On March 21-22, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will make a historic visit to Havana, Cuba. The last time a sitting U.S. president visited Cuba, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig anchored the vaunted “Murderers’ Row” Yankee lineup.
Indeed, Calvin Coolidge has the distinction of being the only president to visit Cuba while in office – in January of 1928 – also a leap year.
Illustrative of the growing reconciliation between the two countries, separated by only 90 miles of Atlantic Ocean, is the less widely known story that the Bible is making a significant comeback in Cuba and finds its place in the ongoing cut and thrust of this détente.
On February 6, just days before the Obama administration made the stunning announcement of their plans to visit Cuba -- I traveled with a group of forty leaders to bear witness to a historic event in Santiago de Cuba. I was at the inauguration of the Museum of the Bible exhibit La Biblia: The Way of God in the Way of Man on display in the renovated 500-year old Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.
For the first time since diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were restored, one of the world’s largest private Bible collections was made available to all Cuban people – free and open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. – on display from February 6 – March 13.
Nearly one hundred biblical artifacts, papyri, mummy masks, Dead Sea Scrolls, rare texts and manuscripts, including the first complete Bible in Spanish, as well as illustrated tapestries of biblical stories were on display and staffed by Museum of the Bible curators, working hand-in-hand with locals on the ground.
Traveling exhibits form part of the global initiative of Museum of the Bible and its vision to foster an immersive experience introducing the Bible’s unique history, narrative and influence.
In 2017 the six-floor 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible will open only two blocks from the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Since the average North American household owns 4-5 Bibles, it is difficult to appreciate how significant this Bible exhibit is for Cubans. More than forty years ago the Castro led government banned the distribution of Bibles in Cuba and only recently implemented an “experimental program” lifting the restriction.
At the invitation of Archbishop Dionisio Guillermo García Ibáñez of Santiago, the Museum of the Bible introduced their second traveling exhibit in Cuba (in 2014 Museum of the Bible displayed a similar exhibit in Havana – some 500 miles or eighteen hours by bus from Santiago – which attracted thousands of Cubans).
At the inauguration – which was attended by local government leaders and hundreds of Cubans – Archbishop Ibáñez, Cary Summers (president of Museum of the Bible) and Steve Green (Chairman of the Board) spoke of and celebrated the unity and diversity of the Bible; and repeated Museum of the Bible’s singular mission to invite all people to engage with the Good Book.
The inauguration concluded outside the cathedral with a public performance by Cuban singers, dancers and actors paying tribute to the narrative of the Bible – and it was an extraordinary site. I was stunned.
What is the appropriate reaction when you know you are witnessing a turning point in history before your very eyes? We sat among the Cuban people and all around us they were cheering, some overwhelmed with emotion, so thankful to have the opportunity to learn more about the Bible.
Emblematic of thawing relations between Cuba and the U.S., the five-week La Biblia exposition concluded just seven days prior to Obama’s historic visit.
Jeremiah J. Johnston, Ph.D., is president of Christian Thinkers Society, a Resident Institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves at Associate Professor of Early Christianity.