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Will open borders benefit Cuban Christians?

In the last Christian Courier, we looked at some steps leading to Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro’s announcement to re-establish diplomatic ties after a 54-year absence. Here we focus on what might happen among the churches and believers in both nations as political relationships gradually warm.

Many people today are still surprised to hear there are churches in Cuba. They assume churches disappeared after Cuba’s 1959 Revolution. (To review Cuban Christians’ and churches’ lives over the years, see Christian Courier, July 28, 2014.) Oh, we of little faith. Jesus’ declaration in Matthew 16:18 that “the gates of Hades will not overcome [the church]” trumps our collective loss of memory. Cuban churches have been remarkably healthy under a repressive government.

It helps to remember churches in the Soviet Union and China. They grew extraordinarily during decades of repression, often persecution, though little such news leaked to the West. Chinese churches grow under hard circumstances still. Russia gives more freedom and Protestant churches there are sprouting all over.

East Germany tells a different story. Churches there were deeply instrumental in tumbling the Berlin Wall through decades of daring semi-clandestine prayer and justice groups. Today, however, after 40 years of brutally enforced official atheism, East German churches have shrunk despite the wall’s destruction. Will Cuba repeat Russian and Chinese history or the discouraging East German experience?

Cuba’s state-church relationship
Many of Cuba’s churches were born as children of conservative Protestant organizations. U.S.-based missions often exported a narrow, sectarian Gospel, claiming to be Christ’s exclusive ambassadors. Thus, though officially sisters and brothers in Christ, until the 1959 Revolution enforced isolation from U.S. sponsors, Cuban Christians imitated their North American feuding families. During the isolation, serendipitous – perhaps providential – cooperation developed among churches.

Thus Cuba has for decades had a leg up on the churches in East Germany, China and the former Soviet Union. After 10 to 15 rough, cruel years, Cuban Christian churches began flourishing. With wise advocacy from World Council of Churches’ personnel, the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC) drew together many Christians and churches on the island.

Over the years, certain leaders made deliberate efforts to be loyal Christian Cubans, working boldly, at first privately with the Communist Party Government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA).

Through decades of meetings, both voluntary and obligatory, with MRAs, pastors gradually won permission to build churches, parsonages, purchase churches, hold public worship services on holidays in stadiums, broadcast radio and TV services, obtain permits for new “house churches” and develop feeding programs for the sick and elderly. While we take such things for granted, Cuba is a controlled society that has slowly been opening up. Christians have worked respectfully, winning grudging respect from government officials.

Churches ‘made-in-Cuba’
Many Cuban churches have carefully nurtured contextual worship practices – home-grown music and liturgies. Theological statements sometimes critical, sometimes supportive of government policies have been written and publicized. Social, relief and development projects in which churches cooperated with government ministries made a hopeful impact on Cuban cities and towns. After Hurricane Michelle in 2001, World Renew helped rebuild homes destroyed in Matanzas province.

With the turning of the diplomatic tide, significant changes in relationships between U.S. and Cuban Christians and churches will surely develop. Support from U.S. missions eager to bring Christ to Cuba will grow much larger than even today’s surprisingly extensive levels, with mission trips between U.S. and Cuban churches increasing. Will U.S. and Canadian missions and churches recognize that Christ has been in Cuba all along? Will they rush in as wealthy older sisters and brothers with paternalistic attitudes – or as humble co-workers in God’s vineyard?

Pastoral education and employment
Besides church infrastructure, the issue of pastors’ employment and education will surely be affected. In today’s Cuba, pastors are not employees of the state, as are all others – from doctors, lawyers and university professors to mechanics, day-care workers and computer programmers; such is the extent of the government’s control of the economy, education and industry. Pastors are employees of their congregations, most with no subsidy from North American missions. They have no guaranteed pensions, as state employees do (small as they might be). They do receive the monthly rationed food basket – which lasts about 10 days – and education and health care, which are the right of all citizens.

Most pastors are trained in their denominations’ independent Bible institutes or in intensive courses, some offered by visiting instructors, others by Cuban colleagues. That training is recognized only by their own groups. Not many pastors have attended one of seven accredited seminaries on the island. For example, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has roughly 20 pastors and evangelists of the Cuban CRC working in churches and missions. Of those currently only two have some officially recognized seminary training.

According to reliable sources, the MRA – ever zealous to maintain Cuban identity and/or control over education – has been discussing with some leaders the possibility of a new policy. If instituted, pastors would be recognized as such only if they attend or complete theological education in a government-accredited seminary.

Within North American, accreditation is an expected requirement for quality education. Canadian and U.S. societies of theological schools oversee standards for curricula and instructors. Unless overtly outside the law, though, these institutions operate with intellectual and spiritual integrity, free of government interference. That would not necessarily be the case in Cuba.

Currently the accredited seminary that CRC pastors have attended functions without (known) governmental interference. As well, the present administration at MRA and churches maintain cordial, usually cooperative, relations with most churches and pastors.

Yet in the event that the government imposes new educational policies for pastors, a wholly new spiritual and ecclesiastical climate could develop. If churches refuse to train pastors in accredited institutions, they could become targets for legalized sanctions – which could be interpreted as persecution. In such a climate, a broad underground church movement could grow, as happened in China.

At this time, no one knows where those initial discussions with MRA will head. But because the present capacity of accredited theological schools is far less than it must be to enroll current or aspiring pastors, there is no risk that this will become policy in the short term.

Should Cuban officials radically change policies for pastoral education by instituting not only educational but spiritual control or constraints, great dissatisfaction would ferment both among Cuban Christians and – more compellingly for Cuba’s rulers – with the U.S.

But Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told World magazine that he’s hopeful the political thaw will bless the church: “I pray this decision will serve as a catalytic step in unleashing the followers of Jesus to be the church both inside and outside of the island nation.”

  • 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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