a public confession
A few weeks ago, I learned that one of my classmates, Alex, had brought with her to Cuba a suitcase full of toothbrushes and toothpaste. She was instructed by her father to drop these supplies off at Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada de la Habana, First Presbyterian Reformed Church of Havana – a sizable urban community nestled just outside of central Havana’s Chinatown district, barrio chino.
Several years ago, Alex’s dad traveled to this church with members of his own congregation, Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago. Here, he spent time building relationships, doing mission work, and otherwise supporting his congregation’s partner church however he could. The people he met here and the experiences he came away with were truly life changing. The way he talked about this vibrant, inspiring community in the midst of this alluring, closed country was a large part of why Alex decided to apply for this trip. Because she knew that I am a Christian, and that I like visiting new churches, she asked if I would be willing to accompany her to First Presbyterian.
So on Saturday evening, Alex and I found ourselves attending First Presbyterian’s weekly youth service, uno más para Cristo. There, young members of the congregation (pre-teens, adolescents, young professionals) put on a beautiful evangelistic service, showcasing their musical, creative, and homiletical talents in an authentic display of communal worship.
There were around fifty people in attendance, and we sang and prayed and heard convicting scripture and a powerful sermon delivered by a passionate young medical student (I believe she preached on 1 Timothy). However, my favorite part of the evening really surprised me – the liturgical, public reaffirmation of faith.
I’ve copied the text of the creed below:
Reafirmación de fe
Creo en Dios, que es amor, y ha dado la tierra
a todos los seres humanos
Creo en Jesucristo que vino a salvarnos
y liberarnos de todas las formas de opresión
Creo en el Espiritu Santo, que obra en todos
los que defienden la verdad y a través de ellos
Creo en la comunidad de fe, que está llamada a ponerse al servicio
de todos los seres humanos
Creo en la promesa de Dios de que finalmente
destruirá el poder del pecado que mora en nosotros,
y que establecerá el reino de la justicia y de la paz
para toda la humanidad
In English, I believe the affirmation reads something like this:
I believe in God, who is love, and who has given the earth
to all human beings
I believe in Jesus Christ, who came to save us
and liberate us from all forms of oppression
I believe in the Holy Spirit, who works in and on behalf of
all those that defend the truth
I believe in the community of faith, and its call to commit itself
to the service of all human beings
I believe in the promise of God – that in the end
God will destroy the power of sin that dwells within us,
and will establish the kingdom of justice and peace
for all of humanity
I must confess – participating in a public confession of faith is something I have done for years, but the practice has never really resonated with me in any formative, substantial way. Growing up, I attended evangelical and Roman Catholic churches (on rotation) every week. As a child of divorce, each Sunday I heard many different confessions and creeds (the Nicene and Apostle’s surely among them) said aloud, and I faithfully intoned along with each of them. But while I have always agreed with the general ideas and thoughts being expressed in these declarations, mechanically repeating the same complicated, precise words always seemed (to me) to be more rote exercise than spiritual practice.
But as we corporately read this reafirmación de fe aloud, it became to me somehow more than just a dissonant grouping of sounds, more than just rote repetition or the simple friction of vibrating vocal chords. We gathered together, breathing and speaking our religion aloud, as a group of fellow human beings. It was heavy, doc. And for the first time in living memory, I said a creed and believed each word in it not only with my mind, but also with my heart, my strength, my soul…with the very way I want to exist in this world.
Only later did I realize why I must have resonated with this creed so deeply – it makes healthy, orthodox Christianity accessible to both the Evangelical and the Roman Catholic halves of my upbringing (and these two faith traditions have sometimes complemented each other, and sometimes competed powerfully for my allegiance). This confession is wide and generous. There is no unnecessary doctrinal posturing here, no sacrifice of unity, no abject exclusion of those who can’t hold to one specific tradition.
What we have here is basically the Bible in a paragraph: God is love, created humans, our earth; Jesus Christ is savior, liberates from oppression; Holy Spirit is alive, works in all who love God; God’s people should serve, heal humanity; God will destroy sin, death, establish a kingdom of peace, justice for all. It’s a basic, concise reaffirmation of faith that can be held by nearly everyone who identifies with Christianity, in all its liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, ancient and contemporary manifestations.
You know, it really does make good sense that Cuba (of all places) is where I would find a creed as ecumenical, as inclusive, as life giving as this one. At least partially because of the unique political system here (the complicated relationship between religion and regime) churches of different denominations are often forced to cooperate in inventive, cohesive ways in order to accomplish their mutual goals. While I’ve seen comparatively little of this back in the United States, here Pentecostal, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical churches regularly labor, serve, pray, and worship together in impressive solidarity.
Though practical disagreements on praxis and belief naturally persist, the core principles of historic Christianity – the fatherhood of God, the solidarity of Christ, the charisma of the Holy Spirit, the brotherhood of men – these are all valued here, and celebrated publicly by extraordinarily diverse communities of Jesus people.
The confession we read at First Presbyterian in centro Havana is but one of many ways that these universal truths are celebrated by Cuban Christians of every stripe. It gave me hope, too, that even those of us who have been striped black and blue from our caustic experiences in certain communities of faith can find a safe space somewhere within Christianity.
Yes, I’ve gone through a lot of shit related to Christianity over these past few years, and yes, certainly my religious views – my understanding of God and the Bible – it’s all changed significantly. But at the same time, apparently I’ve retained enough of my religious identity that I can still be taken for an insider; I can still walk into an unknown church in a foreign country and, miraculously, find real acceptance and public affirmation in the name of Jesus Christ.
This leaves me hoping for the first time in a long time that maybe someday I’ll have what I used to…that I can be clean again and naïve again and feel entirely at home in a church once more. I’m left only now starting to believe Jesus was telling the truth when he insisted that “in my Father’s house are many rooms.”
But at the same time, I can’t help but understanding that I’ll never have what I had before. I’ll never believe the things I used to believe, I’ll never be part of a community of faith like the one I was forced to leave. I’ll never forget, never resurrect, never be unbroken.
But, of course, I also publicly confess a faith that runs directly in contrast to my latent cynicism. I confess faith in a God who has a reputation for breathing new life into dead and dying things.
What’s more, I also believe in Jesus Christ, who came to save and liberate us from all forms of oppression. In a God who created this earth and will not abandon it. In the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in this world. I remember the promise of God – that in the end, sin and death will be destroyed, that God will establish a kingdom of justice and peace on earth.
In light of all of this, maybe I simply have to remain hopeful that…what’s that old C.S. Lewis line? There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind?
I guess I still have to believe that.
This is why, despite my strongest reservations, a church has once again left me feeling young and on fire.