By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, June 19, 2018 — Gail Walker, executive director of the international humanitarian organization “Pastors for Peace,” had the same thought I did last week when we all watched in amazement as the United States dramatically ended its decades-old isolation of North Korea.
My goodness, could that happen with Cuba, too?
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there could be a switch in attitude (toward Cuba)?” said Walker, 58, who was speaking by phone from her office in New York City. She is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable persons in the U.S. about Cuba, having made “hundreds of trips” there since her first one in 1992 — generally for conferences, social action and/or cultural exchanges.
I was interviewing her because she is the speaker at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 25, at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines for an organization that I’m involved in, Plymouth’s “Cuba Partnership Team.” Our group is co-sponsoring Walker’s appearance with Plymouth’s Peace Committee. The program is free and open to the public.
Gail Walker, internationally-known leader of “Pastors for Peace” remains “generally hopeful” of a new era of positive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
My wife Carla Offenburger is a Plymouth Church member, and I’m a Catholic groupie there. Two years ago, when we learned that the Cuba Partnership Team was organizing another delegation of Plymouth folks to go on a religious and cultural exchange to Cuba, we jumped at the chance. Our 10-day trip was in late March and early April of 2017.
This Cuba Partnership Team is now committed to growing a meaningful “sister church” relationship with Ebenezer Baptist Church, where we stayed in Havana. Equally important to most of us on the team here is promoting education and new understanding about Cuba with Americans, in hopes there can be a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations with free trade, open travel, open minds and mutual respect.
Walker says change in U.S. policy toward Cuba probably will not come as quickly as it has toward North Korea.
“If real change happens, we’re going to have to end the U.S. embargo that’s been in place for 60 years,” she said, “and that will require Congress to act.”
But policy and diplomacy do seem to turn on a dime in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
One year ago right now, he was stopping the efforts toward normalization of relations with Cuba that his predecessor President Barack Obama had initiated in 2015. Remember, it was about that same time when Trump was mocking North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to bring him down. And now look where we are.
In the meantime, Cuba has a new leader, President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 58, who took office in late April after 60 years of leadership by the Castro brothers — first Fidel, later Raul — who stayed in charge well into their 80s.
Cuba’s new leader, President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
Walker shared some other attention-grabbing results from the recent Cuban election. Of the 605 members elected to the National Assembly, she pointed out that 338 were elected for the first time. There are many more younger people than in the previous assembly; in fact, 80 members are between the ages of 18 and 35. And 53 percent of the new assembly members are women, which Walker said is the “second highest representation in the world” of women in a national assembly, parliament or congress. Of five vice-presidents elected with Diaz-Canel, three are women and two of them are black women.
That would seem to me to be a national government ready to make change, if a good opportunity comes.
“I hope we can get back on track eventually,” Walker said, of better U.S. relations with Cuba. “Unfortunately, the way the Trump administration seems to operate, it’s ‘our way or the highway.’ The U.S. has attempted to manipulate and control Cuba for decades, and we’ve seen that there are certain things Cubans won’t tolerate. But their response generally is, ‘We’ll talk about anything. It just has to be with respect.’ Maybe we’ll have to have a new president in the U.S., a new administration, or maybe some opportunity will come up sooner.
“We are continuing to do the education necessary to help people understand the Cuban reality,” she continued. “There’s so much misinformation out there. There’s been a lot of vitriolic hysteria. The U.S. has been so obsessive about Cuba for decades. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there could be a switch in attitude?”
Walker said she continues to be “generally hopeful” for better relations with Cuba, especially when she is reminded that most agricultural and business interests across the U.S. are in favor of ending the embargo and normalizing trade and travel. Ditto for major U.S. church denominations, including the United Church of Christ, of which Plymouth Congregational in Des Moines is a large and influential member.
Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food, tools and other supplies for its 11.2 million people. The nation needs help in providing new internet service and other technology of today. Currently U.S. firms are cut off from that market.
If normalization would happen, the U.S. would probably be a major importer of Cuba’s fresh fruits and vegetables, sugar and coffee. And Americans would have access to Cuba’s medical services, which are said to be among the best in the world, especially in the treatment of cancer. If travel by Americans were unrestricted, or at least less restricted, tourism to that country would provide resources to rebuild and sustain the whole Cuban economy.
Until then, Walker’s “Pastors for Peace” program will continue its work of three decades, lobbying for change in both countries, educating both publics, and delivering humanitarian aid in “friendshipment caravans” to Cuba.
Their story is an inspiring one.
One of the old school buses in Cuba, once used for Pastors for Peace “friendshipment caravans” to deliver aid, now used to shuttle people, this one in Havana.
In the 1960s, a young Baptist minister Rev. Lucius Walker — the father of Gail Walker — was astonished at how little action mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish denominations in America were taking, to go along with all their talk about social justice. He was one of the founders and the early executive director of a new organization, the Interreligioius Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), which pushed churches to join in and fund efforts to make social change in America and beyond. They began sponsoring delegations to visit troubled nations in Latin America.
On Aug. 2, 1988, one of those delegations — led by Rev. Walker and his daughter Gail, then a 28-year-old journalist — were on a riverboat in Nicaragua when it came under a gunfire attack by “Contra Rebels.” Two Nicaraguans on the board were killed, and Rev. Walker and several other passengers were wounded. The Contra Rebels were backed then by the U.S. government, which was seeking regime change in the Nicaraguan government. Rev. Walker subsequently told reporters he “felt like I took a bullet from my own government.”
That attack changed a lot of lives.
“As a little girl, I was accustomed to both my parents’ activism for social justice,” said Gail Walker, who grew up in Wisconsin and New Jersey. “They were involved in a lot of marches, protests and were sometimes arrested. They sometimes put their lives on the line.
“But what happened that day in Nicaragua was a different level. It was a melee. It was frantic. Yet, my dad stayed calm, gathered some of us and said, ‘O,K., here is what we have to do’ to take care of the people who’d been killed or wounded. That’s when I looked down and saw a big hole in his pants, and I said to him, ‘You ripped your pants!’ He said, ‘No, that’s where the bullet hit me,’ and I remember screaming. Your first thought then is how bad he was hurt. But then when I calmed down and realized it was not a mortal wound, I had this instant feeling of anger, but you know, a big feeling of pride, too. I was proud of my father’s commitment and determination to change things.”
Once everyone was safe, Gail Walker asked her father what he was going to do next, and his answer was, “I’m going to pray on it.”
That continued for some time, and then Rev. Lucius Walker said the answer had come to him. He would start a new organization “Pastors for Peace,” one which would organize “caravans” to troubled places, directly delivering medicine, food and other supplies to people who desperately needed it — whether the governments in those places were receptive or not.
The late Rev. Lucius Walker, speaking in Cuba.
In their later years, Rev. Walker, who died in 2010, and Fidel Castro, who died in 2016.
Pastors for Peace has been doing that ever since. They became identified with old yellow school buses, which they’d buy at bargain prices in the U.S. and then generally drive into Mexico or other Latin American nations. When they were carrying missionaries and supplies destined for Cuba, they’d get the buses on ships from ports in Mexico or other countries. Those buses are still seen all over Cuba.
Rev, Lucius Walker died in 2010 at age 80. A year later, Gail Walker took over as executive director of both IFCO, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Pastors for Peace.
Her trip to Des Moines, and speech Monday evening at Plymouth Church, is part of advance work for the 29th Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba, which is scheduled July 16-18. The 39 members of the delegation — most of them are Americans — will assemble in Toronto, Canada, for orientation, then spend 10 days in the Santiago and Guantanamo provinces. The caravans now are generally by airplane, Walker noted, “and the actual aid we deliver is symbolic, because we could never carry enough to make a real difference.” But the education and advocacy that results are very real.
Plymouth Church’s Cuba Partnership Team and Peace Committee are both making financial contributions to Pastors for Peace, and donations from the public will be accepted at the Monday program.
Walker will take questions from the audience after her speech, and then a 30-minute documentary “Dare to Dream” will be shown for those interested. That video tells the story of how Cuba’s acclaimed Latin American School of Medicine is now educating young medical professionals from many nations for service around the world. Their students come form 124 countries, including the U.S.
This photo is from the 2017 trip to Cuba that we Offenburgers and others of Plymouth Church’s “Cuba Partnership Team.” Our guide Stan Dotson, a Baptist pastor and former college professor from North Carolina now ministering in Cuba, and Sixto Espino, one of our drivers, are shown here in front of a former “Pastors for Peace” caravan bus that is used now by Plymouth’s Cuban “sister church,” Ebenezer Baptist in Havana, and its community service affiliate, the Martin Luther King Center.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.