Presbyterian pastors in several Cuban churches are optimistic that improved relations with the U.S. will mean good things for the island and their congregations.

And members of University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge who recently traveled there said they are already seeing signs of change.

Nine members of UPC visited Cuba to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of the church’s partnership with La Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani in San Jose de los Ramos.

Over the years, UPC adults and youth have visited their Cuban partners on religious visas on numerous occasions, and UPC members have hosted a number of Cuban visitors to Baton Rouge. This trip was different because of recent changes in U.S. policy on Cuba. During the delegation’s six-day stay in Cuba, President Barack Obama announced his intention to take Cuba off the state-sponsored terrorism list.

The two churches renewed their commitment to foster friendships between their congregations with a covenant, written in English and Spanish, signed by ruling elders of both churches and their pastors. The Rev. Patti Snyder is senior pastor of UPC, and the Rev. Armando Guedes is pastor at San Jose.

University Presbyterian, a participant in Living Waters for the World, has installed a water filtration system at the San Jose church, which provides safe drinking water to the congregation and surrounding community.

University Presbyterian group leaders George Strain and Debbie Serra said that Cubans they encountered are encouraged about the warming of political relationships with the U.S. Serra added, however, that some Cubans have expressed their hopes that Cuba will not lose its “Cuban-ness” with the anticipated influx of U.S. visitors.

Both Strain and Serra, who have traveled to Cuba for several Living Waters installations, said they noticed changes since their most recent visit in September, including the presence of more U.S. visitors.

Restoration of many historic buildings is underway in Old Havana under the auspices of UNESCO, which has declared the area a world heritage site. Strain and Serra said they also saw improvements being made that are not directly related to the UNESCO project, as if Cubans were sprucing up their cities in anticipation of more tourism.

The Rev. Daniel Izquierdo, a pastor in Luyana, a suburb of Havana, said while he’s optimistic that Cubans will benefit from improved relations with the U.S., he’s also concerned about potential social problems that may arise with more tourism, such as an increase in prostitution. Izquierdo said it’s his hope that Cuban churches will have a voice in how Cuba responds to the coming changes.

Many Cubans, Izquierdo said, would view having a McDonald’s in Havana as a welcome sign of prosperity, but he said what Cuba needs is investments that will help the nation rebuild. Rebuilding is not something that Cuba can accomplish without outside help, he said.

Izquierdo said when Fidel Castro accepted an invitation from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to attend a Methodist worship service in 1984, many Cubans saw that as thawing of the government’s position on religion. Some Cubans who had left the church for fear of government reprisal returned.

The publication of “Fidel & Religion: Conversations With Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology” in 1987 also indicated that Castro recognized that the church could be a positive influence. Since the 1980s, church attendance has grown, but slowly.

The Rev. Raina Villalonga Benitev, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Union de Reyes, and the Rev. Laticia Ramos, pastor of two churches in Matanzas, said the relationships with U.S. churches are important to their congregations, and they hope the anticipated easing of travel restrictions will strengthen those ties. Both are officers in Matanzas presbytery.

The first Presbyterian church in Cuba started as a house church in 1890, led by a tobacco laborer who later was ordained by a Presbyterian missionary. In 1917, Cuban Presbyterian churches were incorporated as part of the New Jersey presbytery of what was then known as the Presbyterian Church U.S. The Cuban church became independent in 1967. Today there are 37 Presbyterian churches in Cuba.

The Baton Rouge group visited several Presbyterian churches as well as the Cuban Council of Churches in Havana, a Protestant seminary in Matanzas and a convent in Havana.