Gisela Pérez: «Gender poses no threat and provides an opportunity to the Church»

Holy orders for women were pure utopia in the early 1960s, when theologian Gisela Pérez started to wage a battle along these lines at her Baptist Church in Santiago de Cuba, around 860 kilometers east of Havana.
She managed to raise awareness among religious leaders in favor of the move and became the first Baptist pastor in Cuba in 1965.

She promoted ecumenical integration in the region under initiatives such as the establishment of the Bartolomé G. Lavastida Christian Service and Training Center (CCSC- BG Lavastida).

It has since 1995 provided religious communities and economically and socially vulnerable groups with a wide range of services under projects that range from health promotion and disease prevention to perm culture, ecology, and food security.

The Center is the only institution of its kind operating in and covering all of eastern Cuba. Its projects have benefited over 30 rural communities.

Until she retired in 2014, Pérez always gave top priority to gender equity for women’s empowerment. Below is a SEMlac interview with her.

What made you establish the Center?

I began working for the World Council of Churches in the 1990s. I had the opportunity to attend an international seminar on justice, peace and integrity in Switzerland, where there was a discussion over secular institutions striving to renew the role of the Church.

I thought of ways to replicate the experience in Santiago de Cuba and make special emphasis on the situation of women.

In 1994, I had participated in a theology course in Costa Rica and wanted to disseminate here the idea of approaching the Bible from a gender perspective.

Along with some colleagues, I organized courses to help identify actual needs at a time when there was a serious economic crisis, and focus on two work areas: training and social services, including housing.

Did your approach pose any challenge to traditional gender role playing?

Yes, it did. The Church tends to be conservative and resist change in this area.

We started to discuss the issues of women first and of gender later. We women in the Church have always worked really hard and have been unable to take decision-making positions.

Gender was gradually mainstreamed into all our projects to promote women’s participation in community life.

Did you find it difficult to do so?

Yes, I did. One of the most difficult things was to make religious people realize that gender does not pose any threat and does provide an opportunity to the Church.

Why a threat?

The threat has to do with the need to break away with the traditional pattern, with men having absolute power and women being subordinated for family stability.

How do you see it now?

If both men and women contribute to family life on an equal footing, a very positive balance is achieved.
It is important to emphasize the notions of shared responsibility and collaborative work in family life.
Christian communities have been growing in Cuba, but they do not always favor women’s emancipation…
The emphasis on subjective, emotional factors is terrible. Growth does not necessarily lead to development.

Where have you found opposition and partnership?

The first one has involved lack of understanding on the part of some official representatives, while the latter has included support from universities, for example.

We organize a joint meeting every year to review the scientific and theological perspectives. We sometimes believe that the distance between the two is big, but it is not, really.

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