This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Visitors see how Cuban house churches thrive

EL CAFETAL, Cuba — They have swept the dirt outside the house in anticipation of our visit to this impoverished village. Sixteen Anabaptist Christians from the United States and Canada have come to Cuba to learn with Jack and Irene Suderman of New Hamburg, Ont., who organized the experience through TourMagination.

The Sudermans are friends of the Cuban church as well as teachers in Anabaptist leadership for the Brethren in Christ.

Bishop Luis Hernandez baptizes a member of a Brethren in Christ house church in El Cafetal, Cuba. — Linda Rush
Bishop Luis Hernandez baptizes a member of a Brethren in Christ house church in El Cafetal, Cuba. — Linda Rush

On Sunday morning, Jan. 19, we roused ourselves early to leave our Havana hotel and drove 30 minutes to the village of El Cafetal to worship with a year-old BIC house church, accompanied on our bus by the BIC bishop and executive secretary.

We could hear the energetic singing of 40 to 50 congregants, half of them children, as we arrived. They cleared out of the already crowded space to make room for us and then crammed back in to the back of the long narrow room.

Half the house is inhabited, the other half given over for church, the BIC model for evangelism: grow the church in a house until a thriving congregation needs to search for a church building. This group is beginning to look for a place after only one year.

Singing is at the heart of the service, led by a praise team, the pastor’s guitar and a tambourine. Suderman interpreted the sermon delivered by the young pastor. His simple and direct message was from John 14: love God and your neighbor — not so easy to do in this town, we learn, where there is violence over religious faith and for other reasons. The pastor has been stabbed; he asks us to pray for the lessening of violence and the growth of the church’s witness.

We walk to another home for the baptism and meal. The baptismal has been created just for this occasion, tin roofing removed from one of the congregant’s homes and stood on end to create a kind of deep horse-tank shape. A heavy tarp inside is used to fill the water 4 feet deep. The baptismal is entered via a metal step ladder. Alongside is a small pig in a pen; another has been roasted for this occasion.

An older woman who uses crutches is helped up the ladder and into the water. She looks solemn as the bishop lowers her for baptism, joyful as the pastor pulls her up from the water, “Ven,” or “Come,” the young pastor says to each of the six being baptized, offering his hand, “Come into this Christian fellowship.”

The candidates for baptism approach eagerly. They keenly want this immersion, this Christian community.

After the baptism, we enjoy the sumptuous meal prepared for us — at great cost, given the poverty of the average Cuban household, though we feel better to know that TourMagination pays them well to feed us. (We witnessed the effects of the U.S. embargo on the average Cuban and the resultant poverty.)

We felt the enveloping kindness, warmth and acceptance of the Cuban people, even toward Americans whose government has made their lives hard.

Yes, there is a church

We have been surprised by the responses of our friends and neighbors at home: “We didn’t know there was a church in Cuba.” At the heart of our visit was a series of encounters with the Christian Church of Cuba.

Though everyone on our tour was Mennonite or Mennonite-connected, we spent most of our time with the BIC church for an important reason. When Fidel Castro’s Revolution succeeded in 1959, the BIC Church was registered; the Mennonite Church was not. Registered churches had advantages: land allocated for church buildings, the granting of religious visas for visiting teachers and preachers, the right to import religious materials.

At the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, we met Raul Suarez, now in his 80s, founder of the MLK Center, a well-known Protestant leader in Cuba described as having “a mission to Anabaptize Cuba.”

Suarez believed the Anabaptist strain was missing in Cuba and sought to emphasize nonviolence, women in leadership, opposition to capital punishment. He became the first “evangelical” to the Cuban Assembly.

Described as a kind of Billy Graham figure to Castro, Suarez served as an influencer on the Cuban revolutionary leader. His message to us: “The church’s temptation is to live for itself. Its mission is to confront the world with Jesus Christ. We need res­toration and reimagining of the roots of Christianity in our theological, biblical and liturgical practices. Christianity must evolve; for example, the church must recognize the wrongs of poverty.”

Four reasons for growth

We met with Joel Ortega Dopico, executive secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches, a Presbyterian pastor. He told us of the CCC’s sponsorship of 1,000 volunteers showing Jesus through the unity of the church. Offering background on the history of the church in revolutionary Cuba, he reflected on why the church is growing today.

First, church growth is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no television evangelism; there are no campaigns. The church is growing through the Spirit at work in individuals.

Second, he believes Cubans are inherently religious people, and the church has a Cuban, not an imported, identity.

Third, people need community. The Revolution has stressed solidarity, family and community, values that resonate with the message of Jesus. In Cuba you can’t go it alone.

Finally, there is today new freedom of religion in Cuba. The church was once vilified. Today, people are discovering its power in their lives. People long for freedom in Cuba today, and the church represents that freedom. The Anabaptist house-church model works well in Cuba.

Unique contributions

We visited the BIC presbyters at the BIC Training Center in Palmira, where the Sudermans teach Anabaptist leadership courses. The presbyters are candid about their needs and wants, their desire to grow in 2020 from 100 to 150 churches.

They discuss their prison ministries, noting that Cuba is second in the world (to the U.S., apparently), in per capita imprisonment. Prisoners have become ministers in their church, and they introduce one of them in attendance that day. More than 700 baptized members in prisons meet together in cell groups three times a week.

When asked about the unique contributions of the BIC Church in Cuba, they say that they preach nonviolence, the importance of family life, pacifism and reconciliation. They admit peacemaking is a slow process.

Jack Suderman emphasized, as we sought to understand Cuba, that the Revolution has been a “living experiment” for 60 years. All of us marveled at the resourcefulness of the Cuban people as they have lived out the experiment through its successes and failures. One of our group cited Luke 24:32 to sum up our time in Cuba: “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

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