NGOs: The New Missionaries

February 27, 2012 Topic: Foreign AidHistoryIdeologyReligion Region: Cuba

NGOs: The New Missionaries

What NGO workers embroiled in scandal in Cairo could have learned from the trials of early 20th-century Cuban missionaries.

Earlier this week, after pleadings from the U.S. State Department, Egypt postponed a trial of forty-three workers from foreign-funded democracy-promotion groups. The defendants included sixteen Americans whom Egyptian authorities have accused of meddling in domestic political affairs. While diplomats may have defused the situation for now, the flap has raised the profile of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), institutions first formally defined by the UN that have expanded rapidly in the postwar era. But Americans have long supported nongovernmental groups that set out to save the world. And one such case—missionaries in Cuba—also backfired when fervent advocates of the American way upset the indigenous culture and authorities.

Deliverance from Misgovernment

On March 17, 1898, two weeks after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Vermont Republican Redfield Proctor delivered the findings of his investigative trip to Cuba in a speech to his Senate colleagues. Since 1895, Cuban insurrectionists had been waging a protracted guerrilla offensive against Spain’s occupying forces. Proctor understood the horrors of warfare, having served as colonel of the Fifteenth Vermont Volunteers during the Battle of Gettysburg and, later, as secretary of war for two years under President Harrison. But as became evident during his speech, the wartime sufferings of Cuba’s civilian population under Spanish subjugation shocked even this combat-hardened legislator.

Proctor’s remarks to his fellow senators detailed the atrocities Spanish troops inflicted on their colonial subjects. Spanish general Valeriano Weyler’s policy of reconcentración, in which entire Cuban villages found themselves uprooted and relocated to fortified military encampments, had devastated the local population. Proctor described the conquered region outside Havana as rife with “desolation and distress, misery and starvation.” The lack of food had left “little children . . . walking about with arms and chest terribly emaciated, eyes swollen, and abdomen bloated to three times the natural size.” Cuban doctors confirmed Proctor’s worst fears. Their prognosis for the youngest victims of Spain’s inhumane conduct was “hopeless.” “Deaths in the street have not been uncommon,” said Proctor, before estimating that “out of a population of 1,600,000, two hundred thousand had died within these Spanish forts.” Any hope of eventual recovery appeared unlikely to the senator, as “nearly all the sugar mills have been destroyed.” The New York Times praised Proctor for shining “the clear light of truth upon the actual situation” on the war-torn island.

But Proctor endeavored to do more through his speech than merely detail Spanish crimes against Cuban civilians. He presented his oration as a call to arms for the United States to help the Cuban insurrectionists expel their Spanish oppressors. Unless American forces intervened against Spain, Cubans would never be “free from molestation,” unable to “rebuild their homes, reclaim their tillage plots, which quickly run up to brush in that wonderful soil and clime.” In one counterintuitive rhetorical flourish, Proctor downplayed the gravity of both “the barbarity practiced by Weyler” and the sinking of the Maine. Instead, he cited “the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge” as the “strongest appeal” for American intervention. Like countless optimists who have advocated military ventures with unrealistic posthostility expectations, Proctor dreamed of a “wonderful prosperity that would surely come with peace and good home rule.” After evicting the Spanish colonial masters, “the large influx of American and English immigration and money” would guarantee Cuba’s recovery in Proctor’s estimation.

Boots on the Ground

American Protestant missionaries sought to make Proctor’s hopes for Cuba a reality. One month before the December 1898 signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war between Spain and the United States, a group of high-ranking officials from the American Methodist Church set sail for Havana, Cuba, aboard the steamship Mascotte. Leading the contingent was Bishop Warren A. Candler who, when not focused on the church’s missionary enterprise, spent much of his time attending to the spiritual needs of his brother Asa Griggs Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Company. Accompanying Candler were Dr. W. R. Lambuth, then secretary of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Dr. Charles A. Fullwood and the youthful Reverend Hubert W. Baker, who had grown up among Cubans in Key West, Florida. As the ship prepared to dock near Havana’s Morro Castle, Reverend Baker led the enthusiastic preachers in a spontaneous singing of the “Doxology.”

The Methodist team wasted little time identifying Cuba as fertile territory for missionary expansion after military actions had ended there. Upon disembarking from the Mascotte, the four Americans set out to “plan the beginnings of the Methodist Church in Cuba.” The Methodist expeditionaries had a rudimentary knowledge of Cuba that predated their arrival in Havana. Bishop Candler and Dr. Fullwood spent several days in Havana before returning to Florida for their church’s annual conference. Lambuth and Baker remained in Cuba. The pair traveled overland from Havana, heading east to Matanzas and Cárdenas before settling for a few days in Cienfuegos, a major seaport on the western end of Cuba’s southern coast. During their stop in Cienfuegos, the Methodist ministers donated food to a camp of Cuban reconcentrados in one of their earliest charitable acts on the island.

George Nowland MacDonnell Sr. also reached Havana just as Cuba’s war with Spain was ending. Like his contemporaries, MacDonnell’s “main thoughts and plan of action” centered on the creation of the Methodist Church in Cuba. To the Methodist preachers, it mattered less whose flag flew above Havana’s harbor or which secular organization ruled the island. Rather, these early Methodist missionaries sought to rid Cuba of its historic Spanish Catholic heritage. Bishop Candler put the mission’s importance in perspective in a reflection seven years after his initial arrival. Although Cuba sat a mere ninety miles from the Methodists’ Key West church, Candler wrote that when returning from Havana to southern Florida “one passes from a civilization of benighted Romanism to one of enlightened Protestantism, from the dimness of medieval superstition to the clear light of scriptural faith.” Candler warned his religious followers back home, “Unless Protestantism does rescue these unchurched multitudes, they will inevitably drift into indifference and infidelity.”

McDonnell came to conclusions similar to those Candler expressed in his plea. Yet despite the defeat of the Spanish, in MacDonnell’s assessment Cuba’s military victory did not ensure complete liberty. “Tyrannical rule and priest-craft have well-nigh blighted this lovely Isle, but the God of Nations has interfered through the instrumentality of America’s strong arm, and has set the captive free, Cuba is free. God hasten the day when she shall be free indeed!” Cuba’s freedom from what MacDonnell considered Spanish and Catholic oppression was a project that would take time. But unlike his chauvinistic compatriots, MacDonnell acknowledged the lengthy battle ahead caused by the cultural and language barriers separating Cubans from the enlightened Protestant American newcomers: “Patience, my soul, you must learn to tell the Gospel in their own soft language.”

The First NGOs Meet Resistance

Over the following two decades, Methodist missionaries strove to improve Cuba. They built schools, hospitals and orphanages. Looking to replicate the success of the temperance movement back home, they campaigned against the overconsumption of alcohol, deeming it the stepping stone to other un-Christian vices such as smoking, indolence and even flirting. And they sought to help women earn a place in the nascent republic’s business environment, an idea decades in the future back home.

But the missionaries’ ham-handed crusades often ran headfirst into a proud Cuban culture and the islanders’ national pride. Their zeal knew few bounds; even sporting events aroused the religious envoys’ passion. The Almendares Baseball Club of Havana beat several visiting American professional baseball teams in January 1911. However, what might otherwise have been an occasion for Americans living in Cuba to celebrate the Detroit Tigers’ lone victory against the Havana nine turned into a moment of outrage, and not just because the ace Cuban hurler José Méndez had struck out the legendary Ty Cobb. Instead, in its account of Detroit’s triumph one missionary newsletter chided its readers. “No evangelical Christian can sanction the Sunday game,” since experience showed that “gambling . . . too often goes with professional ball,” according to their admonition. The American missionaries’ message was clear: playing baseball on the Sabbath was bad; gambling while doing so was worse. Catholic Cubans could only shake their heads in disbelief at the killjoys from the north.

Catholicism had dominated Cuban culture since Spain’s earliest days on the island. Yet American Protestant missionaries saw fit to insult the local belief system time and again. Reverend R. L. Whitehead disparaged Catholicism as “a mixture of Romanism, witch-craft, spiritualism, atheism, anarchism, pantheism, etc.” Another missionary, working in Cuba’s eastern provinces, observed how “the [Catholic] clergy waxed fat and rolled in wealth” while one of his cohorts claimed that the foundation of all morality in Cuba amounted to nothing more than “Jesuitical casuistry.” But none of this should have come as a surprise. According to missionary thought, “Romanism was a part of the Spanish government,” so, naturally, “Spain followed a policy of exclusiveness which impoverished the people in both purse and piety.” Perhaps the American Protestant missionary handbook had excised any references to tactfulness or sensitivity to indigenous cultural practices. Then again, self-righteous causes like the American Protestant missionary efforts in Cuba during the early part of the twentieth century typically lack any sense of Christian humility.