Lutherans Struggling in Cuba

A Lutheran Breakthrough in Cuba?


Cuba is on a spiritual upswing: House churches now number in the thousands.  The Methodists, who had dipped to 3,000 members in 1968, now host 30,000 members.  The Pentecostals are even larger.  The young are everywhere evident among Methodists: As many as 80% of its new members are less than 30 years old.


But Lutherans have yet to enjoy the fruits of Cuba's current revival: Their total stagnates at around 300 members.  Most Cuban Lutheran growth appears to be happening in Miami: There, at the ELCA's charismatic "Prince of Peace" congregation, dozens of Cubans of non-Lutheran background are joining.


Street 53 in the steamy, impoverished town of Nueva Gerona on Cuba's southwestern Isle of Youth portrays well the predicament of Cuban Lutheranism.  At the flat-roofed house of the Rev. Ramon Benito Ebanks (pronounced Ayvahnks), the official "Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Cuba" holds services.  But only 200 yards away, in the home of Ramon Urrutia, a smaller group convenes for worship.  The sign on the front porch reads: "Iglesia Luterana de Cuba" (Lutheran Church of Cuba).  After a crisis in Ebanks' church, this group joined forces in late 1992 with a group led by Roberto Bartutis in Havana.  In March, 1993, a third denomination appeared: the "Cuban Christian Lutheran Church."  It is led by the youthful Pablo Martinez, also from the vicinity of Havana.


Results have lagged behind the spirit of hope present at the ordination service on November 11, 1990.  Of the three men then ordained (see The Lutheran, 11-28-90), only Benito Ebanks, 52, remains active in Cuba.  The Lutherans are virtually without property: The oft-forecast return of Lutheran churches by the state appears as distant as ever.  Even foreign observers are reluctant to see the property returned immediately: A return of property to only one of the three groups could heighten tensions.  The Ebanks church does remain the largest, retaining the loyalty of approximately 140 believers.  Only this church has legal recognition.


Roberto Bartutis, 68, a strictly confessional Lutheran, sees himself as the link between the church originally founded in 1907 by missionaries of the Missouri Synod (LCMS), and today's Lutherans.  Even the Ebanks church is not pleased with the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas: A ramshackle backyard hut in Nueva Gerona surrounded by farm animals now sports a hand-lettered shingle with the proud title: "Instituto Teologica Dr. Martin Luther."


The Rev. Torbjoern Lied, General Secretary of Norway's Santal Mission, which has aided Cuban Lutherans for two decades, sees personalities as the cause for the church's divisions: "The biggest obstacle to reunion is the question of leadership.  We are dealing with three people who all like to be leaders."  In Miami, the Rev. Lenier Gallardo of "Prince of Peace" added: "When we ordained these men, we didn't realize that these people had not yet learned how to run a church.  They were allowed to do as they pleased, we didn't bring them together for required training.  It was our mistake."  The refounding of the church in 1990 had never included all Lutherans: Bartutis and his followers had not participated.


Happily, foreigners have not yet become guilty of fueling internal tensions.  Rev. Johannes Gedrat, the Brazilian director of the Missouri Synod's Latin American missions program, stated in St. Louis flatly: "We have no intentions to start a new work in Cuba, not even after Castro is gone.  There are some people in the LCMS who think we should, but I don't see any sense in complicating relations.  My feeling is that if the national church wants to be independent from us, then let it be independent."


At consultations in Nueva Gerona in late October, Gedrat disappointed listeners when he launched an impassioned plea for the creation of a single church: "We do not want to form a second Lutheran church or form a US-synod here in Cuba.  We do not want to scatter about money or Gringos.  We want to help expand the reign of God in Cuba."


"Cuban Lutherans have a common doctrinal basis, all parties have accepted the confessional statements," he continued.  "There is no need for a second Missouri church.  Only differences in doctrine, not conflicts between individuals, may be grounds for the division of a church."


Nevertheless, Johannes Gedrat does not desire to populate the Cuban church with vanilla (non-confessional) Christians: The LCMS is strongly interested in sending professors for short periods who would educate Cubans in the doctrines of Lutheranism.


A breakthrough occurred in a tedious closing session at Havana's Ecumenical Council on October 26: A committee of eight including two representatives from each of the three factions was formed.  It will serve as a mechanism for dialogue and possible reunification.


This committee has a common goal for the coming year: revising the church constitution.  The constitution of 1990, influenced by a Brazilian Lutheran teaching at Matanzas, had raised temperatures not only in Norway.  Displaying many elements of liberation theology, this "political" document is to be replaced by a "doctrinal" one.


Asked if all sides desired reunification, Rev. Ivar Agoey from the Santal Mission responded: "That is not quite clear.  We hope the good will is there, but we are a bit in doubt."  According to Lied, a new united church would require a new leadership: "The only way to reunite is also to agree to have new elections for leaders in which all sides will be able to participate."


Though missing out on the present revival, a strengthened Lutheran church might still play a distinctive role in Cuba:  Disenchanted Catholics are not rare.  Carlos Rojo, who has only been a Lutheran since February and is already on the committee of eight, insisted that he, because of his understanding of the sacraments, "could only be Lutheran or Catholic.  Besides, large churches are not as easily corrupted as small ones."  His Catholic wife long refused to join the Baptist church which Rojo, a brewer, had attended.  Yet she recently chose to become a Lutheran along with her husband.


Benito Ebanks, raised as a Catholic, had been offended by Catholic openness for Afro-Cuban cults such as the Santeria.  He had also disapproved of the local priest's private life and believed that "the Scriptures belong in the hands of all believers."  Miami's "Prince of Peace" congregation contains scores of formerly nominal Catholics.


A willingness to change is not completely absent from the church in Cuba.  "We have not yet tried reconciliation," a Cuban Lutheran conceded in Nueva Gerona.  "We should start with that now."


Bill Yoder

Evanston/USA, November 13, 1993


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1,065 words