At the news of the thawing of Washington’s cold shoulder toward Cuba, and the pope’s role in brokering it, I’ve been returning to “Wrestling with Angels,” the memoir of Paul Mayer, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who became a Catholic priest, then a husband and father, and who died a year ago in November. Among the many adventures he recounts in the book, which is circulating among his friends, are stories of his visits to Cuba. Beginning with a delegation on nuclear disarmament in 1982, Paul went several times and had several meetings with President Fidel Castro. He recounts these with affection for Cuban culture and people, but a mixed view on the legacy of the Castro regime. Health care, organic farming, and education? Yes. Political repression and homophobia? Not so much.
Paul tells stories of talking about religion with Mr. Castro, who seemed especially interested in the subject. In one encounter, the Cuban president expressed disbelief at the influence of the Unification Church in the U.S. government. On the whole, though, he seemed to be thinking his way toward a truce with the opiate of the people. Paul writes:
During a later meeting with Castro when I served as the organizer of a religious delegation he launched into a discussion of religious themes. He said he wanted to understand more about liberation theology, a movement that is based on caring about the poor.
He acknowledged that they had made many mistakes regarding religion and the Church, taking Marx’s idea of religion as an opiate of the people too literally. Meeting Christian groups from Chile and Jamaica with social awareness changed his view. He also noted that it was primarily the Church in Chile that kept records of atrocities under Pinochet after the fall of the Allende regime.
Castro said they had discussed the possibility of cooperation between Christian and Socialist groups and had even spoken of an alliance that would be “not merely a tactical alliance but a strategic alliance, to work together for the social changes our people need.”
The last visit Paul writes about was particularly momentous. In 1992, he took part in a Pastors for Peace caravan of humanitarian supplies for Cuba, which was hurting especially badly in the wake of the collapse of its ally and source of aid, the Soviet Union. On the way to Cuba, the caravan was stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border. Paul and others decided to take some of the supplies out of the trucks and into their hands to carry them across the border on foot. In addition to containers of medicine and food, he took with him some Spanish Bibles.
With the Bibles in hand Paul approached the gate, and the border police stopped him. He explained that he was bringing them at the request of the churches of Cuba, but the police seized him and took him away for interrogation. Members of the caravan, meanwhile, called up some of their influential friends.
Thanks in part to the media attention, the members of the caravan eventually arrived in Cuba and received a heroes’ welcome. Mr. Castro greeted them personally, and unexpectedly. Paul recalls that he
gave an amazing “homily” on the meaning of our caravan and the Bible. Speaking like a liberation theologian, he said that the Bible is a book that is not finished yet. Then he added quite movingly that by our mission here and by our work we were writing a new page of the Bible. It was a profound moment.
In the Cuban press, Paul became known as el hombre de la Biblia, or “the Bible man.” He wrote about that story, and died, not knowing how his experience would prefigure the role of the church in the breakthrough to come.