As Cuba transitions to a new relationship with the United States, Americans have a renewed interest in learning how the church there has fared for the last 50 plus years. Not only has our government intentionally made strong efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, but God has sovereignly preserved his Church through more than fifty years of political oppression, an official atheistic and godless regime, and the spiritual darkness that has enveloped this beautiful island nation since 1959. CBN News recently visited Cuba to gather information on the spiritual condition of the Christian Church in Cuba today.
Comfort not a concern
On a typical Sunday morning in Cuba, there are many churches across the island overflowing with worshippers who are allowed to gather openly and without fear of oppression. Many meet in homes and others meet in churches that look more North American but operate in a political climate that is very different.
Space is the biggest challenge for many churches. Under current government rules they typically cannot buy land or expand. One church CBN News visited responded to the rules by building several stories up. Others cram into homes and multiply when they become too big.
One local pastor leads a church that used to meet in an apartment but now meets in the yard next to his apartment building. “When you have 80 to 100 people meeting in an apartment it’s hard, very hard,” he told CBN News. “And neighbors get upset.”
In many “church” locations on Sunday mornings and during weeknight services, only a few will have a real seat. “People here don’t care how comfortable they are,” one local woman explained. “They could be exhausted from working all day, and they will sit on a bag of rocks, a stitched up chair, or stand the whole service, and they’re okay with that.”
Home church explosion
Cuban church leaders say events led by the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s sparked the current church planting explosion. “When the Russian government collapsed, Cuba went through a lot, and people started looking to churches for hope,” Pastor “Julio” told CBN News, as many still do not want their real names used, as they have grown up in the fear of the government and local police.
A government official told Cuban Baptists that the government could not authorize the construction of new buildings but suggested that the believers meet in homes. This has sparked a house church movement that many have compared to church history recorded in the book of Acts.
Victory through challenge
The growth of the church in Cuba is even more miraculous given the country’s poverty. The average monthly government salary is $20 and professionals typically make less than $50 per month. Still, Cuban churches are known for their generosity and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel.
Another obstacle facing Cuban churches is spiritual warfare in the form of Santeria. It’s a system of beliefs influenced by West African religions. Santeria is known for its rituals and ceremonies, and may have its roots in some of the same regions of Africa as the voodoo religion in Haiti. Local pastors have faced resistance in their neighborhoods. During one Sunday morning worship service, a group of Santeria followers stood just outside the church and began beating their drums.
Church leaders in Cuba say they’re enjoying a new season of relaxed restrictions. It’s easier to evangelize outside the church and they receive more permits to hold special events. Still, most churches cannot expand or buy land. They cannot produce Christian radio or television shows. They must also work around a dysfunctional economy. At Pastor Nestor’s church, remodeling plans for the sanctuary are on hold indefinitely until the church can obtain much-needed cement.
“Sometime without suffering there’s no challenge,” Pastor “Nestor” told CBN News. “And without that challenge, there’s no victory.”
Reports of continued oppression
The Cuban government has issued a demolition order for every church in the Abel Santamaria district in the southern city of Santiago de Cuba, according to reports from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), as reported in a recent article on breitbart.com. The five churches in the neighborhood are slated for destruction and pastors and their families are to be evicted, according to the ruling that was issued by government Planning and Housing Officials on November 27.
The demolition order follows on a “sleep in” staged two weeks ago by members of the Emanuel Church in an attempt to prevent officials from destroying their church. Reverend Alain Toledano is pastor of the Church and has accused the communist government of open persecution of Christians following the Pope’s visit in September. Reverend Alain Toledano said, “The communists have intensified in their hatred and persecution of the church following the Pope’s visit to Cuba and the re-establishment of relations with the United States. I request constant intercession on behalf of the churches in Cuba.”
In its 2015 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said that the Cuban government “actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies and government-authorized surveillance and harassment.”
“The government principally targets for arrest or harassment religious communities and leaders deemed too independent from government control or those who support democracy and human rights efforts,” the report states.
Mission trips to Cuba
One of the groups that has been organizing missions trips to Cuba since 2012, before the embargo on private travel to Cuba was lifted, is Adventures in Missions. In the very center of Cuba is a 500-year-old city called Sancti Spiritus (Holy Spirit). It is roughly a four-hour bus ride from the capital of Havana and is the home of a pastor of over 100 churches throughout the nation. In the two years Adventures has partnered with this pastor, they have seen his ministry grow as church plants exploded from a handful of members to hundreds. Through meeting needs like harvesting yuca, red potatoes and coffee on the church farm, sports ministry and building churches in local communities, their teams have established strong relationships with our brothers and sisters there.
While in Cuba, Adventures teams stay in government-approved hostels. Ministry varies from sports ministry, construction/farming, teaching/Bible studies, home visits, VBS, and encouraging the church. Meals are made by the women of the church over an open fire. For the first time in half a century, Cuba is open to Americans. Adventures in Missions has three Hostels they have been working with over the past two years.
Another organization that has been involved with Cuba is Living in Faith Missions, which has been sponsoring mission trips to Cuba for almost a decade. The Cuba ministry is where Living in Faith started, as an inspiration from God while Russ Montgomery was in Havana for the first time in 1996. Living in Faith is fully licensed by the United States Government to conduct mission trips to Cuba.
The second Living in Faith Mission House is currently under construction. The mission houses provide a base of operations where Christians fulfill Jesus’ call to ‘love thy neighbor’. Living in Faith regularly visits dozens of churches and mission locations throughout Cuba, building relationships with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Cuba still desperately needs our prayers and support. For those who want to be able to pray more specifically, further information is available at cbn.com/cbnnews, breitbart.com, livinginfaith.net/cuba and adventures.org/trips/mission-trips.
Bob Woods has worked as an engineer at AECOM Technical Services and WGI, and is a published Christian author. He can be reached at [email protected]