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Raúl Suárez received the Orden Félix Varela, one of Cuba’s highest honors, from President Miguél Díaz-Canel Bermúdez on Aug. 6.

Suárez is pastor emeritus of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Marianao.

This commemoration, named after a Cuban Catholic prelate who died in 1853, recognizes people for lifetime contributions to Cuban life and culture.

The ceremony took place during a nearly four-hour meeting between religious and governmental leaders, in commemoration of the Cuban Council of Church’s 80th anniversary.

In the meeting, the president, prime minister and other top-level government leaders engaged in dialogue with over 20 church leaders, including denominational representatives, the rector of the Evangelical Theological Seminary and the president of the Student Christian Movement.

Themes of the encounter included concerns over the recent protests and the need to open more spaces for dialogue, and complaints over ways recent policy changes have adversely impacted the most vulnerable.

The church leaders also committed to continuing their mission of serving the needs of the Cuban people, especially in this time of COVID-19 crisis.

Suárez, the first Christian pastor to receive the Orden Félix Varela recognition, is certainly deserving of the award.

As a young pastor, he found a way to participate in his country’s defense during the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

He borrowed a Land Rover from a missionary colleague, painted a red cross on the side and drove to the front lines of the battle to pick up the wounded and carry them to the hospital. On his second rescue mission, he was injured as machine gun fire shattered the windshield and his eye filled with glass.

It was a month later when Fidel Castro declared Cuba to be a Communist state and Christian pastors were no longer welcome in the Revolution.

Anti-religion discrimination was such that in 1965 the government created UMAP, an “alternative” to military service that was, in reality, a forced labor camp designed to “re-socialize” religious leaders and others deemed to have ideological defects.

While many survivors of UMAP testify to the trauma and horror of the experience, Suárez speaks of his own spiritual conversion there.

It was in UMAP that he “took off the glasses” of fundamentalist Christianity and put on new lenses, seeing the gospel afresh as the way of liberation for suffering and oppressed people.

While the vast majority of pastors fled Cuba during the decade of the 1960s, Suárez and others stayed, intent on proving to the Cuban government that Jesus was the most revolutionary figure of history and that the church had a role in building a more just society.

It took him three decades to accomplish this goal.

In the mid 1980s, he began serving as president of the Cuban Council of Churches, comprising three dozen denominations and faith-based centers. In this role, he came to know Fidel Castro.

In 1990, Suárez convinced Castro to meet with faith leaders, and a group of more than 70 pastors met for the historic gathering. Their advocacy for change led to a historic revision of the Cuban constitution, removing its Marxist-atheist identity and ending religious discrimination.

The newfound religious liberty sparked a massive burst of church attendance throughout Cuba.

Because of his work for social justice, including support for women in ministry along with his commitment to work with the government to improve the lives of the poor, Suárez and his church, Ebenezer Baptist, were expelled from the Western Baptist Convention (counterpart to the SBC).

A woman and a man sitting in chairs.

Clara and Raúl in 1982 at a gathering for the historic ordination of Cuban Baptist women. (Photo provided by Ken Sehested)

He and two other pastors who had suffered similar fates met in 1989 and formed a new denomination, the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba (FIBAC), which now boasts 43 churches and an equal number of missions across the island.

It is a small denomination, but its deep impact on Cuban society can be seen in the Cuban Council of Churches.

The current Council president, Tony Santana, is a FIBAC pastor, and several ministries of the Council have Fraternity leadership, including Miriam Lobaina, director of the Women and Gender program, and Francisco Rodés, one of the founding pastors of FIBAC, who leads the Council’s nationwide Prison and Hospital Chaplaincy program.

Raúl Suárez’ impact on Cuban society has not been limited to church life.

In 1994, he was elected to the National Assembly (Cuba’s version of Congress) with 94% of the vote. Over his two decades of work in the assembly, he became known as a strong voice against the death penalty and for racial justice.

He speaks of his work there as part of the Christian calling to be “yeast,” an element of transformation in society.

As for a Christian serving in a socialist system, Suárez explains, “Fidel Castro didn’t invent these ideals. They have been integral to Christianity from its very beginning. The Bible gives a clear picture of how the early Christian communities had everything in common and distributed their goods to all, as any had need.”

The Spanish word for “retired” is jubilado, so, upon receiving the Orden Félix Varela medallion, the 86-year-old pastor emeritus smiled broadly and speaking of himself in third person said, “Reverend Suárez is not retired. He is in full jubileo, which means joy and happiness, which is what this meeting has given us.”

President Díaz-Canel promised to convene more such meetings in the future.

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