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CUBA UPDATE

DSCF0022Called the “Cuban Thaw,” agreements between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro has led to a “warming” of US/Cuba relations.  While this may seem good for the Cuban people, it’s only after years of persecution and restrictions on the church in Cuba. During the Revolution, many churches and their properties were seized and taken over by the government.  I spent three days visiting the  Methodist seminary in Havana last year. See my blog posts “Reflections from Cuba Part 1 and Part 2. That seminary, started in 1920, was seized during the Revolution, and finally given back to the church in 2004 in a dilapidated condition, and has been undergoing reconstruction to get it functioning again as an institute of higher Christian education.
EPC Pastor Tom Masterson (Hope EPC, San Antonio), who visits Cuba on a regular basis, is sensitive to the attack of the Cuban government on the church in Cuba, and knows the “warming” is for pure political posturing and ignores many past offenses. Tom doesn’t pull punches, “The normalizing of US relations with the Castro regime is a heinous insult to the millions of Christians who have been persecuted by these criminals over the past 6 decades.  We need to adopt a policy that will hold evil accountable, not ignore offenses and reward hatred.”
DSC02924Despite the persecution and oppression the church did manage to grow during these dark years of Communism.  Then as the Cuban government was forced to back off from its previous tactics because it no longer had the financial backing of the Soviet Union, the church began to explode with growth.   The Cuban constitution was changed in 1992 to prohibit any discrimination against Christians. With the lifting of some of the more harsh restrictions, we have seen some unparalleled growth in evangelical churches in Cuba. Tom Masterson wrote, “The growth of the Cuban church in recent decades is explosive!  The miracle is that evangelical churches actually doubled in size during the 30 years of active persecution.  They have more than doubled again since 1992.  It would be hard to find a place in the world where the church is growing faster than it is in Cuba.”
In their April, 2015 newsletter Overseas Council (OC), who has an active ministry in multiple seminaries in Cuba, cited three statements from an Operations World report: the church has multiplied at impressive rates since the 1990’s; Cuba’s challenging environment has refined the church; and church leadership remains an urgent need.
OC goes on to state, “as the government tried to stifle Christian growth by making it nearly impossible to build new churches, the resulting house church movement has proved even more fruitful.” OC also reports that many church leaders fled the country or were expelled following the Revolution and the church is in great need of rebuilding leadership.
Seminaries and seminary students are now playing a great part in church planting and church expansion in Cuba.  In many of the seminaries, students are becoming home church pastors even before they graduate. When they do graduate, they are shepherding churches, planting new churches and training protégé pastors.  OC reported that, “The Methodist denomination has experienced renewal. Its 125 congregations meet in church buildings built before the revolution, but since building permits for new churches are not obtainable, congregations start in homes, now numbering 300. Add in 800 smaller home meetings (less than 25 in size), and you’ll see how the Church has grown by 10% annually in 10 years.”DSCF0077
IMG_4349It’s not just the Methodists that are making strides. When I was in Cuba, I also visited the reformed campus of New Pines Evangelical Seminary in Placetas which has had similar success in its graduating students’ planting churches and growing the Cuban evangelical church. Founded in 1924 the school was also ravished during the Revolution by having school property seized. But since 1992, the school has regained some of the lost property. A new property purchased has given room for a farm to produce the school’s need for food, making it more self-sustaining. With over 800 graduates, the seminary has planted several other seminaries in Cuba.  I was able to spend a day and night at one of these seminaries in Matanzas and had the privilege of meeting some great people at their home on Sunday morning. Planted and run by K and E (names withheld for security), both graduates of New Pines, this couple has great plans. They have purchased a large section of land in the center of town where they have started to build a new and much larger home that will accommodate a number of guests.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Travels, World Christianity

 

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REFLECTIONS FROM CUBA – Part 2

Continued from 2/4/2013

The logo displayed on the wall of the Methodist Seminary of Cuba

Evangelical Methodist Seminary of Cuba

To prepare myself for my trip, I read an article from the Methodist Global Ministries by Melissa Hinnen highlighting the Methodist Church in Cuba and the Bishop in Cuba, Bishop Ricardo Pereira Díaz.

As reiterated from the article;

According to Bishop Pereira, recent history in the island nation has produced a generation of atheists who don’t know about God’s love for them. Young people in particular are drawn to a church that embraces Cuban culture and welcomes everyone in the community regardless of their faith or political background.

“We have taught pastors and laity that they can engage their Cuban heritage by praising the Lord, dancing, and raising their voices in worship as they do on the street,” said Bishop Pereira. “This makes the church attractive, especially to young people.” Members are generally 35-45 years old, and the average age of clergy is 30. Since 1999, the church has grown from 8,000 to 36,000 members.

To address the needs created by rapid church growth, five years SEM Buildingago the Methodist Church of Cuba established the Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Havana. “In the midst of so many doctrines,” said Bishop Pereira, it was important to provide a “theological formation that would be eminently Methodist and Wesleyan.”

Today there are more than 350 (Methodist) pastors in Cuba. “At the moment we have about 120 students pursuing their degree in theology,” said Bishop Pereira. The seminary is also extending its training to reach an additional 800 people throughout the country, preparing them for church leadership.  The Methodist Church exists in 92 percent of Cuba’s municipalities.

I had the opportunity to visit the Seminario Evangelico Metodista de Cuba (Evangelical Methodist Seminary of Cuba) for a couple of days and spend some time with the president of the Seminary, Dr. Alfredo Caballero Marrero (photo below).  The seminary in housed is an old church building (photo above) that is in the area of Havana known as “old town.”  It is as older building with classroom space, kitchen, dining room, library, offices and limited dorm rooms.  The actual worship center is encompassed within the building structure but is owned by a church that is not a part of the seminary.

Alfredo strikes me as a confident and well respected leader.  I took an iDr. Alfredo Caballero Marreronstant liking of him.  Seeing how his staff looks to him for his wisdom and advice and how his family looks to him as the head of the family, I see a prime example of a man that God has called for leading His work in Cuba.  He was once a pastor of a church with about 6000 members but was asked by the Methodist Denomination in Cuba to become president of the seminary.  He is now a pastor to pastors, a trainer of trainers and a teacher of teachers.  He says he misses pastoring a church but states, “What I do today to prepare these students is much more important for the future of the whole church in Cuba.”

The seminary has about 40 students in residence at any one time and another 300 or so students in courses in 24 seminary extensions throughout Cuba.  The resident program runs in four rotating groups where each group spends 3 modules of 21 days on campus.  The rest of the time the students are working in their local church.  While compared to U.S. standards for costs, the cost of educating these students appears to be very little, at about $6000 per year per group of students.  But for Cuba, that is a lot of money!  Since very few students can afford that amount of education expense, much of their cost is supplied through scholarships.  The education cost includes the student tuition and meals and a room while in residence.  Books are generally borrowed and returned to the school and the limited supply of computers is shared by the students in allocated time slots.  On one occasion I observed a student utilizing the computer at about midnight, his time slot for computer usage.  Transportation to and from the school for their 21 day in residence time is the responsibility of the student.  Many have to travel for more than 8 to12 hours by bus, hitchhiking or walking to get to and from the school.  Some of the students are couples, working together in their common ministry call.  All of the teaching is done by pastors and professors as volunteer time.

After graduation, the students are prepared, ready and able to plant home-churches through the island.  I visited two of these home-churches planted by Methodist Seminary graduates and they are indeed thriving and Kingdom building churches.  I will reflect more on these churches in part 4 of this series of posts.

I was privileged to be able to attend a devotion time and a communion service on Thursday morning with about 40 students and staff (photo left).  This morning marked the last day of classes for this particular group to be at the school for this module.  The student led music was at first lively and praising the Lord and eventually became slower and more contemplative as the worship moved towards the pinnacle of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  With everything being sung in Spanish, and me not at all fluent in that language, I could not understand the words or join much in the singing.  But I certainly felt the passion and devotion in each piece of music.  Given a moment to share some comments, I expressed greetings and thanked them for their dedication to become the future leaders of the church in Cuba.  I told them that they are the future and hope for their communities and for Cuba.

Staff and guestsFor the rest of the day on Thursday I spent the time in meeting the school staff (photo right) and learning of the operations, methodologies and needs of the seminary.  We were able to talk about the Seminary and the many challenges that they face to train the future leaders of the Methodist church in Cuba.  Despite the seeming lack of internet service throughout most of Cuba, the school has managed to build a remarkable intranet system linking the school network together.  They use this system for teaching remotely as well as school business communication and video conferencing.  The school’s greatest need at this time is a van or mini-bus.  Because the school extensions are over the length of the island, it is very difficult to get materials and people sorted to the various locations.  I suspect that whatever vehicle they will eventually be able to obtain, will be well utilized!  The projected cost of a van is around $21,000 U.S.  Other needs include new computers for school as well as student use, a new projector and general equipment and furniture.  The estimated cost for this equipment is around $18,800 U.S. Another non-monetary need for the seminary is one of visiting teachers that can come to Cuba for weeks at a time and freely share their knowledge and wisdom with the students.  A willing spirit and compassionate love for Biblical teaching is more important than denomination affiliation and polished Spanish language skills.

As you can read, the needs are great but the rewards are greater.  Part of the Overseas Council ministry is to not only to provide for student scholarship but to also provide equipment that will help a school function to the greatest capacity.  I will provide some more detatil of OC’s overall work in Cuba later in this series.  If you feel moved to participate in our work at the Methodist Seminary of Cuba, please give a gift of any amount, designated for Methodist Seminary of Cuba.

Blessings

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Mission, Travels, World Christianity

 

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REFLECTIONS FROM CUBA – Part 1

TRAVEL SUMMARY

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.

Map of Cuba showing my paths of travel

Map of Cuba showing my paths of travel

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.

Building in Havana with a distinct Middle Eastern flavor.

Building in Havana with a distinct Middle Eastern flavor.

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. 

Cuba Push CartIn 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.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Mission, Travels, World Christianity

 

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