July 05, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

The CRC's welcome to Cuban refugees in the 1960s transformed the church's outreach to other cultures.

While watching hours of video of Cuban refugees, Elena Brubaker kept hearing the word over and over again: picicorre. She asked Calvin Spanish professor Marilyn Bierling, about it, but Bierling hadn’t heard the word before. Brubaker and Bierling bounced the word off a few people in the Calvin Spanish department, but nobody knew its meaning. Finally, they contacted a Cuban person in Grand Rapids who knew what picicorre meant. It meant station wagon.

“I understand Mexican Spanish,” said Brubaker, a Calvin junior who studies both Spanish and education, “so this is a whole new world for me.”

Brubaker is partnered with Bierling in researching the refugees who came who came to the United States after 1959, when Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban government. The pair is also studying the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) workers who welcomed them to their new home.

Coming to America

““During the ‘60s and ‘70s, two large waves of Cuban immigration entered the United States,” said Bierling. Workers at the CRC-sponsored Good Samaritan Center in Miami distributed free food, clothing and medicine to the refugees. They also helped them to relocate to Grand Rapids, Lansing, Holland and Wyoming, Michigan, as well as to cities in other states such as New Jersey and Iowa.

Bierling spent her spring 2011 sabbatical videotaping 40 interviews with '60s- and '70s-era Cuban refugees and CRC workers, both in Miami and Michigan. Now, she and Brubaker are screening the videos, frame by frame, transcribing and editing the interviews and subtitling them in both English and Spanish. “It’s extremely time intensive,” said Bierling. “It takes hours just to transcribe a few minutes.”

The completed videos will become part of Calvin’s Heritage Hall archives. So far, the duo has finished 10 of the interviews and hopes to complete 20 by summer’s end. The written transcript will also go into the archives. “Most people will access the transcripts rather than watch the videos through,” she predicts. The effort, funded by a 2011 McGregor Summer Research Fellowship and a Calvin Alumni Association faculty research grant, is titled “Cuban Refugees: An Oral History Project.”

Brubaker has enjoyed the long hours spent watching the footage: “A lot of times in the interviews, they get very emotional,” she said, adding that she was especially moved by the story of a daughter who had to leave her father behind. “For me, my mother came from Mexico and left her family,” she said. “There are things people can relate to in these stories.”

Through the videos, the refugees share their struggles at transitioning to another culture. “I think for the kids it was mainly identity because the parents expected to go back to Cuba,” Bierling said.

Joining the CRC

“They expected the U.S. government to just intervene,” Brubaker agreed. One theme that recurs is the refugees’ gratitude: “Most of the people talk about the people they first met that introduced them to the CRC and (how) that person was so welcoming and so kind … ,” Brubaker said. “People just embraced them into the CRC.”

In their interviews, the CRC workers shared their varied experiences of working with the refugees. They also answered the question of why the denomination was willing to open its doors to refugees of that era, and Bierling was intrigued by their answers: “I was expecting that many would say that it was because of the Cold War and the opportunity for people to give refuge to people fleeing from Communism, and some people mentioned that,” she said.

The major part of the CRC workers interviewed, however, said that the Cuban refugee effort was an outgrowth of the denomination’s early diaconal work—work that included the founding of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. “It was the ethos of the ’60s,” Bierling said. “There was a whole movement toward helping people during that time. Also the U.S. CRC had just adopted the Cuban ‘Misión Evangélica al Interior,’ so a strong bond had been formed between the Cubans and members of the CRC. ”

Many of the Cuban immigrants helped by the CRC remain members of the church today, Bierling said. “They’ve served in many different aspects of church life. They’ve served in Synod; they’ve served on committees,” Bierling said. And, she added, they helped to pioneer Spanish study at Calvin. (The first chair of Calvin’s Spanish department, Elsa Cortina, was a Cuban refugee.) And many of the original Cuban CRC congregations have evolved into ethnically diverse congregations.

Her research on the Cuban refugees led Bierling to Cuba, where she stayed for two weeks as a guest of the Cuban CRC , enjoying the enthusiasm of several congregations: “It hasn’t been the easiest of circumstances, but the church keeps growing,” she said.

The CRC’s embrace of Cuban refugees is a signal event in the church’s history, said Bierling, who pursued the project for that reason. And, she said, it laid the foundation for the denomination to open their churches a decade later to Vietnamese and Laotian refugees: “It was a good experience.”

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