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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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Changes Are In The Wind!

As much as I have loved serving the ministry of Overseas Council (OC) for the past six years, I have loved my church denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) even longer.  So while I am sad to soon be leaving the daily workings of OC, I am thrilled to be called to God’s work with World Outreach of the EPC.

On April 15, Dr. David Baer, president of OC, made this announcement, in part…

“Dan Tidwell, our Southern US Regional Director with OC’s Advancement Team, and his wife Helen, have accepted a call from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as World Outreach missionaries.   Dan will continue to work in his current role with OC through May, 2014. I want to thank Dan and Helen for all they have done for OC since April, 2008, and I’m sure my voice is just one of many in the OC family that does so. We wish the Tidwells all the best in their new endeavor.  It will be exciting to serve as observers and cheerleaders of the things that will be accomplished for Christ’s Kingdom through Dan’s and Helen’s faithful service with World Outreach.”

I thank David for his kind words and depart OC and my many friends there, with love, to venture into a new ministry.

ON TO NEW BEGINNINGS

I am happy to report that I and my wife are now “on the rolls” of World Outreach as missionaries, working stateside! We will be officially installed at the EPC General Assembly in June in Knoxville.

I will have a split role with half of my time serving as the Communication Coordinator for WO and the other half of my time as an Associate with the International Theological Education Network (ITEN).

  • World Outreach Communications Coordinator: I will be responsible for communicating and marketing the programs and mission efforts of World Outreach (WO) to the individuals, pastors and congregations of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The WO communications will be in the form of written communication, social media communication, multi-media presentations, website, public presentation and personal contact. The position will serve the EPC and WO in various capacities including church liaison, marketing, publications coordinator and WO ministry spokesman.
  • International Theological Education Network Associate: I will be speaking about ITEN to individuals, churches, and presbytery mission leaders , developing materials that promote ITEN, developing website information for ITEN, contacting foundations, churches, and individuals for development of financial support for the ITEN ministry. ITEN is a ministry track of EPC’s World Outreach focused on theological education and leadership training for nationals. Simply put, the purpose of ITEN is: ‘…to develop teachers among unreached peoples who will develop teachers among other unreached peoples.’ ITEN works in tandem with our track for church planting among unreached peoples, particularly Muslims.

I am excited about this opportunity and I have received some great endorsements and encouragement from those already serving World Outreach. Don Elliot, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Corinth, MS, and World Outreach Committee member said,

“Dan Tidwell is going to give World Outreach in the EPC something it has not had before: the opportunity to tell the stories of our missionaries to every person in the pew. God is moving in World Outreach and Dan will help us see His work more clearly.”

George Carey, World Outreach Director, had these kind words to say, in part,

“I could not be more thrilled to endorse Dan as our new Communications Coordinator. I have known Dan for several years since being in my current position and have seen his consistent enthusiasm for communicating the truth that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He and Helen were unanimously, with great joy, approved by the EPC World Outreach Committee to become missionaries to help tell this awesome story that World Outreach has been entrusted with to spread around the world.”

BUT THE STORY CONTINUES

While the plans are made, I cannot officially embark on this venture until my ministry self-funding iWO Photo Cards complete.  So, I hope to be able to launch this ministry fully by September.  (If you’re moved to help in this endeavor your kindness would be most appreciated!)  It is with great joy that Helen and I embark on this ministry journey and we hope you will join us with prayer and blog reading as we follow God’s call in His kingdom work.  I will continue my blog but now with a new perspective as I travel both nationally and internationally for World Outreach. I will continue to tell the story of the global church with more opportunities to reflect on the people I meet, places I see and things that I hear.

EPC note: If you are a member of an EPC church, please pass this blog to others in
your church. I would love to visit your church and tell you more about WO and ITEN.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Mission, World Christianity

 

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A Story From Iran

Every now and then I read and hear a story that really requires no introduction or set-up but just a strong recommendation to follow a link and see for yourself. This is one of those stories from the Overseas Council website. It was just posted a few days ago so it is time relevant and very moving.

A STORY OF TRUE COURAGE

Elam-LadanThe story is about Ladan, a courageous young woman that is Iranian born; raised in a Muslim family; called to Christ; and fearing arrest, left her homeland and fled to Turkey.

“It was there in Turkey that I felt the burden; a great a burden to go and tell people about Jesus. I was tasting the love of Jesus more, and also knowing Him more.”

To Ladan, to be Christian meant to take the Word seriously and return to her native country to share the Gospel with her countrymen.  She knew she would face persecution, possibly prison and maybe even death.  But nevertheless, she felt the call of God to share the Good News with lost people.

“Even with all my fears and worry, I felt I had to return to Iran, and give this message to my people.”

To learn about Ladan and hear her testimony in her own words in a 9 minute video, I highly encourage you to go to http://overseas.org/ladan-courageously-endures-prison-for-sharing-the-bible/You’ll be moved by her story as she truly reflects the words of Jesus in Luke 21:12-16.

But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.  But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.

THE HISTORICAL CHURCH IN IRAN

Iran is on the news much these days concerning nuclear power, economic sanctions, aggressive behavior and a host of stories of terrorism. We hear little about the Christians there despite the fact that Christians have occupied the area for centuries. According to Acts 2:9 there were Persians, Parthians and Medes among the gathering at Pentecost and heard the Apostles in their own language.  Many old churches remain in Iran from the early days of Christianity. The Church of St. Mary in northwestern Iran for example, is considered by some historians to be the second oldest church in Christendom after the Church of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Today, only about 2% of the population is non-Muslim, and Christians are among the least minority. But the good news is that Christianity is reported to be the fastest growing religion in Iran. In 1976, the Christian population numbered 168,593 people, mostly Armenians. Due to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, almost half of the Armenians migrated to the newly independent Republic of Armenia and Christian numbers decreased. However, the opposite trend has occurred since 2000, and the number of Christians with Iranian citizenship increased to 109,415 in 2006.*

*Some fact and figures obtained from wikipedia.org

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in World Christianity

 

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The Middle East: An Enigma of Persecution and Hope for the Christian Church

Reading this weekend from an article in Fox News Online (February 11, 2014 – FoxNews.com) Christian persecution in the Middle East continues. As Fox reported…

“In a rare appearance on Capitol Hill by a Vatican representative, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt testified before a House subcommittee on the ‘flagrant and widespread persecution’ of Christians in the Middle East. ‘No Christian is exempt, whether or not he or she is Arab,’ Chullikatt said.
Chullikatt was among seven speakers discussing the escalation of threats to Christians. Specifically, testimony focused on underreported assaults, the plight of impacted Christian communities and the need to protect religious freedoms and civil rights.
‘Arab Christians, a small but significant community, find themselves the target of constant harassment for no reason other than their religious faith,’ Chullikatt said.”

Such persecution is not a surprise or unexpected. Considering that as Christian we are told to expect persecution, hearing about it in a country that tends to hate Christians brings no wonder that they are facing oppression, torture and even death every day for their testimony of Christ.
The Fox report goes on to say,

“In Syria alone, there have been reports of kidnappings, Christian communities intentionally displaced by militants, as well as shootings and beheadings of Christians who refused to convert to Islam, according to various news reports from the region.
One of the most graphic illustrations of ongoing brutality confronting Arab Christians is the practice of bombings of Christian houses, churches and other places of worship on Christmas Eve, Chullikatt said.”

In my blog from August 19, 2013, “Troubles in Egypt“, I related a story about the challenges the Christian church in Egypt was facing. While that under-reported persecution still goes on, the church is seeing some hope in their situation as the country is undergoing a change of leadership that I pray will be for the betterment of the church. Despite the horrific stories we do hear and read of the Middle East, my friends at SAT-7* shared dual stories of tragedy and hope in their newsletter of January, 2014. Their title line was, “Iraq is not lost. Miracles are happening.”
The first part of the story highlighted a story from Baghdad about Pastor Michael (name changed) who is a leading minister in one of hundreds of churches in Baghdad. On a Sunday morning Pastor Michael was driving the church bus through the streets of Baghdad to drop off the church members who needed transportation to and from services. He had just dropped the last of his passengers when a terrorist drove along the side of the bus and detonated a bomb that killed the terrorist, destroyed his car…and the bus.
But God clearly has other plans for Pastor Michael. When the smoke cleared, Pastor Michael sat in his bus seat surrounded by twisted metal, fire and a completely totaled bus…alive and only with a few minor cuts. Pastor Michael said, “I couldn’t believe it. The bus was in shambles, totally destroyed and burning. But I was okay. It was clearly a miracle. God must have something more for me to do.”
The second part of the SAT-7 newsletter relates the opposite of such terror with words of hope. They reported about one of their producers, Chris (not his real name), who was in Baghdad interviewing Christian pastors and believers. Pastor Michael was one of his interviews. Chris reported that all the pastors he spoke with were enthusiastic about SAT-7 and admitted that the channel was watched by many Christians as well as non-Christians in the region. Chris related that many of his interviewees were joyful and even willing to be identified as Christian on television in Iraq. The newsletter went on to relate one experience of Chris and his crew that was a tense moment on the streets of Baghdad.

“They were driving through a restricted area when they were stopped by the police. On learning they were a television crew, officers ordered them to halt their work. When the crew informed the police that they were representing churches and were with SAT-7, the officers’ attitudes changed. They brought over their commanding officer, who then spoke well of SAT-7, saying that the police greatly respected the channel and the Christians. Chris asked if they could pray for the officers. The police agreed. The crew laid hands on them and asked for God’s protection. They then gave the officers booklets about Christ and wished them well. It surely made a great impression.”

It appears that the police might have had a bit of distrust for reporters and news people but upon learning that this crew was part of SAT-7, the police not only became friendly but also opened up their hearts to receive prayer and hear about Christ. God is at work in the Middle East. Perhaps we won’t ever read about His work from the secular news, but the stories of Michael and Chris insures us that the truth is going out in Iraq. Despite the ever prevalent stories of political doom and gloom from the secular press, the church in the Middle East survives. The SAT-7 newsletter included a few more words of hope…

“Everywhere Chris went, nearly every person they spoke with knew about SAT-7, saying it was respected, that they watched to receive hope for tomorrow, that Christians were truly different. They saw a number of restaurants and shops where televisions were continually tuned to SAT-7!”

Although it is hard to get exact determination of the number of Christians in the Middle East, recent data suggests that the overall Christian population is in decline. The pastor of an Anglican church in Baghdad, Rev. Andrew White, stated that Iraq’s Christian population had shrunk from 1.5 million to just 200,000 within the last decade. He indicated this trend could be witnessed across the Middle East. That being said, eye-witness accounts know that there is resurgence in new Christian believers, although very much a slow process. Dr. David Baer, president of Overseas Council illustrated it as a faucet drip: “The flow of new converts has gone from none to an occasional drip..…drip…..drip; to a more frequent drip, drip, drip; to a slow but steady sliver of a stream.” I believe the church is not only surviving but is seeing a quiet and slow restoration. God is at work in the Middle East!
With the efforts of SAT-7 to broadcast the truth of the Gospel throughout the Middle East, a steady advance of the Christian church is seen. With the efforts of Overseas Council the need of Christian education and maturity of believers is being addressed. Together, SAT-7, Overseas Council and MEATE (Middle East Association for Theological Education) are having a tremendous bearing on the church throughout the Middle East with a partnership called TEACH. They use multimedia technology to create highly accessible Christian education that will encourage and equip Christians in the region, where access to solid theological resources in the local context is most times very limited and often inaccessible. The momentum is right and the time is right for this program to impact the lives of those new to the faith.
TEACH includes broadcast programs that can be viewed from the privacy of the individual’s home, in addition to courses available online in which believers can earn a certificate or degree. The online courses are monitored by mentors who administer tests and lead group discussions. The curriculum, written in Arabic by Arab scholars for an Arab audience, features 32 courses arranged in five categories: Christian Life, Leadership and Ministry Skills, Society, Bible and Church.
For more information and a video about TEACH click HERE. If you want to be a part of making a difference in the Middle East and be part of changing stories of tragedy to stories of hope, you can help support the Middle East Christian church by giving a gift to give the Christians there the knowledge they need to take the Middle East church into the next generation.

*A NOTE ABOUT SAT-7 (From their website): Since the first program aired in 1996, SAT-7 broadcasts have brought quality Christian television programming directly into millions of homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). SAT-7 airs 5 channels in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish languages to a known audience of over 15 million viewers! In a region characterized by high illiteracy rates, media censorship, and limited incomes, anyone with a satellite dish can turn on SAT-7 and hear the Word of God in his or her language.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in Mission, World Christianity

 

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TROUBLES IN EGYPT

I KNOW I STILL OWE SOME SEGMENTS FROM MY CUBA TRIP LAST JANUARY!  I have been traveling a bit and time has been flying by and I have simply not been able to sit and write.  But this post is so important for the Christians in Egypt that I knew I simply needed to sit down and make myself get it out.

TROUBLES IN EGYPT

If you have been watching the news about Egypt you know that the political atmosphere tImagehere is explosive…literally.  In the midst of the Muslim upheaval, the Christian church is caught in the crossfire.  I have received numerous emails and updates from people I know there and all are in great need for our prayers. There have been more than 50 Christian (Coptic) churches burned and many Christians attacked. The stark realization of the violence was described by Ravi Zacharias in his RZIM August newsletter:

“The prolonged nationwide disruption and brutality of those supposedly just staging a “sit-in” are horrific. How can anyone so destroy their own country and kill their own people and murder minorities and still claim to be for the democratic process? The tragedy is beyond description.”

Perhaps for a more complete understanding of the situation, reading from people on the ground in Egypt will help us in the U.S. to understand more than what we will read or hear from our American media.

FROM A PASTOR:Image

The situation now in Egypt is not good; there is more violence and destruction than the news is covering. Most of the violence is close to where my family and I live, but thankfully we have all been out of Cairo. Please be praying for Egypt and especially the churches and Christian buildings that have been torched. Many of our church leaders’ homes and churches are in danger. We really need all of your prayers now. However, we trust in God and we believe He will do miraculous things in Egypt. The hostilities and confrontations have been going on in Egypt for months now and we pray that there is a swift and peaceful end to them.

FROM SAT-7*:

In the past 6 weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has occupied a number of public spaces, to demonstrate for the reinstatement of the former President (currently being held by the army and facing charges related to abuse of power, including substantial material and intelligence support to Hamas). Unlike the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square by demonstrators in January 2011, and again at the end of June 2013, these Muslim Brotherhood occupations were dominated by calls for violence against the army, the police, the liberals and, specifically, the Coptic Christians in Egypt – all resulting in the violence witnessed on August 14th, when police stations, hospitals, private and public property were destroyed. Many Christian churches (at least 40 so far), homes and businesses were also attacked, as well as a monastery, three religious societies, three key bookshops belonging to the Bible Society in Egypt, three Christian schools and an orphanage.

For the complete commentary from SAT-7 written by Dr. Terence Ascott, CEO and Founder, SAT-7 International, go to https://www.sat7usa.org/understanding-the-present-situation-in-egypt?srctid=1&erid=144131&trid=f5168b62-25d9-4187-93eb-9b8e74d6ffed. (Photos from SAT-7)

MY CONCERN IS THE CHURCH

I know that the troubles in Egypt seem far away and you may think that they have nothing to do with us here in the U.S.  Well on a political front, we (the U.S.) are intertwined with Egypt in many ways and our relationship with this country that is a mighty force in the ME is in jeopardy.  If Egypt were to collapse or turn totally radical Muslim, the U.S. would certainly be impacted if the Suez Canal were to be closed or the oil pipelines were shut down. I don’t even pretend to know all the intricacies of that relationship but Egypt is an important ally in the ME who we need as a friend and not as an enemy. Abraham Lincoln stated, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” 

But the reason for our interest in Egypt needs to go way beyond political concerns.  As Christian, we are called to be supporters, encouragers and prayer partners for our fellow Christians around the world. Christians are dying friends, and they are suffering at the hands of those that oppose Christ and the Gospel. When one of us suffers, all of us should feel the suffering. When a Christian suffers for Christ, Christ suffers. Romans 15:1-7 says to us:

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

So with these verses in mind, may I ask that you remember our brothers and sisters in Egypt in your prayers?  As Christians, we are one body under our Lord, whether it is in America or the Middle East or in a remote part of the globe.  When we pray for our fellow Christians, we are honoring Christ.

…`I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40

PLEASE PRAY THAT:

  • The current violence in Egypt (and all of the MENA region) will end soon.
  • The effective rule of law and order will be re-established for the benefit of all citizens, Christian and Muslin alike.
  • There will be effective protection of the Christians, Christian churches and other property against attacks by extremists.
  • Egypt will be governed for the benefit of all its citizens, with people of different persuasions able to live alongside one another peaceably.
  • Egyptian Christians will have opportunity to grow in an increasingly prominent and effective role in addressing the needs of all Egyptians and helping to bring healing and reconciliation in the country.

 *A NOTE ABOUT SAT-7 (From their website):  Since the first program aired in 1996, SAT-7 broadcasts have brought quality Christian television programming directly into millions of homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). SAT-7 airs 5 channels in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish languages to a known audience of over 15 million viewers!  In a region characterized by high illiteracy rates, media censorship, and limited incomes, anyone with a satellite dish can turn on SAT-7 and hear the Word of God in his or her language.

Overseas Council is partnering with SAT-7 in a new initiative to bring Theological Education
to remote parts of the Middle East and North Africa through satellite transmission and long-distance mentoring.
For more information about this partnership go to http://overseas.org/our-work/programs/teach/.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2013 in 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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Giving to the Kingdom For Christmas and Beyond

Giving to the Kingdom For Christmas and Beyond

Well, it’s been way too long time since I properly addressed myself to this blog so it’s about time! First, going against all current political correctness, and with a greeting that seems to be more and more under attack these days, I say to you with a warm heart and firm conviction that Jesus is the reason for the season… MERRY CHRISTmas!

Secondly, in this joyous time of Christian sharing and caring, let me treat you with a story that can be found on the OC website, but may have been missed if you do not visit that site regularly. It’s a story of a man, Kennedy, called by God for ministry, trained to be impactful in ministry, and then multiplying his training by training other church leaders.

Called

Kennedy is a born again Christian. Ten years ago, he says he was called to ministry but refused.Kennedy

“I just didn’t see myself doing ministry. Someone told me, ‘I just couldn’t see you anywhere but the pulpit.’ I laughed inside. For seven years, I went to church and sat in the back, so I could get out quickly. Finally I was asked if I’d like to help at the church, so I said I’d usher. One morning in the early service, the pastor was late, and someone asked me to teach. Afterward, the church leaders asked me to get theological training in order to preach again in the future.”

Again Kennedy was called, this time he responded.

Trained

Kennedy studied at Africa International University (AIU) in Kenya, formerly known as the Nairobi Evangelical  Graduate School of Theology. He already had a degree in business management, so he inquired about a degree in theology.  Kennedy is thankful to God for His provision. He didn’t have the funds to get an education when he arrived but was able to complete his studies through various scholarships, including one from Overseas Council. He graduated in 2011 with his Master of Divinity degree in Biblical Studies.

Multiplied

Kennedy is passing-on his theological training to other pastors who have not had an opporunity for proper education in order to help them have a deeper understanding of the Bible and Christianity as a whole. He trains pastors in the Kibera slums and Maasai churches (the Maasai are an ethnic group in Kenya).Pastor Training

“The Maasai believe that men need to be very macho, so I had to help them see that Jesus was not weak on the cross but rather strong. He was also smart because He won in the end!”

Kennedy says his training has helped in a number of ways in ministry, including showing other pastors how to teach the Bible in context and the power of forgiveness.

Kennedy says his story is an example of how investing in one leader impacts multitudes. The pastors he is training today will teach others in various churches tomorrow. By equipping a group of 12 pastors, he is reaching over 1,000 of their church members with the true Gospel message. Kennedy is changing his part of the world with the Word of God because of his own theological education.

The key to Kennedy being able to become a church leader teaching church leaders in Kenya is his Christian education. As you are thinking about what to give for Christmas, please prayerfully consider giving to the Kingdom by supporting church leaders like Kennedy so they will have an opportunity to give themselves to others. Your gift, $10 or $10,000, will continue to expand the Kingdom in mighty ways that go far beyond this Christmas season. It will continue for generations to come, through one life touching other lives. Please consider giving a gift through Overseas Council and be a blessing to Christian leaders like Kennedy.

Blessings, and have a very Merry CHRISTmas.

 
 

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