Magazine article The Christian Century

Cuba's Spirited Protestants

Magazine article The Christian Century

Cuba's Spirited Protestants

Article excerpt

THE TAXI'S MOTOR died three times as the driver wound his way around the fallen trees and through the flooded streets of Havana. He was trying to get me back to my hotel before the worst of October's Hurricane Irene hit Cuba's capital. Each time the decrepit Lada--a Soviet version of a small Fiat--stalled, I climbed out to push it out of the deep water. And each time help appeared. Anonymous volunteers waded into the choppy waters, heads bowed against the gale, to help push the Lada to dry land. Once the mission was accomplished, they smiled and disappeared into the wet wind and flying branches.

Having lived through Hurricane Mitch in Central America, I was fascinated by the Cuban response to Irene. Although damage to crops and property--especially the rickety colonial buildings of Old Havana--was significant, loss of life was minimal. That only four died was a tribute to the organizational abilities of the Cuban people, who respond to hurricanes with the same discipline with which they have long prepared for a military invasion from across the Florida Straits. They showed the spirit of interpersonal solidarity that has also led them to send soldiers to Africa or doctors to Honduras. In a crisis, it all pays off.

A similar spirit characterizes Cuba's Protestants, whose numbers have grown dramatically in recent years. The island's Methodists, for example, have gone from 4,000 members five years ago to some 10,000 today, and another 4,000 people are enrolled in membership classes, according to Bishop Ricardo Pereira. Twenty years ago, the denomination's membership had dropped to only 1,600. Now, at the regional Presbyterian gathering I attended in Guines, a small town outside Havana, members showed up from new congregations that denominational officials hadn't even known existed. According to the government, the number of Protestant church buildings has doubled during the past eight years. In addition, more than 600 registered house churches are functioning, and hundreds of unregistered ones are officially tolerated. Historical Protestant as well as Pentecostal churches are growing.

Last June well over 100,000 Protestants of all types gathered in Havana's Revolution Square to celebrate this growth. During the preceding weeks, Protestants had gone door to door throughout the island, offering personal testimony to the power of their faith. They held big rallies in towns and cities all through Cuba, and then gathered in Havana to show that the pope's January 1998 mass wasn't the only way to publicly celebrate Christian faith on the island. President Fidel Castro attended, the government provided transportation for the celebrants, and the ceremony--as well as three regional rallies--was broadcast on state-run television. These church-sponsored celebrations were joyful gatherings that seldom lasted more than two hours. One government minister reportedly admitted that the government had a lot to learn from the church. State-sponsored mass rallies are often interminable affairs where people "are tortured for hours with long speeches."

While the state lent a hand, it was well-organized churchpeople who made the celebration happen. This is important to emphasize because it has become fashionable for outsiders to attribute the meteoric growth of Cuba's churches primarily to contextual factors. In the past decade, the Cuban state changed its status from official atheism to secularism, the Communist Party dropped the prohibition on religious belief for its members, and--at least officially--any work-place discrimination against believers has been halted by decree. One of the last socialist republics, Cuba has become a seller's market for those who offer meaning. The few Russians remaining in the country are rumored to be looking for tenants who can pay in dollars to rent space in Russia's towering, cathedral-like embassy in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Yesterday's ideological paradigm is morally bankrupt, and the church has been quick to step into the gap. …

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