Despite shortages and restrictions, Christianity continues to thrive in Cuba

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

LOS ANGELES, March 30 (Compass) -- For over a decade, Cuba has endured shocking shortages of everything from food and clothing to jobs and transportation. Cubans do not lack a sense of humor, however, and can still joke about their poverty.

A current sample of comic relief a la cubana has one man saying to another: “Hey, watch me make that old lady over there whistle like a train.”

“How are you going to do that?” his friend asks.

The man walks up to the woman and says, “Excuse me, señora, but how long has it been since you last tasted meat?”

“WHOO-HOOO!” she exclaims.

Cubans do not lack resourcefulness to deal with adversity, either. They are world leaders at what they call “improvising. Homemakers shop the black market or barter with neighbors in order to scrape together enough ingredients to prepare daily meals. Mechanics repair ancient American Fords and Chevrolets with spare parts scavenged from newer Japanese cars. Doctors concoct ointments and elixirs as substitutes for medicines that are too costly or too scarce to prescribe.

Somehow, they survive.

The evangelical Christian church in Cuba has learned to survive -- even thrive -- in the face of adversity. Despite restrictions on worship, evangelism and Christian education, the evangelical Cuban church sustains one of the highest growth rates in Latin America, a continent that is experiencing rapid evangelical growth nearly everywhere.

Church leaders say that, since Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998, the Castro regime has demonstrated more tolerance toward Christians. For example, no pastors are currently imprisoned for alleged political crimes. House churches are able to operate openly, without fear of sudden closure. Congregations with legally registered properties have secured building permits to remodel aging sanctuaries or erect new ones, sometimes using government contractors to do so.

However, they caution, the changes are not necessarily permanent or universal.

“The law has not changed. What has changed is the spirit,” a Baptist pastor told Compass when discussing government policy toward religion. “What’s more, it depends on the spirit of local authorities.

“In some places, the will to cooperate exists to approve church activities or (building) permits. In others, especially in rural communities, churches are still restricted.”

The rules governing house church activities are an example of the adage that, the more things change, the more they remain the same. House churches must still secure permits from government authorities to hold meetings in private homes. The owner of the home must apply for the permit and must continue to reside on the premises as long as the church meets there.

House churches cannot have fixed pews or permanent seating; chairs must be collected and stored between services. To prevent overcrowding, a house church cannot exceed 40 members. However, that regulation is not always enforced. Compass learned of one house church in an apartment complex that gathers 350 believers for weekly worship.

Regulations concerning foreign visitors have the net effect of limiting contact between Cuban believers and overseas Christians. Travelers to the island who wish to engage in activities such as preaching or leading worship must secure a special religious worker visa to do so, at a fee seven times that of the standard tourist visa.

What is more, the government requires visitors with tourist visas to stay in state-owned hotels or special rental properties licensed for foreign guests. Should a visitor wish to lodge in the home of a pastor or church member, he or she must secure the religious worker visa.

Although leaders see a “notable improvement” in the availability of Bibles, Cuban Christians still face a critical shortage of Scriptures. Due to the relaxation of import laws, churches and missionary agencies overseas can now send Bibles into the country under the auspices of the Bible Commission of the Ecumenical Council of Churches of Cuba.

On the other hand, authorities routinely confiscate quantities of Scriptures that private individuals seek to carry into Cuba. When customs officers recently found 20 Bibles in a piece in luggage belonging to a group of European visitors, they impounded the books at the airport. Officials later returned the books to the visitors as they left the island.

In all fairness, the shortage of Bibles is as much a result of the rapid growth of the evangelical church in Cuba as to import restrictions. Supply simply cannot keep pace with demand, according to church leaders.

“The truth of the matter is, we need Bibles,” one pastor said. “But we lived for a long time without any Bibles, so the situation has improved in recent years.”

His comment reflects the resilient attitude that the visitor to Cuba encounters among Christians there. Despite acute shortages and official restrictions, believers feel things are not that bad.

A house church leader, unemployed for years after losing his job as a warehouse manager, revealed how deeply ingrained is this spirit of resilience. The man recently heard a report about Christians who face difficulties and persecution in Asia and the Middle East.

“We have seen that there are brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who are confronting problems much worse than those we face, and we are moved by their testimony,” he told the foreign visitor who brought the report. “We will dedicate ourselves to pray for those brothers and sisters even more faithfully.”