In mid-January two members of the Cuba Connection Committee (CCC), a standing committee of Classis Alberta North of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), visited with leaders and members of the Christian Reformed Church in Cuba. I joined John Strikwerda, a retired trucker, and Chris Toornstra, a commercial pilot, as a translator. While still working with Christian Reformed World Missions in 1985 I made my first of more than a dozen visits to the CRC in Cuba. Since then I have kept in close touch with Cuban colleagues and friends. They witness to the Gospel of Christ in a challenging, once dangerous environment.
During our intense week in Cuba we stayed in Varadero. We met in a public park our first morning. As in any place where people are wary of prying ears and listening ears, the best place to meet privately was in plain view.
Our next two days we met with CRC leaders in Jaguey Grande, 85 kilometres inland. That city of 25,000 houses the Cuban CRC headquarters. The main purpose of this trip was to strengthen long-developed ties between Alberta North and the Cuban CRC. Leadership in the Cuban church had changed twice in the last eight years. As well the CCC’s membership had turned over. Some hard-won relationships were potentially at risk. Long-term partnership projects and mutual exchanges had lost direction. New committee members needed orientation and training. Cuban leaders needed reassurance of Alberta North’s seriousness and understanding of their situation. Those three days watered and fertilized the soils of the cross-cultural spiritual bond with Cuban sisters and brothers.
Single woman leading Cubans to Christ
Though largely unheralded in both Canada and the U.S., the CRC has been heralding the Gospel of Christ in Cuba since the 1940s. Echoing Johanna Veenstra’s work in Nigeria more than a decade earlier, Bessie Vander Valk of New Jersey travelled to Cuba with no official Christian Reformed sponsorship. She planned to work with the fledgling Cuba-based evangelical Mision del Interior. After nearly a decade of evangelistic work Bessie and her Cuban husband Vicente Izquierdo linked with the then Christian Reformed Board of Foreign Missions to plant churches in the central province of Matanzas.
By the early 1950s La Grave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan had eagerly engaged in the work in Cuba, adding to the congregation’s many international evangelistic efforts. Until 1959’s revolution, La Grave bolstered the work in Cuba generously supplying funds for churches, parsonages, pastoral training. Delegations of members visited regularly to learn how rural evangelism developed in Cuba.
Faithful to Christ in repressive times
By 1960, though, the Soviet Union opportunistically entered Cuba and the Western Hemisphere by subsidizing the Cuban economy. The point is still moot whether a more conciliatory U.S. foreign policy stance would have pre-empted 30 years of near total Soviet integration, domination even, into Cuban social, political and economic life. Regardless, all but a handful of expatriate missionaries and pastors left the island for good. Sponsoring missions prudently reasoned that North American missionaries would only make life more difficult for national Christians in an authoritarian communist-governed society. Most North American Christians figured there was no future hope for the Cuban churches.
CRC missionaries Rev. Clarence and Arlene Nyenhuis also returned to the U.S., leaving a small but rich seedbed of Cuban leaders. Some 13 congregations were developing within a hundred kilometer radius of Jaguey Grande. Bessie Vander Valk and Vicente Izquierdo’s courageous Spirit-led foray into the heart of rural Cuba had borne fruit.
Living in Cuba after 1959 was no picnic for anyone. It was needlessly more difficult for those who considered open opposition to Castro’s government the only faithful Christian option for witness. Over time and with nuanced consultations from World Council of Churches (WCC) delegations, though, Cuban Protestants discerned how to work within their rigid, sometimes brutal, social and governmental system. For its part the WCC had learned from hard-won experience in Eastern Europe that Christians could survive, in some ways even thrive, under repressive regimes.
Pastors held officials to account by pressing for rights of religious expression and assembly — though without possibility or right to evangelize in public. Yet church doors were open. Many unbelieving Cubans saw Christian leaders as models of living with unflagging conviction and muted joy in difficult situations. CRC pastors such as David Lee and Erelio Martinez were nationally respected leaders in the CCC for about 30 years.
The gentler present
Cuba was and remains a controlled society. By my 1985 visit, though, changes were being reaped from those years of hard loyal opposition. On my first trip I carried two suitcases filled with Christian textbooks and Bibles. A customs officer asked why I carried so many Bibles. I told him they were the first Bibles the CRCs in Matanzas were getting since 1960. I asked if he wanted one; he happily said yes. Also, while all civilians had to wait years for building and vehicle permits, a few pastors of all denominations obtained long-sought permits for cars (Russian Ladas) to use in church programs. Funds from related organizations in Europe or the U.S. paid for those vehicles as well as for badly needed repairs of church buildings and manses.
After the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1990s, economic life straitened for everybody. Remarkably, though, Catholic and Protestant churches were securing permission to hold worship services for Christmas and Easter in outdoor amphitheaters. They had to jump through many hoops, but that remains a wry fact of daily life for every Cuban; some officials are impatient, rude and lazy. It reminds me of my days in the U.S. Army.
Hopeful present cooperation
During these years the Cuban CRC was developing and strengthening partnerships with Reformed churches in Europe, with CRWM and other Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America organizations. La Grave and a Christian Reformed congregation in Minnesota continue in close cooperation. From 2001 till 2011, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee/World Renew funded home rebuilding projects; the CRC in Cuba cooperated with government housing ministries after Hurricane Michelle thrashed the island.
Classis Alberta North’s CCC was born in 1998 after a group of Albertans visited Cuba with my wife Rose and me translating for a two-week trip. Since then Cuban and Canadian pastors and youth have travelled to their respective nations to share experiences, attend summer Bible camps, tour churches and visit congregations. The brief January trip was the latest, not last of these ventures that provide opportunities to learn about challenges and hope for Gospel witness in both nations.
Meanwhile the CRC in Cuba has drifted intentionally away from the Cuban Council of Churches. Some in the CRC accuse the Council of being too allied with the government. Yet in conversation with Rev. Jose Dopico, President of the Council, the Albertan delegates learned that Council will do whatever it can to support the CRC and, in fact, protect it from potential governmental interference — always a risk for an isolated group of Christians.
In March, Classis Alberta North discussed the CCC’s report of the January visit. As a result CCC hopes to raise $30,000 among Alberta North CRCs. That will be designated to begin full reconstruction of parsonages in the towns of Torriente and Alacranes. Both buildings suffer leaking roofs, cracked beams and sagging walls. The pastors and their families have one dry room in each place to live for now. Meanwhile, tentative plans are developing for more exchanges of pastors to teach and share. Not only Cuban and North American churches need mutual international and national cooperation to live and witness to Christ; so do pastors and families in that island nation connected by decades of bonds across seas and national barriers. Such is just some of the power of the Gospel.