Religion (Christian and otherwise) on the Upswing in Cuba

A recent experiment conducted by the Ecumenical Council of Cuba (CEC) illustrates the profound breadth of Cuba's religious awakening.  A shipment of 600 Bibles was placed on sale in a state-run bookstore; within 40 minutes, the entire shipment was sold.  According to the CEC's vice president, the Baptist Jose Lopez, no customer was allowed to purchase more than one Bible. A survey indicated that only two of the 600 buyers regarded themselves to be Christians.  Lopez claimed, "The Bible has been Cuba's best-selling book during the last three years."


Ten years ago the Protestant seminary in Matanzas was nearing extinction.  Formed in 1946, the seminary was almost abandoned in the mid-1980s when attendance dipped as low as one or two students.  Today, the school boasts 43 students with additional aspirants biding their time on waiting lists.  No Cuban Methodist received a theological degree in the 20 years following 1964, but roughly 15 of the current students at Matanzas are Methodists.  The educational level of Methodist clergy is set to skyrocket: Only 20 of Cuba's 88 current Methodist pastors have had formal theological training.  Nineteen Protestant and two Catholic seminaries or Bible institutes are presently active in Cuba.


The Methodist church, which had sported 10,000 members in 1958, had shrivelled to 3,000 ten years later.  Today, it reckons with 30,000 active participants though the number of total persons attending is still higher.  The Methodist superintendent Rafael Gonzalo Calzado began with two church members in the coastal town of Guanabacoa near Havana 12 years ago.  Now, whenever the church's truck is functioning, attendance peaks at 200.


A speaker of the Dutch-based "Open Doors" mission described a visit to Cuba as "stepping into the book of Acts" and concluded that Cuba may possess the most potent Protestant denominations in all of Latin America.  Cuban church leadership is indeed truly indigenous: At a time when half of Cuba's Catholic priests still stem from foreign countries, Protestantism has spent over three decades without any expatriate leadership and with only minimal amounts of foreign funding.


Nevertheless, Cuba's current religious awakening is essentially an awakening of the young.  In the Marianao district of Havana, 200 young people attended a regular Monday night charismatic worship service during October.  This congregation has added 150 members during 1993, 80% of them under the age of 20.  "Only old people attended here five years ago," a member claimed.  Only two or three of Rev. Calzado's 80 young people have an evangelical upbringing.


In the Havana Methodist church in which Fidel Castro and Jesse Jackson had a historic meeting in 1984, 50 teenagers appeared at 7:30 on a Wednesday evening for a beginners' instruction class.  An hour later they were joined in the main sanctuary by 100 more young people eager to pose questions on matters of faith.  The session was not adjourned until 10:35 p.m.


Humberto Fuentes, rector of the Matanzas seminary, pointed to a distinctive gap in church attendance: The parents of today's youth, people in their late thirties and forties, are rarely present.  "There was a mass exodus of pastors in the 1960s," he explained, "and the young people of that period are missing today."


House churches have been formed to cope with the massive influx of new believers.  Most old-time congregations have between two and five new preaching outposts, yet the young Methodist congregation at Colón in central Cuba features 27 preaching outposts or house churches centered strategically around the mother congregation.  It serves a total of over 1,000 regular participants.


House churches are not easily defined, for many groups meeting in houses regard themselves only as Bible or discipleship groups belonging to a larger congregation.  Consequently, optimistic projections that 4,000-5,000 house churches exist depend heavily on a broad definition of "house church."  More concretely, the Methodists, who have 108 historical congregations, are presently holding services at 300 locations. The largest house groups consist of 120-150 members and are officially establishing themselves as congregations.  In the Methodist denomination, any group of 12 believers may now become registered as an independent congregation.  The Pentecostal "Templo Aleluya" at Camagüey probably remains Cuba's largest Protestant congregation.


Pentecostals, Baptists and Methodists have profited the most, in that order, from the house church movement; Presbyterians and Episcopalians have been affected the least. The faltering Lutheran church, which presently consists of 300 members in three distinct denominations, is poorly equipped to receive the throngs of disenchanted Catholics.  Only in Miami is Cuban Lutheranism flourishing.


The house church movement is a child born of necessity: Massive fuel shortages and the nearly total breakdown in public transportation, especially in rural areas, have restricted people to areas within walking or biking distance of their homes.  In addition, dire economic need has restricted the churches to making repairs on existing structures.


Given the green light by Castro during a meeting with Protestant leaders in December 1991, the government did not attempt to regulate the house church movement until May of this year.  At that time, it was determined that house churches cannot convene without official registration.  Registration is not to be granted if immediate neighbors are not in agreement with the services or if another Protestant church is located in the immediate vicinity.


It must nevertheless be remembered that not only the Christian churches are profiting from the present religious upswing. The Santeria faith, which is the largest of three Afro-Cuban cultic groups possessing a syncretic relationship with the Catholic church, is also thriving.  The Miami journalist Andres Oppenheimer pointed out that while Cuba boasts no more than 250 Catholic priests, it has 4,000 Santeria ones.  Courted by the Marxist government, the movement's roots were strengthened by the presence of Cuban soldiers in eastern and western Africa during the past two decades.


Superintendent Calzado reported that in Guanabacoa, which harbors a Santeria museum and is known as a hotbed of cultic activity, "People give us their cultic items to throw into the river when they are converted.  Recently, we needed a truck to haul off all the items we had been given."


Another high-ranking Protestant official from Havana complained, "I constantly see Santeros from Miami flaunting their wealth at the market.  Our government offers them plenty of visas while we often have major hassles inviting church delegations. Santeria rituals are cheaper here than in Miami.  An elaborate ceremony costing $7,000 there may only cost $5,000 here." Santeria ceremonies frequently require animal sacrifices as well as earth from as many as seven cemeteries.  Oppenheimer supports the view that the Cuban government regards the Afro-cultic movement as a major source of tourist revenue.


The dramatic Methodist pastoral letter released on September 15 concludes that "Afro-Cuban cults are proliferating under the mantle of 'national culture'" and protests against the utilization of the mass media to "promote Santeria and those who practice it, while the church nowhere has the opportunity to disseminate the ethical values of the Christian faith which our Cuban society so desperately needs.  The songs most heard on national radio are dedicated to a mixture of Catholicism and African 'Orishas' [heathen gods].  Satanism has achieved the rank of 'folklore'." Government preference for heathen religious movements apparently surpasses the political strategy of utilizing them to dampen Catholic or Protestant power.  The afore-mentioned Protestant church official believes Santeros reside within the Politburo itself.


Yet the political repression of religion has not yet been completely relegated to the past.  Though Castro has made numerous expressions of good will and aid shipments sponsored by US-Christians have shattered the reserve of many doctrinaire Marxists, infrequent harassment of the house church movement has occurred.  In the vicinity of Santiago de Cuba, two Pentecostal house churches were nearly destroyed by "turbas", young rowdies operating at the behest of a least a segment of the local government.  Media campaigns were launched against house churches in Holguin and in the Pinar del Rio province.  In the eastern city of Manzanillo, Methodist youth pastor Juan Carlos Gonzalez was threatened with bodily harm while attempting to serve a growing house church in 1992.  An official letter of protest and the intervention of higher-ups eventually solved this crisis.


"We rarely have such major problems," assured Superintendent Calsado.  "The climate depends a lot upon the legal interpretations of local authorities," he added.  "But the church is without fear and we will move ahead."


Bill Yoder

Evanston IL, November 6, 1993


Written for News Network International (NNI) in Santa Ana, California, 1,350 words