Brief reflections on a recent trip - part 1
“I’ve always considered Christ to be one of the greatest revolutionaries in the history of humanity” Fidel Castro
The Cuban revolution launched by the barbudos (including the famous Fidel Castro, Che Guevara & Camilo Cienfuegos) stunned the world in the late 50s. Almost 65 years on, the country is still one of the few officially Marxist-Leninist states in existence. The late Fidel Castro governed for 55 years before passing on the reins to his brother Raúl. Miguel Díaz-Canel has been President for the last five years bringing the rule of the Castros to an end but keeping the Revolution alive.
However, on a recent visit to Cuba it appears that the revolution of Jesus Christ is also having deep (and eternal) effect on the country. Fidel once stated that ‘I never saw a contradiction between the ideas that sustain me and the ideas of that symbol, of that extraordinary figure, Jesus Christ’. Many would agree to differ with that statement but in a country hit incredibly hard by Covid, it is the spiritual dimension - whether forms of African religion or Christianity - that are flourishing as a beleaguered nation wonders what the future might hold.
The trip of a couple of Cuba for Christ trustees and a director of Moclam (lay training theological education used across Latin America with a biblical theological approaches) was a trip which combined delight and despair as we travelled across the width and breath of this beautiful Caribbean island. In the midst of a nationwide lack of food, medicine and petrol, of crumbling infrastructure and a crisis in emigration; what were the encouragements and challenges faced by Cuban Christians (and what can we learn from them)?
Challenges to the Cuban Church
Let’s start with a few of the challenges. We are struggling with inflation and increased interest rates in the UK but in Cuba everyone is fighting to just keep their heads above water. 72% live below the poverty line & 21% of those daily go without a meal. The average wage is £30 pounds a month and pensions are the amongst the lowest in the Americas; $9.50 monthly (2022 figures). Pastors are in the same boat. None that we met had their own cars, although there was an American ministry giving pastors mopeds so that they could get around to visit people.
This leads to the second great challenge for churches, and all the population, that of emigration. Although this has always been an issue in Cuba - the years since Covid has been the worse yet - greater even than the crisis after the fall of the USSR and it’s impact on Cuba (known as ‘el período especial’). Some denominations report losing half their pastors over the last two years and seminaries have had the same experience with their lecturers. This has meant a huge loss of leadership experience, many young leaders having to step up and many churches without pastors at all. This is also true at a lay level with many key Christians going overseas, especially to the States but also to Nicaragua, Mexico and even Haiti.
A further challenge is the dividing of churches and denominations. When there are relational difficulties or personnel conflicts often the answer appears to be to start a new church, denomination or seminary. There were about 50 Protestant denominations before the revolution that have since been officially recognised. Although no other ones have been accepted since then, there might be twice as many new ones in existence.
A last challenge is what one young pastor explained as idolatry. Of course it is a materialist society (although we aren’t talking third cars, second homes or overseas holidays here!) understandably folk just want a better and more stable lifestyle. The trappings of Western consumerism starting with phones and iPads is a great desire. However, because of the spiritual vacuum that arises in an atheistic society, many are also turning to different versions of African based traditional religions such as Santeria. Next blog will look at the encouragements from the church in Cuban.