Jesuit schools. And about how excited he was to learn about Jesus and his teachings, something he never had heard in church. And he asked his teachers how come he could never hear this in the Latin mass; and why they were not told what Jesus taught and how he lived. And he talked about how badly he wanted to know this Jesus better, and how excited he was about what little that was available to him. And then he made a statement that continues to be seared into my memory. Shaking his finger in his characteristic way, he said: “Remember that the Cuban revolution was in 1959; three years before the beginning of Vatican II. If the Catholic Church in Cuba in 1959 would have been like the Catholic Church in Nicaragua in 1980, there never would have been a Cuban revolution of the kind we know. But the church wasn’t doing what it was designed for, and so someone had to.”

Suderman continues that his sadness is seeing how the church failed to engage such zealous enthusiasm and wonders how it is that we can be doing the same without the institutional restrictions of something like pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

Suderman challenged us to pursue ecclesial identity and stir up imagination which believes that perhaps God's Kingdom is among us.

It was good night.

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