Earlier this year the governors of Felix Varela Morales high school in Jaguey Grande, Cuba, made a decision inconceivable 40 years ago. They assigned students to research and report on the lives of two Christian leaders from that city of 25,000.
Earlier this year the governors of Felix Varela Morales high school in Jaguey Grande, Cuba, made a decision inconceivable 40 years ago. They assigned students to research and report on the lives of two Christian leaders from that city of 25,000. One was Rev. Erelio Martinez Garcia, long-time Cuban Christian Reformed Church pastor. At his funeral in 2005, thousands of citizens lined both sides of the city’s main streets as his casket was slowly driven three kilometres from Bethel CRC to the municipal cemetery. What prompted a school assignment publicly honouring a man whose calling was long despised in Cuba?
After Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, “Freedom of Religion” was enshrined in Cuba’s Constitution, but that right was rigidly contained. Christians could worship only in their homes and in recognized churches. Buildings bore crosses, but public announcements of activities were forbidden. This statute was enforced, sometimes brutally, throughout the nation, depending on the zeal of communist officials.
By the late 1960s, Cubans had settled into the daily grind of living in a centrally controlled society. The Communist Party managed distribution of all goods. Every person or family received ration cards for staples – rice, beans, eggs, perhaps a chicken or ground beef, toilet paper, soap, clothing, school supplies and so forth. Demand almost always exceeded supply.
Cuban Christians benefited or suffered, depending on their situation before the Revolution. Poor Cubans in remote rural areas had for the first time a steady, if meagre, food supply, education and health care. The government provided badly needed housing for many, though often by expropriation.
In one town, a Christian Reformed church building was converted into a dwelling for several families. The congregation lost their place of worship and crammed into their own homes on Sundays. Yet an equal number of virtually homeless people now lived in that subdivided church. (Maybe that’s an example of Christians living the mind of Christ as in Philippians 2, though Jesus did that out of love, not obligation.) The state returned the building in the early 1980s. With odd respect for property, the government had paid the church a monthly rental for all those years.
|Rev. Erelio Garcia (1926-2005).|
‘Let religion die’
Ever since the Revolution, most citizens have been government employees. Christian pastors, however, were singled out for unpleasant consideration. The communist government labelled them parasites undeserving of government work. Institutionalized atheism was part of the party plan to let religion die out.
Yet in one of many paradoxes of Cuban church-state relationships, seminaries trained candidates, pastors led worship, taught and visited – all supported by members using their own scarce resources. All children were required to attend state boarding schools, from middle through high school. Christian students, especially pastors’ children, were often mocked, targets of some teachers’ attempts to break their spirits.
Over the years, however, Christians gradually carved out places of toleration, eventual respect and subdued honour within Cuban society – which brings us to Rev. Erelio Martinez Garcia. He was one of many humble but stubborn pastors determined to witness for the Gospel in his homeland, despite long repression.
Born in in 1926 in La Cienaga de Zapata, the vast, poverty-stricken wetland 60 kilometres south of Jaguey Grande, young Erelio was the son of a charcoal maker. Besides subsistence farming, that was the only industry in the then-roadless region. Erelio cut kindling for his father’s work and peddled sacks of charcoal on foot, sometimes to Jaguey Grande, if he could hitch rides on ox or horse carts travelling a two-track dirt path.
Before the Revolution, Erelio resolved to preach, eventually attending New Pines Church Seminary in neighbouring Villa Clara province. In 1964 – five years into Cuba’s new political order – Martinez graduated from Havana’s Western Baptist Seminary, already serving Christian Reformed congregations in Havana and Matanzas province.
By 1964 most churches had lost contact with European or North American counterparts due to government restrictions. Government strategy of not-so-benign neglect seemed to shrink churches to slow deaths. One Christian Reformed congregation in Alacranes survived solely because of the dogged faith of two women. They opened the church every Wednesday for prayer and every Sunday for worship, according to the government-approved schedule. They sang from memory, taught their children and read from gradually decaying Bibles, usually without a pastor.
Meanwhile Erelio Martinez and a few colleagues criss-crossed Matanzas, hitch-hiking in the few vehicles on the roads at that time, walking long distances, visiting congregations as often as possible. Constant pressure – and occasional threats to life and property – forced many pastors to leave Cuba. Those who stayed couldn’t always work for the church. Martinez and other targeted pastors were drafted for two consecutive seasons to work far from home cutting sugar cane.
Regardless, Erelio and colleagues from different denominations were determined to develop Cuban churches despite little outside help. The Cuban Council of Churches was able to receive rare visits from World Council of Churches’ representatives. Its leaders had developed crucial experience working with churches in Soviet Bloc nations throughout the Cold War. Thus Protestant denominations learned to cooperate in seminary education, respecting their unique doctrines and confessions, while presenting a united face to local, regional and national governments.
Trio singing at a CRC, part of a Cuba Church Convention in 2016.
Martinez himself was a Vice-President and Treasurer of the Council for many years, representing Matanzas. This position required him to meet with officials to lobby for scarce materials for building upkeep and for maintaining the right to worship. Gospel presence grew slowly throughout the region, though not without opposition. By 1998 the churches had gained permission to hold rallies in baseball stadiums after protracted efforts to treat Protestants as generously as Catholics leading up to Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba.
Before that time, Martinez endured other opposition. In the late 1960s, Erelio was leading worship at Bolodron CRC. Several local Communist thugs burst in, trying to drag him off. One member ran to the police, who respected the law more than the Party zealots. They jailed Erelio overnight for protection, returning him to Jaguey Grande the next day.
Martinez never lost his sense of patriotism. While overseas on ecumenical work, he would counter attacks on Cuba or Fidel Castro by saying, “I’m a Christian pastor living in a difficult land, but Castro is my president, even if I don’t agree with his philosophy or government.”
Erelio Martinez’ road from outcast to honoured citizen abounds with ironies. Never fighting the government that wanted the Church, him and all pastors and Christians to disappear, Martinez is emblematic of God’s people called to be meek as doves and wise as serpents.
That is the life that high school students in his home town were assigned to research, interviewing colleagues and family members. Perhaps they will begin to wonder that, if the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church, neither will any ideology or government.