Seeing the light in Cuba
It still feels like a million miles.
Forty-seven years after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the two countries remain worlds apart. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made a landmark goodwill visit in 2002, but the next year, President Bush tightened the nation’s travel embargo on Cuba.
In the past five years churches of Christ in the United States have enjoyed positive relations with the island nation. Contributions from churches in Alabama and Louisiana — and a host of church-supported ministries — have made churches of Christ one of the largest contributors of humanitarian aid to Cuba, said Gary Bradley, a church member in Alabama who works with Cuban churches.
That status hasallowed U.S.church members unprecedented access to their counterparts on the island, aftera half-century of near-isolation. Church members who have traveled the shortdistance to Cubareport vibrant, growing congregations in this communist nation.
NAVIGATING A SEA OF RED TAPE
Juan Monroy, aminister in Madrid, Spain, who works with Cubanchurches, said he’s impressed by “the dedication of the members, theirfaithfulness in speaking about Christ to others, their spiritual growth.”
Getting into Cuba requires dedication and faithfulness —especially for residents of the United States. Church workers must obtain specialpermission from the U.S. Treasury Department to carry on religious activitiesin Cuba.The nine-page government license includes detailed warnings about limitingpurchases to goods and services required for the trip.
With no commercialflights to Cuba from the United States, church members must charter aplane or fly to Jamaica, theBahamas or another nearbynation and buy a separate ticket to get to Havana.
A simple tourist visais easy to obtain, but those conducting religious activities on the island(teaching a Bible class, preaching a sermon or even saying a public prayer)must register for a special license from the Cuban government.
Money presents morechallenges. Prices for visitors are in convertible pesos, worth about$1 each.The pesos used by Cubans are worth considerably less. Because of theembargo, Cuba imposes a 20 percent penalty on exchanging U.S. currencyfor convertible pesos. Some workers who visit Cubafrequently suggest converting U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars beforeexchanging them in Cuba.
YEARS OF HARDSHIP ANDGROWTH
Church members whopatiently file their paperwork find a dizzying mix of Spanish, American andeven Russian influences when they arrive in Havana. Paintings of Castro and revolutionaryleader Ernesto “Che” Guevara are hard to miss.
Nestled among thecolonial Spanish buildings, Cuban jazz ensembles perform as street vendorsmarket the revolution on T-shirts and postcards. Clay miniatures of Castro andGuevara cost one convertible peso each.
Cuba also is home to a growing body of believers. Roberto Pino,a minister in Havana, said that 120 churches —each with memberships between 15 and 70 — meet in Cuba. Church leaders estimate acombined membership of about 3,000.
The church’s roots inCuba date back to 1938, whenErnesto Estivez and Jose Ricardo Jimenez moved to Havana to work as vocational missionaries. By1945 the small congregation they launched was meeting in a building on a streetnamed “10 de octubre” (10th of October).
The church grewrapidly. Monroy estimates the number of members in 1959, the year of the CubanRevolution, at 1,500, though other church historians put it as high as 5,000.
Regardless, “theRevolution changed all,” Monroy said. “Some (church members) departed to the United Statesor Latin American countries. Others abandoned their faith.”
Manuel Manriquewasn’t one of them. A student of Estivez and Jiminez, he was baptized in aportable tank in 1943. He was 17. The missionaries “preached the gospel the wayit should be preached,” said Manrique, now 80. “This is exactly what I waslooking for.”
Manrique maintainedhis teachers’ “spirit of fighting for the gospel” after the Revolution. Now his17-year-old grandson, Dajan, hopes to become a minister.
In 1985 Monroy becamethe first missionary from churches of Christ to enter Cuba since theRevolution. He found a small, struggling group of Christians and asked churchesin the United Statesto help. Congregations in Waco, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., began supporting ministers in Cuba, and thechurches started to grow.
REACHING SOULS WITHBIBLES, RADIO AND TV
U.S. ministries have contributed to that growth. Abilene,Texas-based Herald of Truth produces a 15-minute radio program heard five daysa week across the island. The ministry’s office in the city of Matanzas receives about 100 letters per month.Minister Toni Fernandez mails Bibles and correspondence courses to thoseinterested.
The Cuban governmentrecently authorized the ministry to send 40,000 Bibles and 10,000 copies of theNew Testament to the island to be distributed to listeners of the ministry’sradio program. The Herald of Truth sponsors an annual youth conference in Matanzas.
Rex Morgan,missionary to the Spanish-speaking community in south Floridaand Latin America, has traveled to the islandand distributed copies of Con La Biblia Abierta (With the Open Bible), atelevision program he produces. The program tackles basic theological questionsand everyday problems from a Christian perspective.
In mid-2005 Morganmet with a group of Cuban ministers to promote the program. Several had usedthe video series and said it was a valuable tool.
“People think we readthe Bible and nothing else,” one minister said, praising the videos’ practicalapplication of Scripture. Another minister said that the program’s simplemessages were “good for people raised on atheism … mired in materialism.”
Spanish-languagemagazine La Voz Eterna (The Eternal Voice) has appeared in Cuban churches forseveral decades. The publication includes stories about Cuba andfeatures written by Cuban church members.
Nashville,Tenn.-based Healing Hands International has donated humanitarian aid and evenambulances to Cuba.Other ministries, including Amarillo, Texas-based Christian Relief Fund, havecontributed to the work.
GROWING NEEDS FORGROWING CHURCHES
As a result of theirgrowth, many churches in Cubaare running out of space. The Cuban government regulates construction, and manychurches meet in the home of the minister. Almost every church seems to begrowing, Pino said.
Monroy said that someministers must remove the furniture from their bedrooms and dining rooms everySunday to make space for their growing congregations.
Every time a churchreaches its maximum capacity “God gives us another place where we can meet,”Pino said. But the increasing number of churches “elevates the need to preparemore evangelists.” Churches outside Cuba provide support for some ofthe country’s ministers, but more sponsors are needed, Monroy said.
Humanitarian needsalso are great, said Monroy, who in November delivered contributions fromchurches of Christ in Spainto help victims of Hurricane Wilma.
“It is about 2,000years ago that a man from Macedoniacame before Paul in a dream and told him, ‘Come over to Macedonia andhelp us,’” Monroy said. “Today, in the 21st century, 12 million Cubans aresaying to the churches in the United States,‘Come over to Cubaand help us.’”