Protestantism is on
the Move in Cuba
The Protestant churches of Cuba are engulfed in an awakening: Young people without Christian pasts are joining Pentecostal, Baptist and
Methodist congregations in droves. The Methodist church in Havana-Marianao, which has added 150 members this year, estimates that 80% of its new
members are less than 20 years of age. As many as several thousand house churches may exist; the Methodist church, which dipped to 3,000 members in
1968, is now hosting 30,000 regular participants.
This awakening is heavily charismatic; Methodists estimate that 80-85% of their members are now of charismatic persuasion. Cuban young people clearly demonstrate adult levels of self-confidence: In Marianao, an 18-year-old girl was observed "slaying" a 16-year-old lad with the Spirit.
The fallout from this theological explosion is settling on Cuba's ecumenical seminary in Matanzas. Though the vast majority of Matanzas' 43 students are charismatics, their professors are not. One non-charismatic student confided, "Outwardly, we're all very nice to each another, but the deeper issues are far from resolved." The seminary's rector, Humberto Fuentes, labeled the charismatic critique of Cuban society "superficial" and added: "When charismatics claim there will always be poverty and wealth, they are assuming that sin will always be. It's fatalistic to assume that sin will remain unconquered."
Nevertheless, Cuba's proponents of liberation theology are planning revisions. Reinerio Arce, son of Cuba's most prominent liberation theologian, Sergio Arce, conceded that "society is more complicated than the liberation theologians had thought. We neglected the issues of race and gender and did not realize that the poor themselves are heterogenous. We automatically accepted a European, Marxist doctrine and neglected our own Latin American history. We'll need to reassess everything now. We'll need to rely much more on Jose Marti, and less on Karl Marx."
Reinerio Arce, a Presbyterian professor at Matanzas, foresees that his church's much-maligned 1977 confession of faith will be superseded by a more current one. According to Reinerio, the 1977 statement, largely penned by his father, "harbored a too optimistic anthropology. Its doctrine of sin does not reach far enough: It attacks structural sin, but forgets individual sin." "We need a new synthesis with the charismatic movement," Reinerio concluded. "Our 'Cubanness' is in danger; we need to develop a new theology which is in agreement with our culture, our society and history."
Rector Fuentes fears that North American influences such as the charismatic movement will lead to a loss of Cuban sovereignty. "After considerable struggle we came to be regarded as equals by the North American and European churches," Fuentes contended. "We had become partners, but will this remain to be so? We had conquered our inferiority complex, but now I am afraid it will return and that we will lose the hard-won identity we have achieved."
Other Christians associated with the political left interpret the charismatic movement as an expression of Cuban independence. Citing its social concerns, the Baptist parliamentarian Raul Suarez insisted that "the charismatic movement here is different from anywhere else in Latin America."
The Methodist bishop, Joel Ajo, who is fighting to combine the charismatic and non-charismatic factions of his church, labeled the Cuban movement a genuine expression of Cuban faith. He even called the movement "a denial of the staid faith brought to us by the missionaries. For so long, we had remained locked in the style and form of Wesley."
Ajo and the Cuban Methodists made headlines in Miami with a dramatic pastoral letter read from their pulpits on September 19. It lists the ills of present-day Cuban society: crime, moral collapse, economic desperation and the hordes of young women eager to sell themselves to tourists. It lodges a protest against government support for the pagan, Afro-Cuban Santeria cult. "Satanism has acquired the rank of 'folklore'," the letter laments.
Evangelicals are increasingly viewing themselves as mouthpieces of social justice vis a vis a once-egalitarian government. The abrupt "dollarization" of the Cuban economy last July has led to major inequalities. Rinaldo Hernandez, a Methodist superintendent, complained: "I believe we are lacking justice, and I am preaching about this. We cannot buy at the market what we need to survive because we don't have the proper currency. The Methodist pastoral letter adds: "Social disparities have reappeared, the likes of which we never wanted to reappear in Cuba." Cuban salaries average 200 pesos per month, which translate into $3 on the black market.
Bishop Ajo has backpedaled in recent weeks by claiming the pastoral letter "was not meant to be published. We regret that it was printed by 'El Nuevo Herald' in Miami. That did not help us at all: We cannot be allied with anyone who supports the blockade of Cuba. Every day, this blockade is directed against our children, our elderly, and our sick. The pastoral letter had also lashed out at the U.S.: "The U.S. practices a double morality when it denies visas to those who want to visit their families, while receiving immediately as heroes those who depart illegally even though they endanger thereby their own lives and the lives of others, including children." The letter's eloquence and Bishop Ajo's growing political finesse appear to herald a new public role for Cuban Methodism.
Evangelicals have been helped along the route of public acceptability by their North American partners. The National Council of Churches has delivered aid valued at $800,000 since 1992. This as well as the shipments of groups such as Pastors for Peace and World Relief have given Protestantism mass visibility and new respect within Cuba.
Despite certain indications to the contrary, Rev. Hernandez retorted: "I don't see any hand outstretched by the government. There is an official policy, and there is an unofficial one. There are many members of the party in my church, and they are now being pressured to leave. Fidel and some other leaders have expressed openness to the church, but those in charge of implementing policies are not open." Only minimal amounts of property have been returned to the churches. The renown Methodist Candler School complex in Marianao remains in government hands.
Asked why he still cooperated with a government regarded to be on its last legs, Rev. Suarez responded: "What then is the alternative to the government we presently have? Capitalism has failed miserably in Latin America. For the first time in history we have the opportunity to forge a truly Cuban path without foreign intervention. This appeals to me, and because it does, I participate. The least costly alternative for the Cuban people now would be for the revolution to remain in power and make the necessary political and economic changes. We want nothing to do with the system of political terror in Miami, which does not permit in Miami the amount of democracy we enjoy here."
Evanston, IL/USA, November 10, 1993
Appeared in edited form in “Christianity Today”, Carol Stream/USA, 1,115 words.