Christianity in Cuba? Yes indeed!
by: Rev. George Pasley
Ketchikan Presbyterian Church
This past Monday morning I returned from a trip to Cuba, where I visited eight Cuban Presbyterian congregations and an ecumenical seminary. I also basked in the news of a historic meeting there last week between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill. Indeed, there are stories to tell - Christians in Cuba are growing in numbers and in hope, even though their life together remains a struggle and their future has many anxieties.
During the period from 1959-1990, Christianity was allowed in Cuba. However, Christians lacked certain privileges that were granted to other Cubans. Congregations were allowed to gather in their buildings to worship, but they were not allowed activities outside of their buildings, and they were not allowed to build new ones. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent loss of economic subsidy for Cuba, the communist government has allowed churches to do more outside of their buildings as long as it benefits both church members and non-church members.
In every congregation we visited, we observed a number of mission projects. Water filtration systems are needed because Cuban tap water must be boiled before drinking and fuel is expensive. These filtration systems are frequently hosted by a congregation and the expense for installation is almost always underwritten by American donors. The need for more of these systems continues, and a great many churches are eager to host a system where their neighbors can receive filtered drinking water. Several of the congregations we visited offered classes in English. One had an after-school tutoring program for high school students. The program was in high demand by students who hoped to attend college. Many of the congregations had some sort of hot food program for the elderly. Some were similar to our meals on wheels, and others were meals served at the church, which were a quite popular social activity. Two of the eight churches we visited had programs to assist HIV patients.
Cuba has thirty-three full-fledged Presbyterian congregations. Many of them date back to the period 1890-1910. making them about as old as Presbyterian congregations in Southeast Alaska. But these congregations, clustered in central Cuba, have recently started twenty-one mission churches in the more rural areas of central Cuba, and even a few in eastern Cuba. They are building new church buildings in villages where Cubans previously worshiped in garages. How did all of this come about?
One experienced church pastor in Havana explained the history by saying: It began with the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, which included Christians in the new government. It continued with the 1984 visit to Cuba by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Rev. Jackson invited Fidel Castro to attend church with him, and Castro accepted. Following on the heels of that historic event, a book was published, Fidel and Religion. The book reported twenty-three hours of interview with Fidel Castro, who now asserts that “religion can be a stimulant as well as an opiate. A Marxist can be a Christian and a Christian can work with a Marxist government."
This pastor also told us: Since 1990, outsiders have observed the faithfulness of church members who were faithful to God when it was not popular, and who continue to search for new ways to love their neighbors.
This does not mean the bad times are over for Cuban Christianity. The political future for Cuba is uncertain. Fidel’s brother Raul has promised to step down and no one knows what will happen next. Present day Christians face the challenge of speaking the truth to power when it is necessary, and they may face the challenge of offering more services to their neighbors if the financial stability of the government experiences another free-fall. In addition, they must do all of this in a continued climate of relative economic poverty for their own members. There is a shortage of trained pastors and the difficulty of education and transportation remain a challenge. But they have been faithful before and they are not looking back. Their hand is on the plow.