Cubans explore uncertain religious terrain

By Matthew D. LaPlante
Neue Quarterly
May, 2099

​​It was early in the morning when they came. There were two short knocks at the door and, when it opened, a polite greeting from one of the police officers standing in the stairwell.

"Good morning, sir," the police captain said. "We have come for your books."

The group of six uniformed officers didn't wait to be invited inside. And they didn't bother asking where the books were being hidden. They didn't need to. Among five unfamiliar faces was one that the home's resident immediately recognized — a frequent visitor to this contraband Christian library, a fan of C.S. Lewis who averted his eyes as he entered the apartment.

The officers walked through the kitchen, marched across a small balcony, and climbed up a rickety, rusted ladder to the roof of the building. There, in a corner overlooking the Plaza de la Revolutión, they found a rusted, gray Soviet ammo box. Inside, there were about 100 books, nearly all of them by Christian authors, including Lewis, Roland Allen and Sam Shoemaker.

The officers emptied the box into a few black backpacks and left.

For years, the terrified librarian waited for the police to return for him.

"They never touched me," the old man remembers. His jaw is trembling. His eyes are like glass. "But because I never knew what was oing to happen, the wait itself was like torture. I didn't dare collect any more books. Not for a very long time."

Of course, that was decades ago, he says, angrily wiping away at his tears. "Almost 20 years," he counts. He stands, turns, and walks to a set of splintery wooden shelves, on which is displayed — right in the middle of his apartment — his renewed collection of religious literature. There are at least 300 titles on the shelf.

"Things are better today," he says with a broad smile.

Yet he begs that I do not write his name in my black moleskin notebook. And if I am to write about this conversation, he suggests, it might be best if I didn't even mention the name of the neighborhood in which he lives.

"I am old now," he tells me. "If I lost my books again, I know that I could not recover."

Here, in this rundown Havana apartment, is the great paradox of Christian life in communist Cuba. Today, believers are freer than at any time in the past 50 years to practice their faith.

And yet many remain paralyzed by fear.

It's hard to identify the moment that the world began to spin differently for Cuban Christians, but it all seems to have begun around the time that the Soviet Union started its economic tumble into the abyss of fallen empires.

Seeking to preserve international legitimacy at a time when his Soviet benefactors were faltering, in 1989 Fidel Castro invited Pope John Paul II to visit this Caribbean island nation. When the Vatican declined to commit, Castro upped the anty. In 1991, Castro's government dropped the ban on religious believers in the Communist Party. In 1992, the Cuban constitution was amended to officially make the country "secular" instead of "atheist." And in 1996, Castro traveled to the Vatican to renew his invitation in person.

Two years later, the pontiff visited Cuba — a journey officially intended to bring comfort to millions of Cuban Catholics. However, the trip — and the concessions Castro made to earn it — ultimately may have done more to help free Cuba's Protestants, who some believe faced even greater persecution under Castro's rule than their Catholic counterparts.

Over the following decade, Cuba's Christians danced a two-steps-forward-one-step-back rumba with the government. 

Congregations that had been secretly gathering in basements, in living rooms and on rooftops, were finding that they could more openly recruit members, but the government demanded that all "house churches" register with local party leaders to receive authorization to meet.

For the first time in decades, some churches were granted permission to build new structures as places of worship, but congregations that ran afoul of the regime were raided and sometimes shut down. Limits on the distribution of basic religious literature, such a the Bible and denominational hymnals, were lifted, but even today unauthorized home libraries, like the one I visited in Havana, are subject to confiscation. Same too for independent publishers of religious materials — as recently as 2005, the government confiscated a printing press owned by Assembly of God Pastor Eliseo Rodriquez Matos, who was accused of "subversive and dangerous" actions when it was learned that he had been printing copies of the Gospel of John.

But no one I spoke to in Cuba denied that, today, Christians are able to practice their faith — even proclaim it — in ways unheard of in the past. But as they explore this uncertain religious terrain, they're walking on shaky ground.

It's possible that, to the extent state-sponsored religious repression is waning, it is because Cuban leaders have found The Church to be useful. With its socialist support structure stretched to the breaking point in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the once staunchly atheistic government has sought the assistance of churches across the country to help care for Cuba's neediest citizens — a faith-based initiative, of sorts, that might just be an area in which U.S. and Cuban leaders could see eye-to-eye. During Hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Ike, in the fall of 2008, Communist Party officials implored church leaders to provide food, shelter and basic medical care for the displaced and the homeless. In the days before Fay struck, Cuba's state-run television broadcast images of party leaders reviewing preparations being made at one church in Santiago de Cuba — and even shaking hands with the pastor and several congregants.

"Look at that," says Rita, who runs the private apartment where I stayed during Fay's ultimately underwhelming landfall, as she watched the television coverage of the official meeting with church leaders. 

"Today they need that pastor. But who knows about tomorrow?"

Whatever the motive, slowly but surely the Cuban government had taken its hands off the throats of the nation's Christians. Today, an entry for "Iglesias y lugares de culto" in the Havana phone book includes nearly 100 places of worship. Many are Catholic, but there are nine Baptist churches listed, along with a few congregations each of Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians.

"We now have the liberty to present the Gospel anywhere — on a bus, in the streets, we can even pass out tracts," says Pastor Alexander Isasi Oropesa, who leads the 400-strong Mar de Galilea Baptist Church in one of Havana's most downtrodden neighborhoods.

Like most Christians I met in Cuba, Oropesa had no problem proclaiming his love for Jesus Christ — openly and unashamed. "You can use my name," he told me, smiling as he punched a finger down on a blank page in my notebook. "I have no secrets — everyone already knows who I am and what I do."

And yet Oropesa understands why some, like the old librarian, remain fearful of the government.

Fifty years of persecution will do that.

Larry Rankin was just a boy when his Methodist missionary parents fled Cuba, about a year and a half after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. Although churches weren't summarily shut  down, the Communist government did send many religious leaders to reeducation camps. Some succumbed to the pressures to renounce Christ. Others simply fled.

In the years that followed, the Methodist church — the history of which went back several generations in Cuba — dwindled from nearly 10,000 members to about 1,250, says Rankin, whose job as director of mission ministries for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church gives him the opportunity to keep a watchful eye on the island where he was born.

"That was a low point for the church, but in that low point was a reexamination of what the church is, by Cuban Christians," Rankin says. "No longer was the church ruled or dominated by the clergy."

Rather, he says, it was average, ordinary Christians "who were teaching and leading and going out and evangelizing, starting new missions and house churches."

Today, Rankin says, there are more than 50,000 Methodists in Cuba.

Almost every denomination in Cuba has a similar story of Christians enduring, even thriving, during repressive times. And comparisons to antecedent Christians who endured slavery and torture and death to proclaim Christ's resurrection — are not uncommon.

Though Oropesa is open about his faith, he's careful about what he says. The 30-year-old pastor won't talk politics. He avoids the subject of Cuba's pre-revolutionary history. He won't criticize the government — not even when it comes to the topic of religious liberties.

All for good reason: Communist Party officials continue to perform regular "checks" on Christian churches — ensuring their doctrine remains religious, not political. Proselytizing in groups larger than a few members is forbidden. In a place where many citizens derive the majority of their income on the black market — Christians here are expected to tithe on what they earn both from their authorized government jobs and whatever side work they do — it is far too easy for the government to shut down a congregation for keeping "bad books."

Oropesa maintains a "give to Caesar" attitude about the government.

His is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the country. It began meeting more than a decade before the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power and, under strict supervision, was permitted to continue throughout the next 50 years under the auspices of the Cuban Council of Churches.

Today his church has hundreds of members. It sponsors several house churches. It serves scores of children — many of whose parents are prostitutes and prisoners. These are children who likely would grow up as outcasts and criminals were it not for Mar de Galilea.

"We have been very faithful," Oropesa says during lunch at a congregant's home. "But we know what we can do and what we cannot do. That way, we can continue to do good work."

For some, however, the very notion of living a Christ-like life compels dissent against a regime that remains responsible for significant civil abuses. So while simply being a believer in Cuba may not land a Christian in prison, taking action on Christian principles — by advocating human rights, calling for democratic freedoms or providing sanctuary to would-be defectors — can be grounds for imprisonment.

That was the case for Evangelical pastors Carlos Lamelas and Joel Rojas, who were charged in 2006 with human trafficking for allegedly helping smuggle dissidents off the island. At a secret trial, Lamelas was acquitted of the charge but found guilty of falsifying government documents.

The latter charge related to the allegation that he had wrongly signed a letter certifying that a fellow Cuban was an accredited worker for his church so that the man could travel to Guatemala for a conference — allegedly with the intent to defect.

Lamelas was fined about two months salary.

Rojas was not so fortunate. He was convicted of all charges in the scheme and is serving a seven-year sentence.

"Faith is rising in Cuba," says Jessica Castro, development coordinator for Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach, a Miami-based non-profit that works with more than 800 churches in Cuba. "But definitely, if someone is speaking out or going against the government in any way, shape or form, they're putting themselves in a very compromising position."

For the most part, Cuban Christians are like believers anywhere — content to live their lives, as Christ-like as possible, within the bounds of the world into which they were born.

On Havana's seafront Malecon avenue, a popular nighttime hangout for young Cubans, Juan Carlos Matos perches on the brick seawall, strums a battered nylon-string guitar and sings into the ocean winds…

"Qué amigo nos es Cristo…
Él sintió nuestro aflicción…
Y nos manda que llevemos…
Todo a Dios en oración"

It's a hymn familiar in almost any language — "What a friend we have in Jesus" — and it's one of a dozen or so Christian songs that the 22-year-old Matos will mix in with various American pop tunes and Cuban classics before slinging his guitar over his shoulder and making the two-mile walk back to his apartment, sometime around 3 a.m. this morning.

The amateur musician, a university biology student, says he has no interest in pushing back against his nation's totalitarian government. 

"My ministry is much simpler," he says. "I play some songs that people like. They come over to listen and I play some Christian songs. If they stay and listen some more, it is possible that we will talk about Christ."

Among those who most frequently stop to listen in, Matos says, are Havana's police, who patrol Malecon to ensure the nightly revelry doesn't morph into something more.

"They've never given me any trouble," he says. "And one of those officers now goes to my church."

Waning political pressures notwithstanding, Christianity — and all it entails — can be a tough social sell to Cuba's often-hypersexualized youth.

"My friends said, 'You're crazy,' " Juan Díaz recalls of the conversations he had with his peers after converting to Christianity at the age of 16. "They said, 'Look, you're not going to be able to do all the things that you're supposed to do when you're young.' "

But Díaz, now 24 and aspiring to be a pastor, says that although many didn't understand his motives, he lost no friends when he turned to Christ — something he is certain would have happened to someone walking in his shoes a decade or two earlier.

"I didn't have any problems," he says. "Things have changed for the better in Cuba. It seems to me that people have more acceptance for Christianity than before."

No matter how Cuban Christians choose to act out their faith, they can find benefactors among brethren around the world. The more radical have found support through groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which organizes letter-writing campaigns on behalf of Christian political prisoners. Cuba's more mainstream Christians, meanwhile, have established a network of supportive churches throughout the United States.

Pastor Danny Davis is among those who have found a niche ministry in Cuba. This past summer he led a group from Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Mount Hermon, Va., to Havana to help facilitate a week of Vacation Bible School at Mar de Galilea. Davis, who has made five trips to minister in Cuba, says that with each new visit it becomes more difficult to know who is ministering to whom.

"Although we always go with the hope of providing needful assistance, support and encouragement to our Cuban brothers and sisters, we always return home feeling that we were the ones who benefited the most," Davis says. "The heartfelt joy of the Cuban believers — so strikingly lived out in the face of such seemingly hopeless and difficult circumstances — is truly a testimony to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ."

For years, sister churches in the United States and Cuba could rely on such ecumenical exchanges. But in the wake of revelations that some religious groups were abusing U.S. regulations that liberally permitted churches to send delegations to Cuba for ministry and humanitarian work, groups like Davis' are finding it increasingly difficult to visit the forbidden island. In 2006, the Bush administration placed new regulations on the number of people from any one church allowed to visit Cuba. In the following years, some churches have reported that the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which issues U.S. travel licenses, has been increasingly stingy about who it permits to go to Cuba.

Those who can navigate the red tape, however, can find plenty of opportunities to do what they believe is God's work in Cuba.

Despite the buoyant, off-key chorus of young voices emanating from the courtyard of a small home in the neighborhood of San Miguel del Padrón, most of those wandering down the street don't so much as stop to take a peek inside. But one man, dressed in a black and yellow athletic suit and matching shoes — far nicer than most of the clothing worn in these parts — keeps meandering onto his stairwell to watch the goings on. Word around the neighborhood is that the man is a government informant, rewarded by the party for keeping tabs on the house church next door.

During the first days of the bible school, he wouldn't allow his young son to participate. But the sounds of singing and laughter next door were apparently too much for the boy to bear. He begged his father to let him go. On the third day, the man finally relented. Now his son is sitting in a circle, with 40 other children, listening to Davis tell the story of the Good Samaritan through an interpreter.

"Who is your neighbor?" Davis asks the children at the end of his lesson. "¿Quién es su vecino?"

The children seemed stumped. Finally, one blurts out an answer:

"¿Todos?" he asks. "Everyone?"

It's the boy from next door.

Back in the librarian's home, over a simple plate of black beans and rice — Cristianos y Moros, they call it here — I ask the old man when it was he decided that it was time to begin collecting books again.

"The officer who turned me in, he died two or three years ago," he says, getting up from the table to walk to the bookshelf. "A few months later, very early in the morning, there was a knock at the door."

Standing there was the police officer's son, a young man in his early 20s.

"He was holding this book," the old man says, pulling a copy of

"Mero Cristianismo" — C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" — from the shelf.

The book is old and battered. Its pages are yellow.

"It that one of the books that was taken from you?" I ask.

"No," the librarian says. "I'm sure those books were all burned. But this man's son knew about what had happened. He knew his father once had enjoyed the C.S. Lewis books he borrowed from me. The son was ashamed. When his father died, he brought me this book. That was the start of my new library."

"You've collected 300 books about Christianity in just the past few years?" I ask.

The old man smiles. "Things are better today," he says.

I open my notebook, pull a pen from my pocket, and begin to write what I have heard.

"Good, good," the old man says. "But please — don't write my name."