The entrance of the National Council of Churches (NCC) into the politically charged wrangle over Elián González has many evangelical leaders in Miami up in arms. Fifteen pastors issued a strong statement separating themselves and their churches from the NCC's action.Misael Castillo, pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Miami, criticized Joan Brown Campbell, the former NCC General Secretary who has been at the forefront of the council's diplomatic activity."We are very bothered by this woman who has wanted to represent the [Protestant] church without the agreement of its members," Castillo says.Castillo also serves as secretary of the Greater Miami Hispanic Pastors Association, which includes non-Cuban pastors."Our parishioners are asking: 'Where are the evangelical, Protestant pastors [in Miami] when she says she is speaking for all Protestants?' We believe that sending Elián back to Cuba is sending him back to no future," Castillo says.

A Dangerous Journey

Elián, 6, was found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day following an ill-fated escape from Cuba that left his mother, his stepfather, and nine other Cubans dead. Since then, he has been cared for by family members who have taken legal action to prevent his return to Cuba.Since Elián's rescue, his Cuban father has pleaded for the boy's return to Cuba. The Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled in January that the boy should be returned to his father, a move that sparked tumultuous street demonstrations in Miami. A Florida court granted temporary custody to the boy's great-uncle in Miami pending a full court hearing. Meanwhile, the Congress is considering bills to grant Elián citizenship.

Grandmother Diplomacy

While tensions simmered in both countries, efforts continued for mediation and returning the boy to his father. The NCC organized those efforts at the request of Oden Marichal, president of the Cuban National Council of Churches. The two groups have a relationship that predates the Cuban revolution.Originally the church councils planned that Elián would be released to an NCC representative who would escort him back to Havana and turn him over to the Cuban organization.Carol Fouke, an NCC official in New York, says that both Washington and Havana officials had agreed to that plan. But legal maneuvers designed to keep the boy in the United States intervened.The NCC later developed a new strategy, again with the tacit approval of the two governments. The church councils decided that Elián's grandmothers, Mariela Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez, would be ideal escorts with the NCC's help.NCC General Secretary Robert Edgar and Campbell visited Elián's family in Cuba and later brought the two grandmothers to the United States to advocate the boy's return."This is not a healthy situation for the boy," Edgar says. "Make no mistake. The NCC is unequivocally in favor of reuniting the boy with his father and closest family members. This child needs his father and he needs him now."


NCC officials made several flights to Cuba and flew Elián's grandmothers to and around the United States. The NCC's involvement comes at a crucial time in its own history. The 50-year-old ecumenical body is battling to overcome a $3.2 million operating debt. The organization has cut staff and asked member denominations to help bail it out.Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, charges the ecumenical council with bias and asks how it can objectively arbitrate the dispute."The NCC has remained silent about Castro's continuing restrictions on religious activity in Cuba" while also praising the Cuban resolution, Knippers says."There are other religious organizations that could serve as effective mediators in this difficult situation," Knippers says. "But the Castro-friendly NCC is not one of them."

Another Moses?

Many in the Miami exile community see Elián as a symbolic figure. Joss‚ Marmol, a columnist for a Spanish-language paper, compares the boy to Moses, set adrift by a mother who hoped to spare his life."Moses lived to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Israel, an exodus that lasted 40 years-about the same as our exile from Cuba," Marmol says."He's a miracle," says Maria Rodriguez, one of many pilgrims who pass by Elián's Little Havana home each day. "I have a feeling that he will be the one who brings change to the history of Cuba," says Mirta Rondón, an exile who fled Cuba 31 years ago.The NCC's Edgar reflected a similar sentiment: "I'm hopeful that this tragic situation can have a positive effect. Elián González could be the catalyst for a changed relationship between the peoples of Cuba and the U.S."

Related Elsewhere

See our earlier coverage of this story, "NCC Presses Case for Boy's Swift Return to Cuba | 'This is not a healthy situation for the boy,' says new general secretary" (Jan. 19, 2000)The National Council of Churches site has a page for "Frequently Asked Questions About The National Council of Churches and the Elián González Case."See also our earlier coverage of the NCC's financial problems, "NCC to undergo major restructuring to solve financial woes | Newly elected secretary faces an organization with a $4 million shortfall" (Nov. 18, 1999)For continuing coverage of the Elián González dispute, including links to news stories, opinion pieces, and related Web sites, see Yahoo!'s full coverage area on the subject.

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