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How do we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?

In a recent Christian Courier (April 28, 2014 https://www.christiancourier.ca/news/entry/the-crc-and-cuba) I described my January 2014 visit to the Christian Reformed Churches in Cuba. There I also offered some historical background on the “Mision del Interior de la Iglesia Cristiana Reformada” (Interior Mission of the Christian Reformed Church). Even now, 29 years after my first visit to the island, many people shake their heads in disbelief and say, “I didn’t know churches existed in Cuba. Weren’t they were stamped out after Fidel Castro’s revolution?”

A long path from desperate isolation to small ecumenism

For almost a decade after Castro’s victory, a well-founded fear paralyzed the mission work of more than a century by the sponsoring American Protestant churches. In the mid-1960s, though, the World Council of Churches (WCC) carefully and shrewdly developed channels of communication with isolated Cuban denominations belonging to the small Cuban Ecumenical Council (CEC). Though a suspect organization among conservative North American churches, the WCC accomplished over a number of years what few sending missions had considered trying, namely, to broaden the presence of CEC member churches.

WCC critics believed that the price to be paid for better cooperation among isolated, individual denominations would be a watered-down theology. They also feared creating a fellowship umbrella too wide for the more rigid — or perhaps sectarian — boundaries within which they thought “Truth” resided. What’s more, WCC invited state churches into its fellowship and encouraged all Christians to respect their governments, while working privately to push against the narrow government borders restricting religious freedom. To critics, that smelled of pandering to totalitarian governments, as powerful an accusation as theological weakness.

My own experiences and those of Cuban Christian Reformed colleagues from 1985 to the present sketch a picture of improved church-state relationships that grew directly from patient ecumenical solace and presence.

Early rigid limitations to religious life

After the January 1, 1959 revolutionary victory, Cuba’s new government strictly limited churches. Christians were permitted to worship only in their homes or church buildings; no open air evangelistic services, no knocking on doors. Neighbours could ask Christians about Christ; Christians, however, could not speak about their faith without being asked. Violators courted arrest.

Churches shrank. The flight to Miami had begun. By the late 1960s, the CRC in Alacranes levelled off at two adult members — Maria and Aida. These two women met at church two evenings a week to pray and study Scripture. On Sundays they led worship, taught classes to their children and a few of their children's friends. Every two months a visiting pastor preached.   

By the mid-1990s, various denominations were cooperating and not competing — having taken WCC counsel to heart. Churches and Christians were slowly winning respect in Cuban society and thus enjoying more tolerance from federal, provincial and municipal governments. Restrictions were easing. This past winter in Alacranes, late arrivals worshipped on the church porch. More than 45 adults are full members; some had been Sunday School students in the 1960s.

A bold song sung and echoing for years

Various Cuban CRCs and other churches were singing the same song as these two courageous women in Alacranes. Some stanzas sounded darker minor notes, echoing times of near-tragic confrontations. The entire song, though, played out for years in counterpoint to federal policies for religious organizations. Within a year and a half after the revolution, an official from the Religious Affairs Ministry obligated regional church leaders to attend a meeting. He explained the new rules: “Our government has taken over everything you used to do. There will be no private church schools anymore; we will teach our youth. There will be no need for soup kitchens; we will feed our people. We will watch churches eventually wither away.”

By the mid-1960s the small CRC in El Estante was withering indeed. Regardless, three local Communist Party members were not as patient as their superiors in Religious Affairs. They marched into a mid-week prayer service and ordered the 15 worshippers out. They wanted to kill the church with intimidation tactics, not let it just “wither away.” 

The next day a church member hitchhiked 70 kilometres to Jaguey Grande to tell Rev. Erelio Martinez what had happened. On Sunday Erelio made his monthly trip to El Estante to lead worship. He opened the building as if nothing had happened. As he prepared for worship, the same three Party members barged in. They ordered him to close the building. Erelio quoted Cuba's constitutional clause guaranteeing rights of worship and assembly. They laughed and started hauling him away.  

Before they got out the door, local police arrived, having been called by church members. The police jailed Erelio overnight in protective custody. After hearing his story, they contacted the provincial Religious Affairs Ministry. Erelio was a law-abiding Christian pastor. They released him and drove him home, apologizing for the trouble. The over-zealous agitators had broken the law in trying to close the church and were disciplined. The El Estante congregation? It did not die.

By the mid-1990s, Erelio Martinez's son, Obed, was pastoring the El Estante CRC. More than 150 worshippers overflowed the building every Sunday. New construction plans were underway. At that time one of the three Party members who had threatened Erelio was dying of cancer. His wife occasionally attended worship at the church. She asked Pastor Obed to pray at her husband's bedside. He did so, only days before the man died, the three of them joined in a circle, holding hands. Such examples of spiritual courage and perseverance take years to develop, action by action, prayer by prayer as God’s Spirit breathes hope into once-desperate people.

Hearing the Lord’s songs in a strange land

I first visited Cuba in August, 1985 to lead a youth camp. My hosts in Jaguey Grande were Rev. Erelio Martinez, his wife Sara and their children Obed and Loyda. One Saturday afternoon a member from the Torriente CRC, 14 kilometres away, called. “This morning a traffic accident killed 19-year-old Katarina Gomez. Katarina's cousin came to my house, Erelio. She has asked you to visit the family.”

In minutes we were heading for Torriente in Erelio's Lada station wagon. As a Christian pastor, he was not permitted to visit people who didn't attend worship unless they specifically requested it. I stayed in the car during his half-hour visit. Returning, he said, “They've asked me to lead tomorrow’s funeral.” 

I was astonished. The Communist Party had commissioned a member in every town to conduct weddings and funerals. “Won't that be a slap in the face of the authorities?” He replied, “People may ask whomever they wish to lead a funeral. I’m not allowed to preach an explicit gospel sermon in public, and I abide by those rules. Maybe you'd like to come along?”

The next day, Pastor Erelio accompanied Katarina's family ahead of the casket from the funeral parlour to the cemetery. Some 500 townspeople and I followed; most were not church-goers. With Katarina's coffin resting on ropes that would lower it into the grave, Erelio spoke briefly: “We have all just taken a journey that many of us have walked before to bury friends or family members. Today Katarina took that journey for the last time — not walking, but being carried. Everyone will someday take Katarina’s journey. How will you walk every day till then? Will you try to walk alone? Or will you walk with someone else who has walked with people for thousands of years?” 

Erelio never mentioned the Scriptures or spoke the name of Jesus Christ. But he preached the Gospel publicly that afternoon. In the 1980s he led four or five funerals a year, never mentioning Jesus by name. By 1999 his son Obed was leading more than 150 funerals annually in towns within 60 kilometres of Jaguey Grande where he had become pastor. By then, both preachers were openly calling people to repentance and faith in official church services and in public funerals.

Singing the Lord’s songs locally

Obed Martinez’ own pastoral experience had to pass through crucible years (see p.16 for accompanying article). As a Christian, he was not permitted to attend university. Responding to God's call, he studied at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas. In 1989 he was named pastor of three CRCs, one of which was Navajas, 20 kilometres from Alacranes, where he spent one weekend a month. “Navajas” means “knives.” How fitting for “cutting edge” Christianity!  

Within minutes of his arrival on his first Saturday morning, two police officers entered the church. They searched his briefcase and the building. They were doing their job — maybe too well. They found nothing untoward. As they left, they ordered, “Whenever you arrive, first stop at the station.”

Obed did just that for 10 months. Each time police searched his briefcase — always in order. After 10 visits he said, “I'm not coming here anymore. You can find me at the church.” No police honoured Obed's invitation while he pastored in Navajas. But he had taken a gutsy step, claiming the freedom that the Cuban constitution officially granted, even though many officials openly challenged that right. During my recent January 2014 visit to Navajas, I had coffee with the congregation’s permanent pastor and toured the new church building dedicated in the fall of 2013.

Singing the songs politically

Regardless of such hard-won spiritual victories, past sufferings are never easily forgotten. Habits formed from fear of government policies live long. During those dark years, Erelio and other Christian leaders discerned that their own attitudes of suspicion and hatred were sinful. They were claiming to be in the Light, but were disrespecting people who were also made in God’s image and who might eventually be their brothers and sisters.

Instead of seeing the government as an enemy, CEC member churches began to look for opportunities to approach officials in the Religious Affairs Ministry. That was how I met Segundo Armengol in August, 1985 at the youth camp. Armengol headed the Matanzas Province's Ministry of Religious Affairs. Erelio had invited him for supper at the Presbyterian Church where the camp was held.

At supper, Erelio welcomed the lifelong communist, quipping, “You probably feel like a lion in a den of Daniels.” To his credit, Armengol laughed, understanding the allusion. He commented, “You Christians are making a big contribution to this nation because of your attitudes. You are honest, dedicated, hard-working people. We admire that, even in Christians who do not consider themselves revolutionaries.” When Armengol died in the late 1990s, Erelio was invited to speak at his funeral.

Taking the harps off Babylon’s willows at least for Christmas

The long, slogging Christian march for rights and acceptance within Cuban society demanded wisdom and daring patience, recalling Paul’s admonitions to the young churches in Asia. Soon after his victory, Fidel Castro signed trade pacts with the Soviet Union. Cuba's sugar industry was the keystone in the agreement. Cuba produced sugar for the Warsaw Pact nations, and in return got subsidized prices for goods and arms. The sugar harvest is in full swing in December. So, ostensibly not to lose even a day of harvest rhythm, the Cuban government cancelled the Christmas national holiday in 1962. Many older Cuban Christians say their Babylonian Captivity began then.

It's only a day, but the day stood for so much. Removing the Christmas holiday symbolized the oppression of Cuban Christians. The state controlled everything — jobs, buildings, education. Religious Affairs required churches to submit all planned activities for the next year for approval. The government would be able to use the building on unscheduled days. Soon, savvy church leaders planned classes or meetings nearly every day. One pastor told me, “We almost always got approval. We could always cancel an activity, but we'd never get approval on the spur of the moment. We played by the rules — creatively.”

Until 1997, December 25 was a day like every other in Cuba. Then, in honour of Pope John Paul II's January, 1998 visit, President Castro declared December 25, 1997 a one-time national holiday. He knew the power of a symbol. By mid-1998 every Christian in Cuba and many outside of Cuba were wondering what would happen next.

In November Castro called a meeting with representatives of all Cuban religions — the fourth time since 1992. He began, “Today we'll discuss the advantages and disadvantages for our government and people of declaring December 25 a permanent national holiday.”

For eight hours the conversation moved among Castro, pastors, priests — and one rabbi. Finally, Castro addressed that leader of Havana's Jewish community. “Comrade Doctor, what do you think of re-establishing the historical Christian holiday? Your people have suffered greatly over centuries from Christian persecution.” With great aplomb, the rabbi joked,  “Mr. President, why should I ever complain if our land would again celebrate a Jewish baby's birthday?” The auditorium cascaded with laughter.

The next day Castro declared December 25 a permanent Cuban holiday. It's only a symbol, but symbols stand for reality — a dream and hope of ever greater things as God's harvest replaces the sugar harvest at least one day a year. 

Singing the song in higher education

Holidays are one thing. Equal rights to public education are quite another. Rev. David Lee was a pastor in the CRC in Cuba for almost 48 years. He and his wife Haydee raised two sons there, David, Jr. and Jonathan. Now adults, the brothers are still as close as the biblical pair for whom they were named. 

David, Sr. attended that November, 1998 meeting of President Castro and religious leaders. During the discussion about December 25, President Castro asked the Christian Reformed delegation their opinion. David was their spokesperson. In a Holy Spirit-baptized response, David said, “Mr. President, it's well and good to talk about a Christmas holiday, but that's only one day a year. What about all those days of all years that my sons are not permitted to attend university because they're not Young Communists?”

Some gasped – you don't try to make every way straight for the Lord all in one day. Nor do you talk about yourself. President Castro recognized David from previous meetings. He responded, “Rev. Lee, we'll talk about this after we finish discussing December 25.”

Several hours later, President Castro joined the three Christian Reformed pastors. He asked specifics about why David and Jonathan Lee and other Christian youth were still not allowed into many universities. The official policy had changed, permitting entrance, but not all officials were complying with the changes.

Fidel took notes, promised action — as only an autocrat can. By then David Lee, Jr. had attended seminary and was a pastor. His brother Jonathan was chief driver for the CRC’s small fleet of minivans used for church programs throughout Matanzas. By 2000, members of Christian churches throughout the nation were enrolled in university courses from pre-med to architecture, biology and more.

Singing the Song by The Book

All these stories trace a trajectory from desperation to hope, of bold, careful action resulting in growing spiritual maturity. Christians know that such growth develops only from the seedbed of Bible knowledge and biblical living. But what if Bibles are in short supply? In Cuba, until about 1990, Bible shortages were a way of life.

Cuban Christians treasured the Bibles they had. As described above, non-Christian families often sought out pastors to lead funerals. Sometimes the family asked the pastor or other Christians to visit later, frequently requesting a Bible. Before Bibles became readily available in Cuba, the CRC used several versions: the “Few New,” the “Few More Used” and the “Tattered, Nearing-Retirement.”

Prospective church members would receive a “Nearing-Retirement” Bible. If they attended worship, took classes and joined the church, they received a new Bible — if available. If the new member quit participating in Christian community life, eventually leaving the church, church workers asked for the return the gift Bible. Salvation is by Grace everywhere, but Bible ownership was by merit. That's taking God's Word seriously. That’s how churches regained strength after decades of meagre spiritual rations, but rations that managed to multiply, if not extravagantly like five loaves and two fish, at least enough to sustain life.

In recent years, the Cuban Council of Churches has shipped in containers full of Bibles. Used Bibles are on sale in open markets. To North America, the question of Bible scarcity seems passé. With the magic of marketing, Bibles have become a consumer item. I can access dozens of Bible translations with a stroke of a key on my laptop.

This question has nagged me for years: Are Bibles so available that we don’t take God’s Living Word seriously enough to be hungry for that Word, to nourish ourselves on whatever rich crumbs fall from the Master’s table? That’s a profound question for our gluttonous society. It’s a temptation to replace devotion to joyful, risky biblical living with an abundance of Bibles and a famine of critical discernment.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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