08/27/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Christians Should Agree on Health Care -- in Cuba

One cause that unites Christians throughout the world is caring for the sick. It's a part of the Christian identity that goes back to Jesus, a miraculous healer who called on his followers to care for people in need as if they were Christ himself.

Christians in Cuba and the United States have long responded to this call together, despite a Cold War legacy that continues to poison relations between our countries.

When the Cuban economy went into a depression in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban churches called for international help to meet the health needs of people affected by the crisis. Christians in many countries gave funds, but U.S. Christians could only provide certain items, such as blankets and medicine, due to our country's trade embargo against Cuba.

Despite all the restrictions, this help continues. This year, U.S. Christians are donating more than a dozen tons of blankets and basic hygiene supplies to Cuban churches through a program of Church World Service, an ecumenical organization made up of 37 U.S. denominations and churches.

Cuban churches use these supplies to care for older adults, families affected by alcoholism and people with serious health conditions such as AIDS. This work is coordinated by the Cuban Council of Churches, which brings together most of the country's Protestant denominations.

Cuba's Protestant minority numbers about 550,000 and includes many health professionals, thanks to a socialist system that provides medical training for free. Yet the churches lack the kinds of financial and material resources that their fellow Christians in the U.S. would take for granted. Basic items from the U.S., such as towels and washcloths, help ensure that older adults have the supplies they need when they go to the hospital, according to Dr. Ana Margarita Mayor, who coordinates the council's health program.

Without funds to pay salaries, Cuban churches have nevertheless reached thousands of people in need throughout the country through programs run by trained volunteers. These include support groups for alcoholics, HIV prevention workshops for adolescents and feeding and laundry services for older adults.

"Our focus is mainly on making sure that individuals and families and churches can work together to have solutions to health needs," Dr. Mayor says.

Dr. Mayor adds that the Cuban Council of Churches has a productive relationship with Cuba's Ministry of Health. The council has initiated public health programs, such as a pilot project for the early detection of deafness, that the ministry has used as a model.

Cuban churches have also reached people in need beyond their shores. For example, after the 2010 earthquake in neighboring Haiti, Cuban mission workers provided care for earthquake survivors with disabilities.

One might think that the Cuban churches' medical work should transcend politics. After all, Jesus flouted the rules of his society to heal the sick, whoever and wherever they were.

Yet the U.S. embargo against Cuba makes it much more difficult to support the Cuban churches' medical work. The State Department's official line is that the "U.S. government encourages the development of civil society [in Cuba], which includes strengthening religious institutions." However, Americans who provide financial support to the churches for activities that are considered "non-religious" -- such as caring for the sick -- risk running afoul of the embargo. This keeps Dr. Mayor and her colleagues from being able to hire a full-time staff or purchase computers, among other things.

U.S. religious leaders have urged the Obama administration to end the embargo and restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, and most Americans appear to agree with them. The administration has taken significant steps in this direction, such as loosening travel restrictions and allowing Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives. Another welcome change is that U.S. churches can now send money to Cuban churches for religious activities, such as paying pastors' pensions.

Christians on both sides of the Straits of Florida should keep up the pressure on our governments to make amends. After half a century of enmity, that might seem unlikely. But we all follow someone who works miracles.

Timothy Kennel Shenk writes about religious and humanitarian issues for Church World Service, a global humanitarian agency.