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Praying for Cuba ‘to be free in the right way’

As the U.S. considers restoring diplomatic relations with the island nation, Cuban Christians in both countries react with a mix of joy, hope and despair.

When Gloria Perez fled Cuba in 1961, she was forced to leave everything behind — including her 6-month-old son, Paco.

In Miami, she spent a torturous three months securing a visa waiver that would allow her baby to enter the country, escorted by her mother and younger brother.

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Fifty-three years later, as President Barack Obama announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, “for me, it was a big shock ” Perez told The Christian Chronicle. “I didn’t expect that.”

Now 74 and a great-grandmother, she worships with the Sunset Church of Christ in Miami, where the son she worried she would never see again serves as an elder. 

In a half-century on U.S. soil, she’s never returned to visit Cuba, unwilling to spend even a dollar there that might support the regime of Fidel Castro that forced her family into exile.

For that reason, “I’m a little disappointed” by the U.S. president’s announcement, she said. Many of her relatives were unable to leave Cuba, and a cousin spent 20 years in prison for his opposition to the communist government.

Now, it’s like “he was in jail for nothing,” she said.

Nearly a half-million Cubans fled to Miami during a 15-year period after the island nation’s revolution. Reaction to the Dec. 17 announcement there was mixed, said Jim Holway, a minister and coordinator for LAMP Miami, a church-planting project in south Florida.

Jim Holway preaches in Spanish and English for the Sunset Church of Christ in Miami. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

“Older Cuban exiles who lost property, jobs (and family members) have been much more resistant to any changes in U.S. policy,” Holway said. “Younger Cuban immigrants — those who grew up under the Castro regime — tend to have a much more relaxed attitude toward dialogue.”

The Good News in Cuba

In Cuba, news of the possible easing of travel and trade restrictions was met with “lots of hopefulness from the Cuban brethren,” said Tim Archer of the Herald of Truth ministry.

“They’ve needed some good news,” he added.

Tim Archer translates for Juan Monroy at the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. Read Russian minister Igor Egirev’s “In the Word” devotional about hearing Monroy talk about preaching in Cuba — and Russia. (VIDEO STILL VIA CRCRUSSIA.COM)

Archer, coordinator of Spanish-speaking ministries for the Texas-based nonprofit, makes regular trips to Cuba with Juan Monroy, an evangelist from Spain and the first missionary from Churches of Christ to enter the communist nation since the rise of Castro. Now the island is home to more than 100 Churches of Christ. Many are growing rapidly.

The proposed changes to U.S. foreign policy “will certainly make it easier for those of us that work in Cuba,” Archer told the Chronicle. “Hopefully, they will ease the suffering of the Cuban people. 

“This is a time for Christians to lay politics aside and pray for the welfare of our brothers and sisters who have faced so many difficulties.”

In the Central American nation of Honduras, Cuban students at the Baxter Institute also are excited about the possible easing of sanctions, said Steve Teel, president of the ministry training school associated with Churches of Christ.

“The realities of Cuba are stark and dark for the Cuban people,” Teel said. Beef and other consumables are rationed, salaries are low and “hunger is real.” Most of the island’s congregations meet in homes and are unable to build church buildings.

The Cuban government permits a few preachers from Churches of Christ to study at Baxter. One student’s father rides a bike about 40 miles between two church plants each Sunday, Teel said.

Baxter recently graduated 15 students from eight countries, including Cuba. One of the Cuban students, Yuliesky Cruz, received the President’s Award.

Praying for peace

In Miami, Gloria Perez said she’s praying for future generations of Cubans to “grow up in peace.”

Though easing trade restrictions may help Cubans in the short run, she fears that it will strengthen the communist government. 

“If Cuba is going to be free,” she said. “I want it to be free in the right way.”

Paul Schwiep, another of the Sunset church’s elders, also comes from a family of Cuban immigrants. He was a teenager when he met his grandfather for the first time. In 1979, his family made a huge financial sacrifice to send him on the 90-mile trip from Miami to Cuba, the country they left behind in 1961.

“The changes President Obama has proposed in U.S. policy toward Cuba are significant,” Schweip told the Chronicle, “as is the message that, after 54 years, we are shifting policy toward Cuba with the same end goal in mind — promoting human rights on the island. 

“No sane person can argue that the policy of the past 54 years has been effective. Let’s pray these changes prompt changes in Cuba.”

Church members sing hymns in Spanish and English during a multilingual worship service at the Sunset Church of Christ in Miami. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

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