I want to talk about things the Church of Christ needs and doesn’t need in Cuba. I won’t try to talk about other religious groups, just the one I know the best.
- They don’t need Americans coming in to impose American worship practices. One Cuban told me of the first American visitors they had, back in the early 1990s. After the worship service, one of them came up and said, “You shouldn’t be singing during the offering.” Perfect example of what isn’t needed. If you feel the need to go tell someone how to worship, I’d suggest the mirror as the best place to do it.
- They don’t need outsiders imposing their views on fellowship. A Guatemalan preacher was teaching in Havana and told the group that another preacher who had previously visited Cuba “is no longer Church of Christ.” Besides the absurdity of such a statement from someone who supposedly opposes sectarianism, do we think that Cubans are children who need to be told who is right and who is wrong? As more and more outsiders visit Cuba, more conflicts are being created in the Cuban church.
- They don’t need foreigners determining what is “orthodox” and what isn’t. Some Mexican Christians who visited Cuba were highly offended to discover that the congregation they attended was using wine in the Lord’s Supper. Others have nitpicked at this doctrine or that. Again, Cuban Christians are not children. Nor is the Cuban church in its infancy. Restoration Movement missionaries went to Cuba in the late 19th century. The first missionaries from non-instrumental churches of Christ went there in 1937. If we believe that essential doctrines can be learned from the Bible itself, we have to trust the Cuban church to be able to interpret the Bible.
I could go on, but would probably only get myself in more trouble. Let me finish by quoting something that Dan Bouchelle (Missions Resource Network) shared on Facebook:
“In Africa, we were given the bread of life in a plastic bag and consumed the bag with the bread. This is what has caused our current indigestion and constipation.” – Dennis Malepa (at the Christian Scholars & Writers Symposium, Gaborone, Botswana)
Let’s allow Cuban churches to discard the plastic bag and feast on the bread of life.
The last few weeks I’ve shared a few thoughts about how complicated Cuba can be, both for outsiders and for residents.
I also need to say that the church is strong and alive in Cuba. Those who minister there face great challenges, yet their struggles to overcome those challenges have met with great rewards.
I do a weekly radio program for Herald of Truth that is heard in Cuba. We get more responses to that program than we do anywhere else in the world. The postal service asked Tony Fernandez, the Herald of Truth representative in Cuba, to be sure and pick up the mail every day; if not, the box would overflow!
New congregations are being planted right and left. People are accepting Christ in droves. There is a hunger for God that surpasses the physical hunger that many suffer. God is moving in the church in Cuba, and His people are doing great things.
I’m hoping that Christians from the States and other countries will have enough sense to stay out of the way of our Cuban brethren as they effectively minister in their situation. We’ve already had people come in and criticize this or criticize that. I’d rather see the doors to Cuba slam shut than have people go there creating division and confusion.
Pray for the church in Cuba and the residents of Cuba. People there don’t need capitalism. They don’t need democracy. They don’t need McDonald’s and Walmart. They don’t need any of the things politicians in other countries want to thrust on them.
They need Jesus Christ and the good news He brings.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
When a nation feels threatened, it often implements extreme measures. We’ve seen that in the United States with the provisions of the Patriot Act, with the increased security at airports, with intrusions into our personal lives that would seem completely unreasonable under normal circumstances. The public accepts these things because of the specter of international terrorism.
The other day I made a wire transfer to Panama as part of my work with Herald of Truth. It was neither a large amount nor an unusual transfer; I’ve sent money to this person in the past.
But in order for the transfer to be completed, I had to go through a lengthy series of questions on the phone “to protect me from fraud.” That reason was a complete lie, which became more irritating as the Western Union employee repeated it. The interview had to do with governments wanting to know who is moving money internationally. The questions were more about me than they were about the recipient. When they asked where I’d last seen this person, and I had to answer: “Last month in Cuba,” I cringed as I thought how that will look in my record. But these things go on as nations seek to protect themselves.
That’s part of what complicates things in Cuba. You have to understand the Cuban situation in light of the threat the United States poses to their freedom. I know that sounds funny, but look at the facts:
- After the Cubans won their independence from Spain, the United States governed Cuba from 1899 until 1901.
- As the Cubans formed their first national government in 1901, the United States kept warships in the Havana harbor until the new Cuban government granted a series of concessions to the United States.
- The United States has occupied Cuban soil (in Guantanamo Bay) since 1898, most of that time doing so against Cuba’s will.
- The United States intervened in Cuba and set up a governor under U.S. control from 1906 to 1909.
- U.S. foces went to Cuba in 1912 to help put down an Afro-Cuban civil rights protest.
- During World War I, the United States sent troops to Cuba to protect U.S. interests there. This is often known as the Sugar Intervention.
- The U.S. supported the government of Fulgencio Batista, who was the de facto leader of Cuba during much of the 30s and the elected president of Cuba from 1940-44. In the 1950s, Batista took power as a military dictator, with the support of the United States. (I won’t go into all of Batista’s atrocities; let’s just say that he was one of many ruthless dictators supported by the U.S. during the 20th century)
- After Castro’s revolution overthrew Batista, the United States made several attempts to oust Castro, including a U.S. planned invasion (the Bay of Pigs) and numerous assassination attempts.
- The U.S. has maintained an economic embargo/blockade of Cuba to some degree since 1958. It began with an arms embargo in 1958, was expanded to include almost everything except food and medicine in 1960, and became a near total embargo in 1962.
This list doesn’t include numerous actions taken by operatives of the CIA and the USAID, some of which are documented and some are not. Nor does it discuss the influence of U.S.-based corporations and the U.S.-based Mafia in Cuba before the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
All of this to say that one major complication in understanding Cuba is the need to see it as a nation under siege. I’m not trying to comment on which of these actions were justified and which weren’t; the fact is they occurred and have enabled the Cuban government to operate in an emergency status for decades.
Are you starting to see why Cuba is a complicated place?
Last week I mentioned that discussing many topics concerning Cuba is quite complicated. Among those is the subject of religious freedom. It’s not hard to find articles in the United States decrying the lack of religious freedom in Cuba. You can find examples of church people who have had a hard time in Cuba, like the evangelical pastors who got in trouble with the law for homeschooling their kids.
On the other hand, most Cuban Christians that I know feel that they have much religious freedom. I commented about that on Twitter the other day, and one Cuban preacher responded: “I have preached the gospel for 24 years in a small town in Havana called Cojimar. I have never, ever been questioned about my religion by the government.”
What I’ve been told is that the churches that focus on preaching the Bible have had few problems. My Cuban friends say that the ones who have problems with the government are the ones who receive pressure from their denominations in the U.S. to speak out against the Cuban government.
I do know that I have never been told to change my preaching while in Cuba. Never been told to avoid this religious topic or that one (as far as the government is concerned, at least; let’s not talk about the opinions of visiting church members from the States!). I have faced restrictions, both from the U.S. government and the Cuban government. But none of those had to do with questions of faith.
One recent incident was very telling to me. About three weeks ago, two activists from the LGBT community filed a complaint because some evangelical artists were being allowed to perform in public spaces and had been sponsored by two government-run companies. The complaint was filed under the principle of separation of church and state.
In other words, the complaint was filed because the government was seen as promoting the Christian religion.
Religious freedom in Cuba? It’s complicated.
The other day Matthew Stidham shared something on Facebook about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Basically, this cognitive effect refers to people with little knowledge overestimating their competence in a certain area. The graphic accompanying the post showed a progression from no knowledge toward much knowledge, each stage accompanied by a quote. The quotes were:
“I know everything.”
“There’s more to this than I thought.”
“I’m never going to understand this.”
“It’s starting to make sense.”
“Trust me. It’s complicated.”
That really fits my experience with Cuba. I often say that the person who has visited Cuba once is an expert on the topic… and it goes down from there. The best statement is the last one: Trust me. It’s complicated.
Cuba is complicated. Cuba will be complicated. End the U.S. blockade, and it would still be complicated. Replace the current government with a totally different system, and it would still be complicated. Open up all travel to Cuba, and it would still be complicated. Get in a time machine, go back 65 years, and it would still be complicated.
The economy? Complicated. Human rights? Complicated. Religious freedom? Complicated. The best way forward politically? Complicated.
I love the Cuban people. I consider my support for the church in Cuba to be a major part of my ministry. God is at work in Cuba. The church is growing. People are searching spiritually in a way I don’t see in many countries. So even if it’s complicated, I’m going to keep doing what I can for the Cuban people.
Is that simple enough?