From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Cuban-American church members angry over legal fund

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 26 Apr 2000 13:31:00

April 26, 2000  News media contact: Joretta Purdue ·(202)
546-8722·Washington     10-21-32-71B{226}

By Michael Wacht*

MIAMI  (UMNS) - Members of the United Methodist Church in Florida are as
divided as the U.S. public at large over whether 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez
should be returned to Cuba.

According to a public opinion poll by Rasmussen Research, 55 percent of
Americans believe Elian should be returned; 29 percent say he should stay in
the United States. 

The debate was made more emotional for members of the Florida Annual
(regional) Conference by the churchwide Board of Church and Society's recent
decision to collect funds to provide legal services for the boy's father.
"The fund is established specifically to receive voluntary contributions
from those who wish to support the legal representation of Juan Miguel
Gonzalez," said the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, who heads the board staff.
No United Methodist Church dollars are being used, he emphasized.
The fund's purpose is to funnel donations that will provide "fair and equal
treatment for the father of Elian Gonzalez" in the United States courts,
Fassett said. 

Administration of the fund was shifted to the National Council of Churches,
effective April 19.
Although the fund has sparked protests and debate among United Methodists
nationwide, the impact of the decision has been felt more keenly in the
Miami District because of the area's large Cuban-American population.
The Rev. Daniel Pelay, pastor of Miami's Coral Way United Methodist Church,
said members of his church are "very upset" over the decision and object to
people using the United Methodist Church's name to address controversial and
political situations. They are angered because no one "asked our
Hispanic-American community in Miami what they, especially the Cubans, are
feeling about this."
Miami District Superintendent Clarke Campbell-Evans said most people are
upset that there was no prior conversation between the board and the
community. "The consensus feeling is tremendous anger over our Board of
Church and Society ignoring their voice about an issue that has affected
them for more than 40 years." 
Pelay said he is afraid the controversy will cause his and other United
Methodist churches to lose members. Citing membership declines and the
conference's 1999 $1 million budget deficit, Pelay said the church should
focus on its purpose: "to proclaim the evangelistic message of Jesus
In a statement released April 7, Florida Conference Bishop Cornelius L.
Henderson expressed concern over the events surrounding the boy and the pain
felt by the Miami community. 
Calling the situation a "time of trial," Henderson invited conference
pastors and laity to join him in prayer for the clergy and laity of the
Miami District and the Florida Conference, the Gonzalez family in Miami and
Cuba, and "those in positions of decision-making regarding this case." 
Nelida Morales, a native Cuban and lay leader of the Miami District,
disagrees with the board's actions, but said she believes Fassett acted in
good faith and is probably not familiar with "the depth of the sad drama and
the suffering of the Cuban people."
Campbell-Evans has spoken to Fassett "to share the pain and anger being
experienced in the Miami community," and to invite him to Miami for a
face-to-face dialogue with the area's pastors who are "on the front line,
defending the church with no previous consultation before they were placed
Campbell-Evans said Fassett has promised that he and a member of the board's
executive committee would visit Miami after General Conference. The
legislative gathering meets May 2-12 in Cleveland.
In a written statement, Morales said she believes the boy should be with his
father in the absence of his mother. However, citing the "miraculous rescue
of this new Moses," the sacrifice of his mother and the realities of his
life in communist Cuba, she said United Methodists should pray and hope for
the miracle of Elian living permanently in the "free territory of the United
Although others in Florida's Cuban community are reluctant to comment
publicly for fear of reprisals against family members still in Cuba, several
Cuban-American United Methodist pastors have expressed their desire to see
Elian remain in the United States.
"I believe it would be better for him to stay, even though I know his father
has the right to have him back," said the Rev. Antonio Fernandez, pastor of
Hispanic American United Methodist Church in Hialeah. 
The lack of freedom Elian would have growing up would make him a prisoner in
Cuba, Fernandez said, adding that it all "depends on what you call a
prison." He said a person could feel imprisoned "if you're in a country
where you're not able to make your own decisions ... to say, 'I want to be a
doctor, mathematician, engineer,' and you're not allowed to go to the
university and have a career if you're not a member of the communist group."
Fernandez says Cuban President Fidel Castro's stand on family values is
inconsistent. Although Castro wants the 6-year-old returned to his father,
Castro's government did not allow Rafael del Pino's son to leave Cuba after
the Cuban air force general defected to the United States. Orlando "El
Duque" Hernandez, the Cuban baseball pitcher who now plays for the New York
Yankees, is in the same situation, Fernandez said.

Elian has been in the United States since November, when he was rescued
while holding onto an inner tube off the Florida coast. He and his mother
were fleeing Cuba when their boat capsized, drowning his mother and several
other refugees. Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to the United States and was
reunited with his son April 22. Federal agents had forcibly removed the
child from the home of relatives in Miami, who had balked at giving him up.
Father and son are still in the United States pending the outcome of legal
The Rev. Reinaldo Toledo, a retired Cuban-American clergyman, says the
attention on Elian is becoming "ridiculous." 
He said Castro is saying Elian is one of three heroes in the history of Cuba
and that the Cuban government has spent $2 million to build a park dedicated
to the boy across from United States diplomatic interests in Cuba.

# # #

*Wacht is the assistant editor of the Florida Annual Conference's edition of
the United Methodist Review.

United Methodist News Service
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