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Episcopal bishops' long-planned trip to Cuba takes on character of 'diplomatic mission'

SALT LAKE CITY — The Right Rev. Scott Hayashi's recent trip to Cuba started out as an opportunity to learn more about the Episcopal Church on the island country and to support its appointed Bishop Griselda Delgado del Carpio.

With the trip two years in the planning stages, the group of 11 American bishops could have in no way anticipated President Obama's recent announcement that his administration will re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Episcopal Church in Cuba voting to rejoin the Episcopal Church. The World Council of Churches happened to be meeting in Cuba during the bishops' long-scheduled trip.

Their visit April 7-12 occurred shortly before the 54th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy sending an army of CIA-backed anti-Castro exiles onto the beach at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs to suffer bloody, catastrophic defeat.

"All of these things just rolled together. This was the largest group of Episcopal bishops ever gathered together in Cuba, so it was historic for them as well. We had no official status, when it really came down to it. No one sent us there for this meeting," said Hayashi of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.

One evening, Delgado del Carpio hosted the group at her home. They were joined by Caridad Diego Bella, chief of the Religious Affairs Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. The bishops' guide told them she was one of the most powerful people in the Cuban government. If the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church wants to visit Cuba, for instance, the trip must be approved by the religious affairs office.

"For her to meet with us, in his opinion, was unprecedented and indicated and told us how our trip there took on a larger meaning than anything than anything we had attached to it," Hayashi said in an interview Tuesday.

"It was amazing. As one the bishops said, 'When did this trip turn into a diplomatic mission?'"

This summer, the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, conducted every three years, will be held in Salt Lake City June 25-July 3. Thousands of Episcopalians are expected to visit the city during the nine-day conference.

There is "a good chance," Hayashi says, that a resolution will be introduced during convention that would allow Cuba to rejoin the Episcopal Church. The resolution would have to be approved by the church's bicameral governing body, comprised of a House of Bishops and House of Deputies.

The House of Bishops is made up of some 200 active and retired bishops, while the House of Deputies is comprised of clergy and lay deputies elected from the 109 dioceses and three regional areas of the church, at more than 800 members, according to the church's website.

"We have to create a resolution for the convention itself. If three bishops, for instance, put their heads together and write one, then it would get submitted. I'm in conversation with one of the bishops already about crafting a resolution. So hopefully we'll get it done. That's what it would take," Hayashi said.

Delgado del Carpio has indicated she would like to attend the conference, Hayashi said. She is a member of 2011 class of bishops. That means they were elected or appointed to their positions in 2010 and brought together in the Episcopalian Church's College for Bishops in 2011.

"My sense is, of course, if we have a resolution to have Cuba rejoin the Episcopal Church, to readmit them, then I would expect she would be here. I think even the bishops of our class would make sure she was here," he said.

Cuba became an atheist state following the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Fidel Castro suppressed the Roman Catholic Church, which excommunicated him in 1962. While people were not forced to give up their faith, religious believers were not allowed to be part of the controlling Communist Party.

In 1992, revitalization of religion began when Cuba revised its constitution, officially becoming a secular state.

The level of church attendance across Cuba is presently about 2 percent among 11 million people.

There some 10,000 Episcopalians in Cuba who attend 44 congregations.

"It's a struggling church. All of the churches there are struggling at this point in time because the people there have no money. They have no resources. The average pay in Cuba for a state employee is $20 a month," Hayashi said.

As for other conditions in Cuba, Hayashi said it was as if the group had stepped back in time when it entered the island country. While Cuba imports some modern vehicles, most American-made cars date back to the 1940s and 1950s.

There is little free enterprise, aside from small businesses run from homes such as restaurants or people who use their privately owned automobiles as taxis.

But there is little hunger there because the government provides Cubans with staples. All Cubans receive free health care, which was highly interesting to Hayashi, given the Utah Legislature's ongoing debate about Medicaid expansion.

Hayashi was accompanied to Cuba by his spouse, Amy Perlman O'Donnell, and Craig Wirth, spokesman for Utah's Episcopal Diocese.

Hayashi said they were grateful to see Cuba before relations with the United States are normalized because he believes the island country will be drastically change once the U.S. lifts its commercial, economic and financial embargo.

Hayashi said he met Cuban Episcopalians who exhibit tremendous faith and willingness to work to improve their humble church structures, which they call "temples." Churches, he was told, are people.

Some congregations have come together to construct community water systems, gardens and have personally rebuilt church buildings that have fallen into ruin.

Hayashi said he was moved by "the resourcefulness of the people, their spirit, their willingness to work with what we might consider nothing in order to make their own lives better — but not just their own lives, the lives of their entire community.

"That lives as part of my learning event. And the ability of the bishop to be able to look at something I might consider as hopeless and see possibility. I could use some lessons in that. I really believe she is the right person at the right time."