From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Legal fund for Elian's father shifts to NCC

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 25 Apr 2000 13:20:42

April 25, 2000  News media contact: Joretta Purdue ·(202)
546-8722·Washington     10-21-32-71B{223}

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - A legal fund established for the father of 6-year-old
Elian Gonzalez -- and supported only by voluntary contributions -- has been
transferred from the United Methodist agency that created it.

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC) assumed
responsibility for administering the fund on April 19. The executive
committee of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society had created
the Humanitarian Advocacy Fund about six weeks earlier.

With the transfer, the fund has been renamed. Contributions are now going to
the "NCCC, Gonzalez Fund" at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. Money already
received by the board will be transferred to the account.

The Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, staff head of the United Methodist board,
said that the change came about in response to concerns expressed by the
denomination's finance agency. He said the finance agency had indicated that
the board is not allowed to raise money without pursuing certain steps
outlined in the Book of Discipline, which contains rules of the church.

"This is not an appeal to the (United Methodist) church. This is not an
appeal we've made to anybody. It's a passive fund" for voluntary
contributions, Fassett said.

For this reason, he does not believe the rule in question pertained to the
legal fund. He said he believes it applies only to money raised from within
the church, which is not the case with this fund. The executive committee
felt it could simply accept funds from those who wished to help bring about
the reunion of father and child, he added.

Fassett said that the board has honored the opinion of the finance agency
and has arranged with the NCC to receive the money through a lockbox
arrangement at the bank. He and the board still believe in the justice of
providing Elian's father with U.S. legal representation, and they still
encourage voluntary contributions, he said.

"We're still the primary agents in the process that has taken place to break
the impasse in this international incident." They did this, he said, by
starting the chain of events that brought Juan Miguel to the United States
to receive his child. 

Elian has been in the United States since last November, when he was rescued
from a capsized boat off the coast of Florida. His mother and several others
drowned in the accident, which occurred as they were fleeing Cuba.

Shortly after the rescue, the Cuban Council of Churches contacted the NCC to
help reunite the child with his father, who remained in Cuba. The Methodist
church in Cuba also contacted its counterpart in the United States. In
February, Fassett and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former head of the NCC
staff, accompanied by lawyer Gregory Craig, went to Cuba to determine
whether Elian's father was free to accept an offer of legal help without
interference from the Cuban government.

Elian had been staying with relatives in Miami since his rescue. After the
father came to the United States, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno tried
unsuccessfully to negotiate the hand-over of the boy from the relatives.
Finally, on the morning of April 22, federal agents forcibly entered the
home of the relatives and removed Elian, reuniting him with his father.
Father and son remain in the United States, however, pending the resolution
of legal issues.

 "The raising of the funds was a way of enabling Juan Miguel's engagement of
a lawyer so that he could have equal representation under the law, which is
the hallmark of our democracy," Fassett asserted. "When it works, our
democracy allows equal treatment under the law, and Juan Miguel was not
receiving equal treatment under the law."

Fassett said a little more than $50,000 has gone into the fund to pay Juan
Miguel's legal expenses in the United States. The goal from the beginning
has been to raise $50,000 to $100,000 for this purpose, and that range
continues to be the board's goal, he said.

"Whatever it is that we can raise will be far, far short of the actual
costs," he said. "We have only said that we will do what we can do."

Fassett said that the expense has probably already far exceeded the amount
given, but lawyer Craig and the Williams and Connolly law firm knew they
could not expect more than the voluntary contributions produced.

"The funds have come in from all kinds of people, an unbelievable variety of
people," Fassett said. Those include church members who are passionately
concerned about this issue from a moral point of view and Cuban Americans
from Boston to Miami who view this as a critical justice issue.

Many of the contributions from Cuban Americans have been done carefully
because so many of them are fearful of reprisals from the Miami
organization, he said.

"We have no obligation to make known the donors," Fassett declared. "We are
protecting the donors because they fear that retribution might be taken
against them. Furthermore, the church has, for years, fought legislation on
Capitol Hill that would require churches to turn over their membership rolls
for the government to investigate." He said opposition to such legislation
has prevented its passage.

The Gonzalez case is important as a moral, ethical and humanitarian case,
Fassett said. For Christians, it is clearly a Christian case, he added. "We
are not interested in the politics of the case. We understand how explosive
the politics of the case are, but that's not something we can be preoccupied

He said he wanted to end the wild allegations that President Clinton is
somehow involved with the fund, or that Craig is being paid by Cuban
President Fidel Castro through a fund that the board has established. Those
allegations are not true he said, but "I suppose the conspiracy theorists
out there are willing to believe almost anything."

"Our principal goal was to get Elian back to his father. We have been
misquoted and maligned by people saying that our effort was to get Elian
back to Cuba, and that is not our interest. It is not our goal," Fassett
said. The way in which the child was transferred by the INS was
"regrettable" but out of the church's hands, he said. 

 "Our goal is simply to return the child to his father, and the genius of
democracy, when it works, is that Juan Miguel Gonzalez can decide what he
wants to do. He's in the United States; he can stay here or he can go back.
In a democracy, people have a right to choose."

Fassett said he has learned through this controversy that many of the United
Methodists who are calling the board do not know their own church beyond
their congregation. Their comments reveal that the vast majority of the
people who are calling are totally unaware of their church's structures and
its policies and how they are made by the quadrennial General Conference,
its highest legislative body, he said.

"They don't know about the church's emphasis on children, and they don't
know the family values issues that are espoused by the United Methodist
Church and the various resolutions and Social Principles that support that,"
he said. "It's an incredible thing!"

People also do not know that churches are worshiping and growing in Cuba,
Fassett averred. "They have no idea that the Methodist church in Cuba is one
of the fastest-growing Protestant churches in Cuba. They have no idea that I
have been personally negotiating with Fidel Castro on the principles of
religious practice in Cuba" and other issues ranging from church structure
and house churches to human rights and political prisoners. 

"We have been negotiating with Fidel for religious tolerance, and he has
been acceding to some of our wishes. We negotiated the huge Cuba-wide
evangelical gathering that took place last summer in Havana," Fassett said.
At that gathering, he added, Castro came through with a promise, negotiated
two years earlier, to open up the government-owned broadcasting system to
religious broadcasts. 

Fassett said that people do not know there are worshiping congregations in
Cuba. He added that he has preached in the cities and in rural areas and
spoken to church groups there. "People in the United States generally have
no idea that this is true." And he said, there are people of faith in Cuba
who have chosen to stay there and work to improve the situation.

At the same time, he said, he has great respect for the people who fled Cuba
and gave up so much there and for the pain and suffering they have

However, he said that there is a tightly orchestrated effort by a wealthy
group of people who are feeding lies into the Miami community, and those
untruths are repeated in the media. Fassett said those lies include
assertions that Castro is calling the shots or that Castro is funding Juan
Miguel's lawyer. 

"There is not a thing they are saying that has a modicum of truth," Fassett
declared. And, he added, those people have great political power - enough to
intimidate political candidates and elect members of Congress who will speak
for their agenda.

"We have to do, and have done, what we felt is the most moral and ethical
thing in the context of our own faith," Fassett said. "As a body of the
church, our involvement is at once entirely voluntary and entirely a
necessary response to our call to be instruments of justice and care in the
larger world.

"We do not and should not in this country decide matters of justice based on
opinion polls," Fassett said. "It is ironic that those who would condemn
Fidel Castro for denying Cubans their freedom to choose would deny Juan
Miguel Gonzalez his freedom to choose if that choice is to return to Cuba."

# # #

Editor's note: Queries about the fund's address and similar details should
be directed to the United Methodist Board of Church and Society at (202)

United Methodist News Service
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