How the endurance of the Cuban Church is causing the kingdom to grow
After Jeff and I visited Cuba three years ago, we became a little bit obsessed. Our house became instantly decorated with Cuban license plates and 40×60 mural prints looking down old Havana streets, and our most played music channel for an entire year was Buena Vista Social Club. We signed up for rhumba lessons and devoured books about Che. We watched documentaries and rented movies like the Motorcycle Diaries to understand more about the country’s history.
However, in all of our obsession, we never found much info on the Church, and it never really occurred to us to ask. All we knew leading up to this trip was the fact that religion in Cuba was illegal until sometime in the 90s, and that now it was a little bit legal.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Cuba that we started to wonder: what is the Church’s role in a communist state?
Our first stop was spending a week at a pastor’s church, staying with a local casa particular—a hostel system in Cuba—and navigating the fog of confusing unwritten rules to learn about what life is like there, what God is doing there, and how we could be a part of it.
As a free-world-raised writer trying to interpret a communist-run system, I expected to find discontent. I believed the only real response to injustice was to change the system, and assumed that (of course) everyone would feel the same way. This seemed the obvious best choice.
But when I sat down in front of one local pastor halfway through our trip, he presented a simple and clear alternative: endure.
This pastor, who I’ll talk more about later, lives in Cuba, and these are the rules of Cuba. His job is not to challenge the political system but to work within the system to love his neighbors and transform his community through the love of Christ.
I understood immediately that life had equipped me with only one-tenth his grit and ten times the entitlement. From my perspective, everyone deserves to be every kind of free all the time.
But, I marveled, after spending time in three churches working peacefully within the system—not against it—it turns out God isn’t actually limited by communism. God’s people have been in and out of captivity since the beginning of time, but God seems to do his best work in those circumstances.
We visited three churches like this—churches that don’t just exist, but thrive (as much as a church can thrive in a resource limited environment)!
The first church was a beautiful three-story building outside of Havana that appeared relatively new. Pastor Saavedra lived on the second floor with his wife and three kids—with whom we spent every meal and all our spare time. The ground floor was the sanctuary, the basement housed the kids’ area and the kitchen, and third and fourth floors were the seminary classrooms with a couple of dorm rooms. The roof was a community gathering space, and somewhere in it all was a tiny office with a handful of computers and a bookshelf, holding a small number of theological resources in Spanish.
The church welcomed us instantly, without fully understanding why we were there. And although it was difficult to do World Next Door type stuff, like gathering concrete information, we lost ourselves in the warmth and hospitality of the community.
We attended the main church service and the children’s service, we sang along with Cristo Es Mi Superhero, and laughed with all the kids when a group of clowns showed up as part of a clown ministry. We attended the men’s group and the women’s groups, the intercessory prayer group, the youth group (“youths” in Cuba, by the way, are 15-40 year-olds!), the worship team practice, the praise services, the elder meeting and the evening seminary classes. Let me tell you, we went to church that week, and we learned what it meant to belong to that community.
The people in the congregation attended any and every service that even remotely applied to them in any possible way, because church was their lifeline. If they were not sleeping or working, they were at church. We shared with each other, the Cubans and I, over several tiny cups of espresso coffee. We spent several days throughout the week together in the open sanctuary, or in the youth room, or in the pastor’s loft home above the sanctuary. They shared their hopes and struggles, and my husband and I shared ours. We exchanged Bibles and necklaces and cutting boards and hot sauce as tokens of remembrance between us.
Though I had collected nothing concrete for World Next Door (in fact, nobody understood why we were even there), my soul was refreshed and my faith revived. It was like the body of Christ in this little church was a personal gift from God reminding me that he hears our prayers, and that sometimes he comes to us in the faces of others around us, even in a communist society.
The congregation nurtured my husband and I– prayed over our marriage and future family, revealed visions of hopes and shared tears over our mutual sorrows.
The pastor revealed throughout the week that this church exists because it has been supported in full by 20 nations. Each flag represents a different partnership. Each seminary student sponsored, each tablet containing study materials, each Bible, the projector, the structure itself, the clowns at Sunday School, the food in the kitchen—were all things invested in by the body of Christ outside of Cuba.
The people of Cuba survive on the sustenance of their government subsidies. No part of the independent church is subsidized. All expenses fall to the congregation, and despite a full offering basket each week, the congregation simply does not have the income (at $20 per month) to provide for the church materially.
It was only on one of our last days that I sat down in front of the pastor, my Spanish having improved dramatically throughout the week, and clearly said: We need to see your needs. We see all these flags from all these countries that have financed different parts of these ministries, we have experienced the ministries at work, and we want to tell our community at home how to help. We want in on growing this church’s reach in the community.
He saw our cameras and our notebooks, looked closely at our strange digital publication, and understood, finally, why we were there.
He took us on a full walking tour of the church and described his visions. We stood together on the empty, crackling roof that holds different summertime events—the only outdoor space in the urban area—and pointed to the spot that would one day host equipment for an outdoor weight room as an outreach to young men in the neighborhood. He walked to the edge and peered out.
“Do you see that empty lot at the end of the street?” he asked.
We stretched to see the tiny plot of land in the distance.
“It was donated. That will one day be a community garden that feeds the elderly in our community.”
He walked us back inside and through the sanctuary to a tiny classroom off to the side. “This is our Bible Institute.”
The room was no bigger than a 10×10 foot room. Crammed inside were a handful of books and theological resources and a couple of computers and laptops. This was the technology and resource center for the seminary students. They were desperate for more tablets, books and laptops.
He then walked us through the sanctuary, up a narrow staircase, through a corridor, and into a tiny closet. I walked into the closet, followed the L shape to the right, and there stood a newly constructed studio space!
The studio, funded by an American Church and a ministry in Miami, would allow for distribution of sermons to villages far away and house churches all over. It would be their biggest tool for outreach, evangelism, and discipleship.
“Would you come back when it’s finished?” he asked. “It will be a celebration, and we want to invite everyone who has made this possible to come celebrate with us!”
We could not predict what life would hold for us in the future, but in our best possible life—if God allowed us to plan these things—we would be at that opening, (At the very least, we explained, we’ll be celebrating from home).
Our next stop, after long goodbyes and hugs passed between us—oh, and several activities between cities to make good on our tourist visas—was a 1950’s-movie-theater-turned-church in Old Havana.
We knocked on the chained-up steel door, but no answer. We called the pastor’s name—tentatively at first, then loudly as we rattled the chains on the door, no answer. We sat down on our 80lbs of luggage and waited below as several neighbors passed and either offered to help by knocking on the doors with broom handles through the metal bars, or asked us for money. We had no phone number for the pastor, no phone to call him with even if we had a number, and no Internet to email anyone at home. The taxi driver who had brought us loaded everything back into his car (no, he would not leave us on the side of the road unaccompanied) and dropped us at a nearby hotel. A hotel that cost $300 per night, so, you know, not an option.
Eventually we convinced hotel personnel that although we were not guests, we would have no choice but to loiter unless they gave us some Internet time to contact friends at home via email and have those friends contact the pastor to let him know where we were. The hotel business center lady smiled and made an exception. We would have exactly one hour of Internet to solve this problem, so we emailed our friends (and moms) at home, and waited for something to happen. We checked our email every 15 minutes for 8 hours. The moms at home were a little bit panicky at this point.
And then suddenly a person was standing in front of me, wiping sweat from his brow and frantically speaking on his cell. He paused, then turned to me and said, “Brooke?” It was the pastor.
WE WERE CLAIMED!
He and his adult son walked us back a mile or so to the church, and waited as we checked in to a nearby casa particular. “We thought you were coming tomorrow,” he said. “For the training.”
The training? It turns out we had arrived just in time to meet about 20 local pastors who had traveled from all over the region to attend a CENCAP training. And here was where the entire month came together.
CENCAP stands for (in English) Center for Training and is a train-the-trainer initiative of this pastor, Pachy, to strengthen and equip leaders in the church and to reproduce the trainings in the places leaders live. Trainings are held almost every week of the year at 250 different locations around the country, and about 7000 Cuban church leaders have been trained since the program began three years ago.
We not only had the chance to spend time in the training, which provided a time and space for couples in leadership to pour into each other and into other couples with guided facilitation, but we were invited to spend time getting to know the couples over meals and during evening free time for the entire week!
We were exposed to the hearts of these pastors, their hopes for their country and communities, their struggles and successes, and how they were called into ministry. Each person who shared could have been featured in our Redefining Normal section, because each story involved sacrifice, blind trust, and a “who me?” calling.
One pastor described how his community is awakening because they’re hearing the grace-based gospel of Christ for the first time instead of the works-based religion so often preached. The Gospel is now being shared with people who had been typically marginalized in the past, like prostitutes, and these are the ones who can be converted into leaders! They have few Bibles, though, he shared, which is hard.
His name was Abel and he was from Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba. He sat next to his wife as we sipped coffee after dinner one evening and shared how they’d abandoned a traditional life together for the uncertain and often challenging one of becoming pastors in Cuba.
He described how he fell in love with this lady (his wife, Isa, smiling in the seat next to him), how the two had gotten married and had a son. His wife became pregnant a second time but miscarried the baby. The doctor who treated her had told the family there was no infection and that everything was fine.
But the doctor was wrong.
Something—bacteria they supposed—had remained untreated, and Isa got a blood infection that turned into a cerebral infection and caused a stroke. Doctors injected something into her blood through an IV to help determine where the infection was in her brain, and they decided to operate. The odds were not in her favor. Abel described it like this, “We had 99 chances to lose and 1 chance to win.”
The doctor was 34 years old and he said to Abel, when he saw their fear, “Behind these hands operates somebody who is superior to me, and your wife is in his hands.”
Although Abel had not been living in faith at that moment of his adult life, he had come from a Christian home, and he began to remember things he’d learned as a child. The truth was rooted deep somewhere inside and began to work its way to the surface.
By the time the operation had finished, Isa had a blood pressure of 0 and was presumed dead. But the doctor said to Abel, “When man finishes, Christ starts.”
The other doctor said, “Tell me if she has even a tiny pulse.”
Sure enough, she had a little pulse when the doctor checked. By the time she came out of recovery, her blood pressure was 120/80. She stayed in intensive therapy, and after four days she was allowed to have visitors.
“I stood in front of the glass wall,” Abel said, “And she signaled to me, and I knew what that signal was though the glass: You and I no longer belong to ourselves; we belong to Jesus. And as long as we live we will tell everyone who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. And then we started our ministry.”
At this point in the interview, Abel and Isa were holding hands and wiping tears. The interpreter and I were floored. I wanted to know what happened next.
“We told everyone about Christ,” Abel continued. “Our son became a Christian, my in-laws became Christians.”
Abel began going to all the churches to give testimony of his wife’s healing. A professor gave him a study Bible and said, “The love of Christ has come to transform your life. I want you to gather a group in your house and talk about the love of Christ to others.”
And that’s how he became the pastor of a house church. He started meeting with another pastor to get training, eventually attended several CENCAPs and then started a CENCAP branch in his area for others to be trained.
“Our greatest hope,” Abel said, “Is to reach Cuba for Christ. If we could do that, the marginal people would be included, the love of Christ would be practiced in those neighborhoods, and people will feel loved and needed. It would be a different Cuba.”
Another couple we sat down with on a different night described a totally different path into ministry. Abel (a different one) had just finished his military studies and was in medical school. The church he attended at the time didn’t have a pastor, and as he was praying for a pastor, he felt like God was calling him into leadership. He had been working with the youth at church and teaching adult Sunday school every other week, so he was already preparing himself and reading books on leadership in the church.
He wasn’t feeling as great about studying medicine as he was about studying the Bible, and though he didn’t see himself as a pastor, he knew the church desperately needed one. For three years, Abel explained, he struggled with what to do, and during that time he met and married his wife Raquel.
Raquel and Abel were our ages, and we had identified with them from the very beginning, though it wasn’t until our last night we’d actually heard this testimony. Our respect only continued to grow as they continued to share.
Raquel told us that Abel had communicated right away that God was calling him into ministry, but she didn’t feel the call. So she stayed in nursing school, and Abel continued with medical school.
“One year later,” Abel said, “I found her crying at home. I asked what was wrong, but she didn’t want to tell me. She shared, through tears, that she felt God calling her into ministry, too. She didn’t want to tell Abel, though, because he only had one year of medical school left, and she knew the minute he found out, he would drop the program.”
“We were the hopes of our families,” Raquel explained. “It was the special period in Cuba, and the entire country was going through a difficult time economically. Our families were very poor. We were the only ones who could bring home salaries for our families.”
But the calling into ministry overpowered their logic. Raquel and Abel left their studies and careers in faith, and for four months they had no income as they trained. The seminary had temporarily closed due to the circumstances of the “Special Period” (a time of economic crisis in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union) but the head pastor at the seminary sent them to a small community south of Camaguay on the southern border, hours away from their families, to lead a small church.
“It was a very difficult place,” Abel described. “There was lots of witchcraft and Santaría [a mix of Catholicism and voodoo]. It was our first church and it became our seminary [of hard knocks!].
“At first we accepted that place,” Raquel said. “We prayed that God would send us where he wanted. But we never thought they would send us there! About two or three weeks in, we asked the pastor to take us out of there. It was a place of violence. There were drinking people everywhere, men abused women, and we could hear women at night screaming. We knew of men killing each other and their wives.
“Other churches were far, so we had no community, no transportation, no phones. But we agreed to take a week and pray about it. After that week of prayer we felt peace and we knew we had to stay and help the people there. We had our first daughter there, and we stayed for two and a half years. And in two and a half years, no one came to visit us. But we traveled from time to time to attend the seminary courses once they resumed again, and eventually we started studying with a Bible Institute extension.”
I asked what they notice now, how they see God working in their lives as pastors and throughout Cuba.
“At the beginning, when I was a child, church wasn’t even allowed,” Raquel said. “But now God is making it possible for public church services, celebrations at Christmas and nativity programs! In years past, it was not possible.”
“The challenge,” Abel described, “is to prepare and equip leaders. The pastor does everything—he’s the teacher, evangelist, the visitor, and counselor. But now we are learning to work as a team and to equip others in the church to lead, which is what CENCAP helps with.”
Abel and Raquel now want to take advantage of the demographic in their church: young professionals, doctors and lawyers—these are the people primed for leadership, but they need the leadership training.
Currently Abel and Raquel’s church meets in small 20 x 20 ft space with no bathrooms or classrooms. The children’s classes are divided between two nearby homes, the youth are in a different house, the new believers a different house to prepare for baptism, and women stay at the main 20 x 20 ft space. People don’t eat or drink before coming to church, they explained, because they’ll have to go to the bathroom, and the church does not have bathrooms!
The congregation is now fundraising to build a structure on a piece of land donated by a congregant that will house the pastor and his family, the sanctuary and classrooms on the lower floors.
These were just two sample conversations we had with several couples over the entire week, during meandering after-dinner walks or morning coffee breaks. The time was so meaningful for Jeff and me to understand the types of challenges and hopes the average pastor has in cities all over, and to hear their sincere passions for Cuba.
We also traveled to a rural community during the week with one of the pastors to see his in-home seminary, the several house churches the congregation meets in, and the farm that produces food for all the CENCAP trainings and elderly feeding ministry.
Throughout the week, the same themes came up: passion in sharing the love of Christ through Cuba and determining to be missionaries of the gospel of grace within their own land; urgency to capture the hearts of the population for Christ before anything else does; and the hunger for training and discipleship.
BEING THE GREAT COMMISSION
And then there was Pachy.
Pachy is the guy I mentioned at the beginning—the one who sat across from us and told us matter-of-factly that politics aren’t even part of the conversation. Feelings aside, this is where he lives and this is the system he is required to work within. His focus is to love his neighbors and transform his community, and the best possible way to do this is above board—everything on the table. He patiently wades through the slow process of applying for the right permissions and visas from the religious affairs people and carries out his projects within the granted limits—for example, if he applies to feed the kids and elderly in his neighborhood and they only approve feeding the elderly? He only feeds the elderly. If people (like us) come to visit the church and we only have tourist visas instead of religious visas, we cannot address the congregation—not even to say hi, though we are warmly welcomed and offered coffee. J
He prays for his leaders and simultaneously works alongside them so his church is able to function at the most-effective legal level possible. And this is what he’s been able to legally accomplish:
Every building on his entire block has been freshly painted, and a Bible has been offered to every household; the elderly in his neighborhood now have glasses to read the Bible and several had surgery after the discovery of cataracts during the eye exams. Every morning at 10:30 the elderly in his community are served a hot meal from food grown at one of the CENCAP’s several local farms. The local school and clinic has been painted, further boosting neighborhood morale; CENCAP is functioning as an official and legal training program, and experts from all over are invited into the country as training facilitators. Two thousand trainers are raised up each year at 250 sites throughout the country. Biblical and theological resources have been distributed to various sites and groups on tablets as part of the training program, donated by several outside sources.
Pachy’s church started out with about 10 members. They now have several hundred from their own neighborhood and surrounding communities.
And here’s what dawned on me at the end of my week with this training program: Cuban Christians are not just the hope of Cuba—they’re the hope of the world. These are the ones who will travel to the far and uncomfortable corners one day, carrying their experiences and struggles and love. They’ll BE the great commission.
They’re sturdy, long-suffering, persistent, and inventive. The Cubans are such a beloved group of oppressed people, there’s almost no place they won’t be welcomed warmly—and they’ll come skilled and educated, but with the empathy and compassion of poverty and oppression.
Cuba is where it’s at, you guys. Leaders are being raised up and equipped, the kingdom is expanding, and we have the opportunity to be part of it!
We can help equip through training, discipleship, fellowship and encouragement—both directly through the churches outlined in the article, or through CENCAP, the training program. And we can invite and sponsor pastors from Cuba to come speak and fellowship in our churches, with our congregations.
This is how it’s done: in partnership, made possible by each pastor’s endurance.
- Click here to see how you can become involved.