Castro's death: For a follow-up, Associated Press story misses big religious angles

The banging pots and honking horns have faded on Miami's Calle Ocho, where Cuban-Americans noisily celebrated the death of Fidel Castro. Thus, it's time for some reflection on what it means for peace and freedom -- including freedom of religion.

So the Associated Press shows the right instinct in its Sunday story out of Miami on the aftermath of El Comandante's death. Yet it largely leaves ghostly trails in what could have offered some spiritual insights on the story.

We get early warnings of a scattershot story:

MIAMI (AP) -- Celebration turned to somber reflection and church services Sunday as Cuban-Americans in Miami largely stayed off the streets following a raucous daylong party in which thousands marked the death of Fidel Castro.
One Cuban exile car dealer, however, sought to turn the revolutionary socialist's death into a quintessential capitalist deal by offering $15,000 discounts on some models.
And on the airwaves, top aides to President-elect Donald Trump promised a hard look at the recent thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba.

Cuba, as you may or may not know, is on the watch list of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. USCIRF's 2016 report tells of increased surveillance, harassment, closure and destruction of churches there -- on a level with the likes of Russia, Malaysia, Turkey and Afghanistan.

But here is AP's version of the religious facet in this story:

At St. Brendan Catholic Church in the Miami suburb of Westchester, a member of the chorus read a statement by Archbishop Thomas Wenski about Castro's death before the service. There was no overt mention of Castro during the Sunday Mass. But during the reading of the Prayers of the Faithful, one of the two priests celebrating the Mass prayed for "an end to communism, especially in Cuba and Venezuela."
"Lord, hear our prayers," churchgoers responded.
Outside the church, Nelson Frau, a 32-year-old Cuban-American whose parents fled the island in 1962, said he wasn't surprised that Castro was not mentioned. He said Wenski's statement reflected the role of the Catholic Church in Miami as a mediator toward peace between the Cubans in Miami and those on the island.

The excerpt is 178 words long, impressive until you see that the car salesman -- the one who is offering $15,000 off high-end vehicles -- got 187 words. He apparently caught AP's attention with a press release "discussing his Cuban heritage after Castro's death."

AP was less interested in that statement by Miami's ranking Catholic. (Full disclosure: I freelance for the Miami edition of The Florida Catholic newspaper.) Here is some of what Archbishop Wenski said:

In the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, we read: "...both the just and the wicked God will judge, since a time is set for every affair and for every work." (Ecclesiastes 3:17) Fidel Castro has died. Now he awaits the judgment of God who is merciful but also just.

Granted, not your standard religio-political pronouncement. But it does support the AP source's belief that the church is trying to mediate peace and move parishioners forward.

I also have to ask why AP went to a suburban church. Why not, say, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity? That church was built with pennies collected by the late Bishop Agustin Roman, one of 132 priests expelled from Cuba in 1961. The shrine is named for a statuette of Mary in El Cobre, Cuba, which has become a symbol of unity between Cubans on the island and in Florida.

Another good place would have been Gesu Church, the mother church of the archdiocese. In 1962, Gesu served as headquarters for Operation Pedro Pan, organized by the Archdiocese of Miami, which cared for 14,000 children whose parents sent them out of Cuba to freedom in America. It was "the largest exodus of unaccompanied children in the history of the Western Hemisphere," notes the lengthy Castro obit in the Miami Herald. Since that story ran on Saturday, the AP had time to notice.

How about the 17 percent of Cuban-Americans who are Protestant? Florida Baptist and United Methodist churches, among others, have long worked with denominational churches on the island. And in 2011, I noted that a Cuban-American pastor was chosen to give the main address at the annual Florida Baptist Convention.

AP does try to cover Protestantism, but only by quoting a retired minister -- the Rev. Martin Anorga, a Cuban refugee who led First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami for nearly three decades:

Anorga said he participated in anti-Castro groups in Miami for years. But in church services, he only would talk about the victims of Castro's regime, not the man himself.
"During services, they won't talk about politics," Anorga said. "When I was a pastor, we would pray for the victims of Castro in Cuba. The people who were hurt by Castro will never recover. Families were separated, estranged. We would pray for them."

That strikes me as an odd choice. The church's current pastor, the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts, just might have an opinion on Castro's death, don't you think?

Even South Florida Jews might well have had something to say for the story. Temple Beth Shmuel on Miami Beach has long been a worship home for Jews who have fled two tyrannies -- first the Holocaust in Europe, then Castro's Cuba.

AP also could have gotten sources from a Jewish Journal article in July, on South Florida Jews who have recently visited Cuba. The sources come from Broward and Palm Beach counties as well as Miami-Dade.

"Ah, but you have the advantage of time," you may say. "How could you expect AP to know the ins and outs of religious Cubans in South Florida on deadline?" I would answer: Because AP's Florida headquarters are in Miami, and they’ve been there for years. They should have known their turf.

That is, if they thought religion was as interesting as steep discounts on cars.

Thumb: Fidel Castro at the MATS Terminal in Washington, D.C., in 1959. Public domain image via Wikimedia.

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