I just had an opportunity to spend a week in Cuba during the last days of January. Although just a short trip, I did have busy days with opportunities to visit Havana and some of the countryside around the city. I also spent a day in each of several smaller communities including Minas (a town that once was a thriving copper mining town), Matanzas City and Santa Clara. This travel encompassed a narrow portion of the western half of the island within a three hour drive east of Havana and three hours west of Havana. I wish I could have seen more but time did not allow for further adventures. But, what I did see delighted me with beautiful mountain scenery, coastal views of the Gulf of Mexico and even a short boat ride through a cave. The people I met were loving and very much in hope of a brighter future for their lives in spite of sometimes difficult living conditions and little income.
Allowing for a full day each way for travel between Houston and Havana, I had six days on the ground to meet people, see the sites and explore the culture. My first three days were shared with two friends from The Woodlands UMC, Rev. John Hull, Mission Pastor, and Jennifer Sims, Small Group Director. We spent three days together while visiting the Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Havana. After John and Jennifer went home, I spent the following three days traveling with hosts from the New Pines Seminary, a theologically reformed seminary that is non-denominational. I will say more about the seminaries in later posts.
The Religious Makeup of Cuba
From what I have read and from personal conversations, I want to first relate what I understand to be the broad religious makeup of the Cuban population of roughly 11,000,000. According to the U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom, an estimated 60 to 70 percent is believed to be Roman Catholic although only 4 to 5 percent regularly attend mass. I was told that it is not uncommon to have a large Catholic Church building with only a handful of people attending on any Sunday. Membership in Evangelical churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population but that number is growing daily.
Baptists and Pentecostals are estimated to be the largest Evangelical denominations followed by Methodists, Anglicans and Presbyterians. There are also those that consider themselves strongly Evangelical but non-denominational.
Non-evangelical groups include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists; Quakers, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The Jewish community is estimated at 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. Muslim presence is minor with the majority of the believers from outside Cuba, with only a few actual Cuban Muslims. I did see one building that was a Muslim Community Center but no real evidence of a mosque. Interestingly though, I did see a number of older buildings that had a distinct Middle Eastern influence. Other religious groups, in a very small presence, include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Buddhists and Baha’is.
In addition, many Cubans (some say as much as 80%) participate in religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River basin, known as Santeria. Santeria is very similar to the practice of Voodoo that I observed in Haiti. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some even require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately the total membership of these syncretistic groups.
U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom
On July 30, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its latest report on the status of religious freedom around the world; the report had many good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba. An expert analysis of the report by Duane W. Krohnke in his blog includes the following comments.
The Cuban “constitution protects religious freedom.” After the 1989 collapse of the U.S.S.R, the Cuban constitution was amended to eliminate “[scientific materialism or] atheism as the state creed” and to declare “the country to be a secular state” with “separation of church and state. The government does not officially favor any particular religion or church.” Moreover, says the U.S., “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”
The Cuban “government’s respect for religious freedom improved” in 2011, declares the report.
“Religious organizations reported significant ability (in 2011) to attract new members without government interference. Many churches reported increased participation in religious instruction for children because government schools no longer scheduled competing activities on Saturdays or Sundays. The majority of religious groups reported little interference from the government in conducting their services and saw improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events. Some religious groups found it easier to bring in foreign religious workers. . . .”
Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs and weekend retreats for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.”
“Religious groups reported they were able to continue to provide community service programs with little interference from the government. These programs included providing assistance to the elderly, after school tutoring for children, clean water, and health clinics. “
While these improvements in government cooperation with religion institutions are favorable and appreciated, I did hear of some isolated instances where the atmosphere was not as lenient. For example, while their programs for seniors seem to be highly accepted, I did hear of one instance where there was still some averseness to allow a church to directly minister to children and young adults.
In addition to the laws to allow more religious freedoms, there have also been some significant civil law changes in regard to property ownership, the ability to buy and sell property, business and entrepreneurship. I was told that as of three years ago, one would not have seen a pushcart in the street selling wares to the general public. Today, there are many such carts of various sizes, modes of pushing/pulling (human and animal) and selling a variety of wares, mostly food. The freedom to buy and sell property is working in the favor of the church, allowing many pastors to either convert their home to a home-church, or even to buy new property to establish a home-church. Consequently, there are newly planted churches springing up throughout Cuba. I had a chance to meet three of these new home-churches and see their efforts in community outreach, member care and church growth. Of course, with church planting comes the need for properly trained church leadership. Thus, there is a great need for the seminaries to be well equipped and financially stable to be able to meet the demand for educated leadership. While I was not in Cuba to engage in ministry per se, I was able to fully appreciate the vital role that Overseas Council will serve in the future of the Cuba church through our partnerships with several Cuban seminaries. If you feel moved to participate in that work, please give a gift of any amount, designated for Cuba.
Well, that’s a general overview of the status of Cuba, although not near complete. In the next post I will attempt to tell you a bit more about my personal time in Cuba. I will also describe the particulars of the two seminaries I visited.