by Harrison Smith
Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere closed to resident foreign missionaries.
Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere closed to resident foreign missionaries. Since the break-up of the Soviet bloc, mission agencies and churches have waited for ministry opportunities in this island of 11 million. Since 1991 consultations on possible future ministry in Cuba have been held in Miami, Toronto, and Virginia Beach.
Meanwhile, missionaries from various agencies have been placed in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Miami waiting for the walls to come down.
The recent passage of the Helms-Burton Act to further restrict business assistance to Castro was another U.S. effort to bring about the quick demise of the 37-year-old revolution. The jury is still out on whether this move will be effective. But recent visitors to Cuba note that the free-market economy and foreign investments continue to grow, apparently unaffected.
How might agencies and missionaries prepare for ministry opportunities in Cuba if and when entrance requirements are relaxed? But if the revolution and socialism remain intact, what then? Might these same issues also relate to starting new ministries in other parts of the globe? This article could serve as a reference point either for those thinking of ministry in Cuba in particular, or for those considering new fields in general.
CUBANS IN THE CRUCIBLE
Since the early 1960s the Cuban evangelical church has faced special challenges. While not always overtly persecuting the church, the government has tried to marginalize it and paint its adherents as non-contributors to the new socialistic order. Some pastors were imprisoned. The government permitted worship services in church buildings. But other kinds of church-related activity such as evangelistic campaigns and home Bible studies were prohibited. Importation of Bibles was not allowed, and church buildings could not be repaired. Only a few evangelicals were admitted to professional training tracks in the university. Thousands of evan-gelicals fled in the early 1960s and again during the Mariel boat lift in 1980. By 1990 less than 1 percent of the population was evangelical.
Some evangelical leaders—pastors, elders, and deacons—determined that they would stay on the island. One pastor said, “We had told our flocks for years that the Christian would face difficult times as part of his normal experience; we could not desert our people when tough times came. Besides, we are Cubans and we love our country and wanted to keep a presence of the gospel in our land.”
OPENNESS TO THE GOSPEL
In the mid-1980s Fidel Castro quietly began to allow some freedom for the Cuban churches. In 1990, following the demise of communism in the Soviet bloc, reforms accelerated. In a historic, televised national speech in April, 1990, Castro gave new liberty to Christians. Among the key decisions announced was freedom to form new house churches in towns where churches did not exist.
With the new liberties, 30 years of resilient witness, and a disintegrating economic system, thousands of Cubans started to seek new answers for the new realities. Many found Christ. “It is more than a harvest,” said one Cuban lay pastor. “You don’t have to pick the fruit, it falls into your lap as you walk under the trees.” Many of these new believers have been incorporated into new house churches, others into existing congregations.
IT IS A FRAGILE MOMENT
Historically, moments of revival do not last for long periods. In special times of awakening God sovereignly prepares hearts, impresses people of their sin and a need for a savior, and brings a gospel messenger at the crucial moment. Visitors to Cuba are immediately impressed by the openness of non-Christians, as well as the spiritual fervor of the newly born-again.
Since the gospel came to Cuba in the last century, national leaders have carried the banner of evangelism. When the New Pines movement started in the 1920s it was with the understanding that Cubans would evangelize and plant churches. Their partners, then West Indies Mission (now World Team), would focus ontraining pastors. This division of responsibility is widely adopted today where Cubans have lived through 30 years of pressure. They know how to present Christ effectively in their own society. They know their own history and culture intimately. Newcomers from off the island find their role in areas other than evangelism: training leaders, providing teaching and printing materials, praying, supporting seminaries, and other helpful ministries.
CONSULT WITH CUBANS
Visitors must consult with the Cuban brethren. While admirable in terms of planning, independent strategies developed in North America for a coming day of ministry opportunity are inadequate.
Ministry in Cuba now requires a religious visa, secured only with the backing of a Cuban denomination or association. In fact, all work in Cuba must be done under Cuban entities. No new non-Cuban agencies are being admitted to Cuba.
For several years groups from Central America, Mexico, Canada, and even from the U.S. have gone to Cuba with tourist visas in hand. They have done beach evangelism, shown the “Jesus Film” and engaged in other evangelistic activity, usually without repercussions. Following the downing of two planes of “Brothers to the Rescue” on February 24, 1996, Raul Castro announced that evangelism done by visitors with tourist visas would be strictly prohibited. Several groups engaging in ministry as tourists have been removed and declared persona non grata.
The testimony of the Cuban evangelical church is enhanced by seeking, whenever possible, to submit to government authorities. (This does not reflect adoption of a political position.)
Cuban Christians believe that they have paid a dear price for their right to be heard by their countrymen. Groups that ignore Cuban sensitivities will face opposition not only from the government, but also the disapproval of the Cuban church. Entrepreneurial evangelism may generate excitement in North America, but it creates suspicion among the brethren in Cuba.
PATERNALISTM AND HISTORY
Cubans have a particular antipathy toward paternalism. One agency recently made overtures to a Cuban group, offering to help pay salaries of struggling pastors. Despite the need, the agency was turned down. Why? One reason is a concern about creating dependency. “We have taught our flocks that they need to support their pastors financially. They have done so . . . sacrificially . . . for 30 years. Salaries from the outside would be a step backwards,” said one Cuban leader.
A medical doctor described several international medical symposiums he has attended. “We Cubans are very proud of our training and some pioneering research we have done. We resent it when off-island doctors assume we are not their equals educationally or in terms of research.” This desire to be treated as able partners is seen among church leaders, too.
Historically, Cuban relationships with the United States have been strained. Cubans have been wary of relations with offshore entities for decades. Tensions with the U.S. did not start with the revolution, Fidel Castro, and the 1962 missile crisis. Cuban’s national hero and martyr Jose Marti died in 1895 in the first attempt to throw off Spanish domination. This predated Teddy Roosevelt, “Remember the Maine,” and the Spanish-American War of 1898 by three years. Cubans say they did not need U.S. help to achieve independence.
Following Cuba’s independence, U.S. forces remained on the island influencing politics. The Platt Amendment was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1902. The law recognized Cuban independence, but also limited its sovereignty by installing military governors.1 In the 1950s Cuba became an offshore Mafia refuge. Prostitution abounded. The United States is often perceived to be responsible for the moral decline in Cuba during this period.
GEOGRAPHY AND POLITICS
Today Cubans tend to be cut off from the rest of the world. Living on an island produces a unique sense of isolation. Tourists from the world-at-large may visit, but Cubans have little interactionwith them. Except for sports figures, doctors in training, or government officials, Cubans rarely visit other countries. Add a U.S. blockade now compounded by the new Helms-Burton Act, and a very distinct, insular, proud, nationalistic society emerges. A visitor must earn his way to be heard with helpful deeds and a servant attitude.
OUR HELP MAY NOT BE WHAT THEY NEED
North American groups sometimes offer help that is not high on the Cuban priority list. Groups often bring Bibles, but Bibles are now readily available. Spanish study Bibles and other Christian literature are not. Some groups offer money to pay pastors, but Cubans request friendship and partnership. They need financial help for projects, but in the context of a sharing relationship. Visitors say, “We will come and offer you training.” Cubans say, “Good, but we are your equals; come and learn from us what it is like to have suffered for the name of Jesus.”
Cuban evangelicals say their greatest need is prayer. “Pray that we will be the kind of people God wants us to be, and that we will be worthy and wise during these special days of revival,” they say.
Other needs suggested by the Cuban church include training materials, books for libraries, and study resources for an estimated 4,000 pastors and lay leaders in Cuba. Work teams can do community projects in the name of the church. They need bicycles for pastors, VCRs to show the “Jesus” film, vitamins to treat beriberi, medicine for epilepsy, and gel for ultrasound machines.
GROWTH, DOCTRINE AND POWER
Cuban leaders struggle with church-growth issues. Two out of every three Christians have come to Christ in the last five years. Who will disciple these new believers? Discipleship materials may be part of the answer, but importation of literature is difficult. Production of materials on the island still is rarely permitted and is costly. How will Cuban pastors and lay leaders get help conserving their converts? Many lay pastors are under age 30, and new believers themselves. How will these new leaders be oriented and trained in basic ministry issues and skills?
In recent months several cults have received permission to start activities. Some subtle doctrinal heresies are at issue. How will new leaders recognize and confront false doctrine? How will they protect their flocks from groups that appear evangelical to new Christians?
For the last 30 years there has not been a formal religious structure in place. Unlike the rest of Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church has not had pervasive influence. It sided with Battista in the 1950s and suffered the consequences when Castro emerged victorious. More recently, Castro has shown interest in Liberation Theology.2 Atheism has been the official “religion” for three decades. Millions of young people have grown up without even a basic understanding of some of the elementary facts of Christianity. Christmas and Easter have not been celebrated. Therefore, evangelism and discipleship must include considerable foundational information not only on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, but Old Testament material as well.
Spiritism and Santeria have had profound influence in Cuba. Shamans, witch doctors, and spirit guides have enjoyed close contacts with the government. Patrick Johnstone in Operation World estimates that 25 percent of the population is involved in spiritism.3 At a recent funeral of a popular government official hundreds of spiritist leaders paid their respects.
Between false doctrine and overt spiritism, spiritual warfare issues are prominent. The Cuban church and cooperating off-island groups must have acute spiritual discernment—and be backed by fervent, knowledgeable prayer.
WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?
Many North Americans have assumed that Cuba will follow the Soviet Union and collapse politically and economically. This may not necessarily occur. In the final analysis, it is God who raises up kings and sets earthly powers aside. Cuba is not Eastern Europe. Cuba is determined to survive as asocialistic experiment in the Western hemisphere, despite political pressure from the U.S. Its days of exporting revolution are over. If it means making some accommodations with off-island entrepreneurs from Canada, Spain, Mexico, and Argentina, Castro will do it.
Cubans who have stayed on the island have a different perspective from the transplanted Cubans who have fled the country. Expatriates living in Florida and New York want to overthrow Castro and socialism. On the other hand, many Cubans who have stayed on the island are more optimistic about some aspects of socialism. Education, housing, and medicine have improved the lot of the poor. And with some elements of free market economy in place, there is some hope economically for the country. Barring an invasion or a civil war, many Cubans are modestly optimistic about the future of the country. If God permits Castro’s regime to remain, a modified socialism may be in place for a long time. Every advantage afforded evangelicals must be utilized to the full for God’s glory and the advance of his church in Cuba.
1. Marcos A. Ramos, Protestantism and Revolution in Cuba (Miami: University of Miami, 1989), pp. 23, 24.
2. Ibid, p. 79.
3. Patrick Johnstone, Operation World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), p. 187.
4. Johnstone, 470.
Harrison Smith is director of CAM International of Canada. He has served as a missionary in Costa Rica and El Salvador. He has ministered in Cuba since 1993.
EMQ, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 60-67. Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.