Congratulations, Ofelia Miriam Ortega

Mary E. Hunt

Even a cab driver in Havana several hours away knew that “an excellent woman from Matanzas,” as the Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega was described on the Cuban national news, had earned her Doctorate in Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary in California. She is the only woman to work as Rector of the Seminario Evangélico de Teologia in Matanzas. Dr. Ortega served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, and worked for the World Council on education as well as the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Geneva.  She has served in ordained ministry for 52 years including time on the Cuban Council of Churches. Ofelia has been a member of the National Assembly of Cuba, and—oh by the way—she’s now in her 80s and very active in empowering women. No wonder the driver paid attention to the news clip.

Ofelia’s graduation was the reason a dozen U.S. colleagues, including three from WATER, went to Cuba to join the festivities. Diann Neu, Mennonite pastor Cindy Lapp, and I were part of a seminar during which 45 participants explored the work of the late feminist theologian Dr. Letty Russell. Letty, with her partner Shannon Clarkson who spoke at the event, founded the DMin program in the area of feminist theology. With Cuban theologians, pastors, and students we projected next steps for feminist work in religion. It was a powerful day with both historical reflections and future directions emerging. A display of Letty’s books was unveiled at the seminary library, underscoring the importance of her work for women on many continents.

We learned about Cuban women minsters’ struggles and successes. We saw their creativity, especially in a liturgy when one woman embodied the woman in Hebrew scripture about whom she preached.  We experienced a depth of creativity and hospitality born of the many economic difficulties that the U.S. trade embargo has created. We were impressed by women’s faith, especially by those who combine their Christian and Santeria beliefs (see Cindy Lapp’s article). We visited their homes and were welcomed warmly. How gracious they are to people who come from a country whose government oppresses them.

The graduation ceremony took place in Cuba because the United States government no longer has a functioning visa-granting embassy/consulate in Cuba. Cubans must go to Mexico or Guyana to apply, and then not be sure they will receive a visa. Ofelia refused to do so.  In turn, the president, dean, and director of the SFTS DMin program offered to go to Cuba for a formal and delightful ceremony to honor one of their most distinguished graduates ever.

Ofelia’s longtime friend and colleague Cherie White, who had lived at SET in her childhood when her father taught there, presented Ofelia’s curriculum vita with panache. Ofelia’s remarks were the evening’s highlight as she joyfully recounted her road to the doctorate, including a community of friends near and far who helped her compile her many writings into the doctoral thesis, A Theology from the Praxis and Vision of a Cuban Woman.  It will be published in Spanish soon, and, hopefully, in English as well.

WATER folks visited our friends at La Casa de Cariño, a social and educational center on the beach at Varadero. It serves as lodging for visiting groups, providing lovely hospitality and a conducive spot for reflection and renewal. Revenues generated by those stays in season allow La Casa to receive in the off-season Cuban children with cancer, elders, folks with disabilities, and other Cubans who otherwise could not enjoy a beach holiday.

WATER thanks our many friends in Cuba, especially Ofelia and Clarita Luz Ajo, Vice Rector at the SET, for the warm welcome, insightful conversations, and longtime friendships and solidarity. We look forward to many more years of continued collaboration. To Ofelia Ortega we say, “Felicitaciones! Well done, dear sister well done.”