CUBA — MOISES LOOKS ABOUT HIM, shivers at the overactive AC, and eventually answers the question. “Yes,” he says. “Of course I have been afraid for my life. There were many times when I was called to stand before the authorities. They would try to intimidate me, telling me on one occasion that they knew where my daughters went to school. It filled me with fear.”
He pauses. A hint of concern flickers across his face. Then comes the smile and the sigh and the hands held wide. “But God’s Spirit gives us strength to confront our fears. And many pastors have faced worse than I did.”
It is not hard to imagine what ‘worse’ might have looked like. After the revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba became a communist, atheist state. As political opponents were purged during the 1960s, Christians were also targeted. Anyone who publicly professed faith in God was accused of having weak, anti-revolutionary ideology. Christians faced anything from open discrimination as they were barred from further education or promotions at work, to cruel persecution, with some being sent to forced labor camps.
Moises witnessed the Holy Spirit move in powerful ways since Cuban Christians began facing persecution in 1959.
While many Christians fled the country, Moises and his family remained, witnessing firsthand the decline in numbers. “It looked like the call of the gospel was going to be extinguished in Cuba. It was almost impossible for a Christian student to study in university, and Christian parents even told their kids to hide the fact that they were Christian so that they might have the chance to grow up and be somebody. The church looked like it was asleep. But there were people who paid a great price and stayed in the church during persecution.”
Denied the chance to attend university, Moises enrolled at a seminary. Having graduated, while working as a local pastor, he continued to see the church’s struggle with his own eyes. Isolated from the rest of the world, viewed with suspicion by most people within the country, the church in Cuba was like a drowning man fighting for air.
Then, midway through the 1980s, something truly unexpected happened. “The Holy Spirit surprised people. There was a powerful movement that began in the east and went to the west. I have burned into my memory the sight of people who weren’t even evangelists going to the hospital to pray for the sick and they were healed. Churches were filling up, people were running to them, becoming converted right and left. During that time many people were hearing the call to become pastors and leaders.”
It was, he says, an answer to the prayers of the faithful few who had remained faithful when so many others had left. “It was just like we read in Acts, where the small remnant were looking and praying for God’s face, only to be amazed by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
It wasn’t just the way the Lord moved that surprised Moises and so many others in the church. 1991 brought the fall of the Iron Curtain, the collapse of the Soviet Union and a swift end to the billions of dollars in subsidies Russia had given to Cuba. The country was thrown into crisis, and food, fuel and water shortages affected many. The state even created a new euphemism for the troubles: the Special Period.
It was the perfect opportunity for the church. Working alongside communities, Christians offered the essential supplies that the state simply could not provide. After decades of persecution and discrimination, the church became truly indispensable.
Today, the church in Cuba is thriving. In the last ten years Moises has seen his denomination –the Assemblies of God – double in size. Over ten percent of the country’s million protestants worship in one of almost 2,000 AOG churches or over 8,000 house churches.
The revival continues as well, even impacting some of the darker corners of Cuban culture, like the secretive African religion, Santeria. “Some of the biggest leaders of Santeria are coming to church. Two months ago a youth came with a tumor on his head. We didn’t know him, but prayed for him and God healed him. His father was one of the leaders of Santeria in the region and he has become part of the great flow of people into the church. They have turned away from Santeria, destroying many altars, even returning some human bones to the cemetery. Where sin abounds, grace abounds too.”
This now-thriving church survived only because of one woman’s faithful attendance as a congregation of one. Read the story here.
PART of Moises’ story confirms what I had heard before traveling to the country. Despite the fact that the state put a hold on the construction of new church buildings all the way back in 1961, numbers of Christians in the country are still moving sharply up. The revival continues and current estimates suggest that there are as many as 40,000 house churches meeting regularly throughout the country. Of the island’s 11 million population, two million now declare themselves Christian.
But I had been made aware of another story as well, one that told of continued persecution for Christians. I had read of churches being bulldozed, heard rumors of Christians deliberately getting themselves arrested and imprisoned so that they could evangelize among inmates.
According to the reports, it was Moises’ denomination that was having churches destroyed, yet Moises denied knowing anything about it.
It falls to an American working to bring Bibles into Cuba to clear things up for me. With shoulders like a prize bull and a voice as deep as thunder, David lays out his case.
“Scour the internet and you will find all kinds of people who will tell you things. There are people who claim that the church is dying, that they’re putting people in jail, that they’re burning the buildings. Christianity Today has a piece about a female pastor dragged from a church and the building flattened. Those things do happen and they are true, but there’s a context for it. And the context is that it’s a story to tell. If I tell you that I have been persecuted and need $50,000 to rebuild the church that got bulldozed down, it’s an easy way to make a lot of money.
“The reality is that the church is legal, recognized by the president and the government, and is trying to serve the community. The prison chaplaincy is huge and growing. We’re getting lots of Bibles in there, seeing lots of baptisms as inmates and their guards are coming to faith. There’s even a Baptist pastor who has served for decades as member of parliament because he’s so respected by his community. But if you’re a rebel and if you’re trying to cause problems and misrepresent who the church is you are going to be in trouble.”
Exhibit A of the state’s ever-improving attitude towards Christianity could easily be the program that David is working on: the million Bibles for Cuba. The program would be a significant challenge for many countries, let alone one with Cuba’s addiction to bureaucracy. Yet, three years in, the program is perfectly on track, with a quarter million Bibles left to import. None of it could have happened without the state’s blessing.
And yet… “it’s a drop in the bucket,” says David. “Take one million bibles and divide them among 15 provinces and 69 denominations and it works out at just three bibles per church. But it’s progress. One week last year we distributed 16,000 bibles. That was more that all the bibles that came into the country – smuggled in suitcases – between 1959 and 2010.”
Cuban Christians erupt in cheers and dancing as the Haven Team distributes Bibles to Christians who have waited their whole lives for a copy of their own. Find out how you can help send Bibles to Cuba.
Working alongside the church in Cuba has given David a clear view of the condition of the church itself. “It’s not your typical mission field where you teach them how it’s done. The church has been though fire, been tested and persecuted. They have been through things that first and third world countries haven’t seen. But Christians here are more vibrant as a result. They welcome you to walk alongside them. I’ve travelled all over Latin America, and the church in Cuba has done an incredible work.”
The story of the church’s growth in Cuba is full of irony. Instead of driving people away from Christianity, the policy of denying Christians access to higher education only ensured that the seminaries were better attended. Instead of limiting the growth of the church, the state’s refusal to permit new church buildings was the tinder that set off the explosion in the house church movement. And instead of suffocating the faith, the state’s decision to restrict access to the Bible has only increased the appetite for scripture.
“They have learned to memorize,” says David. “Visit any church in Cuba today and start quoting scripture and they will finish it. And not just the highlights either.”
Watch as Christians in Cuba receive their first Bibles after decades of waiting for one of their own.
“MY generation is a generation of many rebels,” says Joel Dopico, president of the Cuban Council of Churches. Dopico’s a unique sort of rebel: a hustler with a dog collar, a deal maker with a box full of Bibles in the trunk of his car. He’s a compact man with two oversized phones, sometimes juggling multiple calls on each as he executes his job which brings him into contact with everyone from global leaders (including the Pope, President Obama and Raul Castro) to farmers hoping that he can help them find someone to donate a greenhouse so that they can set up a farming project to benefit single mothers. For Dopico, being both a Christian and a rebel has brought him to a unique place. “We protested but had no platform for our voices to be heard. God opened our eyes to the fact that there were many new opportunities for us.”
The key word there is not opportunities. It is many.
“We have programs for development, health and community life, emergencies and disaster relief, as well as working with people with disabilities. We oversee a multi-million dollar project that gives every child born in Cuba a hearing and sight test, and have funded a project that ensures premature babies are given better care while incubated.”
Rev. Joel Dopico preaches a sunrise service to a packed crowd in Varadero.
The Cuban Council of Churches also works with people on the margins, like those living with disabilities or HIV. “Initially, many in the church resisted, saying that people with HIV were condemned by God. But we told them that we need to show them the love of God and today many churches work with these people and many are coming to Christ. It was the same with people with disabilities. Twenty years ago we had only nine blind people in churches in Cuba. Today we have 1700 blind people in our churches, some of them are pastors.”
As well as having to persuade the churches that the gospel is good news for the body as well as the spirit, Dopico has fought for the church’s right to openly promote Christianity. “Some people in authority said that we could not distribute Bibles with wheelchairs. They said it was not ethical. We told them that we would find it impossible to give material things without giving the one thing that is the most precious to us. After a long discussion they agreed that we could ask people if they wanted a bible. People welcome it, and in the last ten years we have distributed 6,000 wheelchairs and 6,000 bibles. We cannot be silent, Jesus tells us to proclaim the gospel everywhere we go.”
And there’s another of those key words: go. Like so many others who have helped steward this remarkable revival within Cuba, Dopico’s rebellion is against more than the skeptical state or a theology that narrows its view of salvation. He fights to broaden the vision of the kingdom of God. “Church does not exist so that people can be brought along to it. Church exists to go. I love the house churches because when you build buildings you spend a lot of money on them. Now I believe that the church in Cuba is growing, being faithful, having passed through the fires and waters of the testing time. We are a tested church but we now have to make a huge step for Cuba. We need to think bigger than buildings or meetings. We need to empower the spirituality of the nation. We need to go to others. The majority of people are not in church in Cuba. How are we going to reach them? How are we going to bring Jesus to them and bring them to Jesus? They cannot come until Jesus goes to them. We need to be a church of goers, not a church that grows fat.”
The heart of the Cuban church isn’t focused on itself; they are passionate about going out to bless the world.
“ARE YOU FROM THE LEFT OR THE RIGHT?” It’s an awkward moment, this. Facing an 82-year-old member of the Cuban parliament, a man not much taller than my nine year old daughter but with a presence that more than fills the empty hall, I am momentarily robbed of coherent speech.
Reverend Raul Suarez, Baptist minister, politician and servant of the Cuban people, has done this before. Even the briefest Google search serves up a cache of images of him with Fidel, Jesse Jackson and other leaders, some with all players looking lithe and trim in black and white, others a little more gray and wrinkled in high definition. “You get three questions,” he says. “Maybe more if I like.”
Reverend Soarez has a unique perspective on the changes within the church and the challenges facing Christians today. Growing up as one of nine sons born to a sugar cane laborer who spent eight months of the year without work, life was hard. The church didn’t help.
“The church was not relevant to most people in my town. The US missionaries were teaching that we should not have anything to do with politics and nothing to do with the transformation of society. They taught that Christians should be in the church, nothing else. As far as I could see, religion didn’t make any difference to the poor.”
When he finally read about Jesus, Reverend Soarez discovered that the micro-religious world of the church was not representative of the call that Jesus issues to his followers. “That opened my eyes and gave me a new understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. It showed me that the goal is how the church can be inside society, how we can be relevant and be involved in what needs to be done among the people, especially the poor.”
Rev. Soarez is a pastor and member of Cuban Parliament who has a history of standing up to power and even spent time in a forced labor camp.
A Google image search does a poor job of telling the full story of the years that followed. There are no shots of the moments Reverend Soarez stood up to power, his time in a forced labor camp, or the ways he continued to serve faithfully among the poor. But his perspective on the challenges facing Christians today is a clear product of a life spent trusting God and taking risks.
“We should echo the prayer in Proverbs 30, ‘Lord, don’t give me less than I need’ that I might be tempted to take from others, but Lord don’t give me more than I need, that I might think that I am powerful. To have a full life and enough to live with dignity you don’t need to be rich. Wealthy people don’t have enough time to live a full life, they are preoccupied with what they have.
“That is why, when the state prevented the church from building in Cuba, they put in our hands the golden goose. Sometimes building sanctuaries and churches creates barriers and limitations, and the rule forced us to be in community. It turned our eyes away from a micro-religious world. That’s when church growth really started, and it’s one of the main reasons why we have thousands and thousands of house churches today. That was a strategy of Jesus, to go house to house and establish a small community. That’s how he took down the Roman empire.
“Some in your church want to form mega churches. But the kingdom is not for mega churches. It is for fragile and small churches. That was the prayer of Jesus, that we would not be afraid of small beginnings because the will of the Father is to give us the kingdom. We should not worry how small we are, how fragile we are. The kingdom is for us.”
A visual metaphor of how a small-yet-growing Cuban church is beginning to stand out in Cuba.
MOISES SMILES AS HE REMEMBERS THOSE SMALL, FRAGILE YEARS. “If you had a Bible you were like a king. And if you had a theology book you were like a Pharaoh. Somehow we got hold of a mimeograph machine (a primitive photocopier) and worked in a small basement to start to translate and print courses to train pastors.”
The church in Cuba has come such a long way since then, so far that it is beginning to attract attention from other churches around the world. Not all of it is welcome.
“I have sat with people from churches in the US and Brazil who have asked me what we need. They offer to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, but on the condition that we change our name to theirs. They’re trying to buy us as trophies, but so far not one church in all of Cuba has sold. The Cuban church is healthy and when someone comes with good intentions to help we are humbled and grateful, but we know how to discern when things are not good.”
There rises within me a deep and ridiculous urge to apologize on behalf of all wealthy Christians everywhere. Yet there is no hint of resentment in Moises’ voice. Just a half smile, hands spread wide again, and a gentle tone. When he speaks, it is with the warmth and encouragement of a pilgrim who has traveled further down the road.
“When people have a lot they get comfortable. You no longer have an urgency to seek God. I think that it’s proven both in the book of Acts and in history, even in Exodus, that when there is persecution and people are oppressed, the church grows even more. People need God then, they need to depend more on him and look for refuge and find it in him. There is a different sort of persecution in your country. One time I preached in Canada and told them that they were just as persecuted as we are, but the persecution is different. You are pursuing something, but not the same thing that we are. You are pursuing more comfort, having more things and we are pursuing a total dependence on God. You need to stop pursuing comfort and depend more on God.”
And if we don’t?
“I don’t think that the gospel depends on having help or no help from the nations. I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ depends on people being committed to Jesus Christ. It depends on people looking for the face of the Lord with hunger or without hunger, with or without work, in abundance or in lack. It depends on people that have decided to preach the gospel of Jesus.
“There’s a strong relationship between what Cubans have gone through and the people of God in the Old Testament. We cried and longed for our old land. We felt like we had been kicked out because of our faith, repressed because of our decision to follow Jesus. But I believe God saw his people who continued strong in the faith in spite of the persecutions. He had his eyes on us, sending the revival at the perfect time. And the best is yet to come.”
About the Author
Craig Borlase is a Christian journalist and collaborative author of more than forty-five books. He’s also a colleague of Haven Today and resides in England.
Food shortages, blackouts, and strong government regulations. These hardships are top of mind for the people of Cuba. But they’re also yearning for hope.
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