Cubans Hungry for Hope amid Potentially Big Changes
June 18, 2015
Christians in Cuba gather for a baptism.
The United States and Cuba are on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations for the first time in 54 years, and commercial avenues between the two countries have begun to open. Heart-felt hope, however, must be found elsewhere, a local ministry director said.
While potential for economic change offers some cause for optimism for Cubans, most of the population continues to languish in poverty, he said. More Cubans than ever are reportedly braving rough seas to leave the island, driven not only by hunger but by rumors that restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States could eliminate the U.S. policy to allow Cubans who arrive on U.S. shores to seek residency (those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba). Wages in Cuba are not high enough for most people to meet monthly expenses, many basic goods are lacking and the country's extensive social net does not protect many from hunger.
"In light of the policy changes between the United States and Cuba regarding travel restrictions and local embassies, none of that seems to have affected or improved the situation of people who still have a life without hope, encouragement or food," said the director of a ministry indigenous to the island. "The only ones who have hope for life are the ones that receive Christ as Lord and Savior."
While U.S. President Barack Obama and previous administrations have dismantled some barriers to trade with the United States, analysts believe the decades-old U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo on Cuba is far from being lifted. U.S. law stipulates that repeal of the embargo, which would require an act of Congress, is dependent on Cuba holding free and fair elections and transitioning to democracy with a government that excludes the Castros. Raul Castro, 84-year-old brother of former ruler Fidel Castro, has said he will leave office in 2018.
Raul Castro and Obama shook hands on April 11 at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, the first meeting between the heads of state of the two countries since Cuba and the United States severed ties in 1961. On Dec. 17, Obama had announced plans to restore diplomatic relations after 18 months of secret talks between the two countries. The last formal talks took place on May 21-22, and on May 29 the U.S. State Department announced that Cuba was removed as a state sponsor of terrorism, an issue that had presented a major obstacle to efforts at restoring diplomatic relations. U.S. officials have indicated no major, formal talks will be necessary before details are worked that will allow full restoration of diplomatic relations.
Human rights violations on the island of 11.2 million people, however, remain problematic. An increasing number of religious leaders are openly demanding religious freedom, which has led to crackdowns at local and national levels, according to a report this month by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in early 2008, but CSW noted, "Seven years later, Cuba has yet to make any move to ratify either."
CSW chronicled 220 separate cases of religious freedom violations in 2014, up from 185 in 2013 and 120 in 2012.
"Unregistered religious groups have been a particular target of government repression, with religious leaders reporting harassment, fines and threats of confiscation or destruction of property," according to the report.
While the number of violations of freedom of religion or belief has held steady this year, violations have grown in severity, according to CSW. For the first time since 2011, a church leader has been imprisoned, and the government appears to be targeting the property of religious organizations. Foreign students involved in religious activities linked to unapproved groups have been expelled, CSW reported.
Christian athletes in Cuba teach baseball as a way to reach kids and parents with the gospel.
Authorities may be cracking down on unregistered churches, but the indigenous ministry leader said he has seen the hand of God move mightily for the advance of the gospel. In a mountainous area not far from the place where Castro launched the revolution, 1,256 people put their trust in Christ as Lord and Savior last year through a church-planting program sponsored by a seminary on the island (name and location undisclosed for security reasons). The director of the ministry, which receives assistance from Christian Aid Mission, said that in the early days of the revolution, people commonly believed that evangelical churches would fade away as their elderly members died.
"Today, 270 young seminary students take the gospel to the mountains, causing a spiritual revolution," he said. "The students receive Bible training, and they work in a church-planting program sharing about Jesus and delivering Bibles and New Testaments. Last year through this ministry, there were 26 new churches planted in the mountains."
About 70 percent of the new congregations have no electric light, and with Christian Aid's help the indigenous missionaries were able to acquire lanterns. Two of the missionaries also bought mules.
"During the day the mules are used to farm cocoa and coffee, and at night they are used to travel to their congregations, located up to three hours of walking uphill," he said.
Food scarcity persists in Cuba. In the past several months the ministry provided nearly 1,200 plates of food through its congregations in three different locations. For most of the children served, it was the only food they got, the ministry director said.
"Most children are guests from the local neighborhoods, and the food is a good testimony, because later they continue coming to church to attend Sunday school classes and worship meetings," he said.
Along with soccer, baseball is hugely popular in Cuba, and the ministry engages children and their parents through both sports. Christian athletes teach young adults and children how to play baseball, which has a long history in the country and is linked with Cuban nationalism. Through daily contact with the kids, the athletes have had enough opportunities to share the gospel with them and their parents that in the past year more than 1,000 people have placed their faith in Christ, the director said.
With Christian Aid's help, the ministry also provides soccer balls to a handful of churches fielding a total of 30 teams, he said.
"Missionaries and children hold worship meetings on the soccer field, and then they play and teach soccer to the non-Christian children," he said. "Therefore, every Sunday the churches are filled with children and their parents, hungry for the Word of God. A congregation started this kind of outreach about eight months ago, and now it has 40 new children in their Sunday school class. Thank you very much for your prayers and financial support and for caring about our ministry in Cuba."