Missouri Baptist leaders heard stories of joy and growth mixed with those of obstacles and persecution during a recent trip to Cuba.
NÃ©stor RodrÃguez Matos, pastor of Iglesia Bautista (Baptist Church) in El Cristo and treasurer of the ConvenciÃ³n Bautista de Cuba Oriental (Baptist Convention of Eastern Cuba, CBCO), shared how Cuban Baptists continue to minister and grow even amid difficulties.
“We thank God,” he said. “We are OK and happy. Our technological and financial limitations have not stopped us from sharing the gospel.”
RodrÃguez shared how his church lost multiple buildings when the government seized them more than 50 years ago.
More recently, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 devastated the church’s remaining building and they are still working to repair the sanctuary.
Other churches experienced similar setbacks from the government or natural disasters.
Economic limitations abound as the average worker in the country makes around $20 a month.
Many needed supplies or technological items remain expensive and hard to obtain.
Yet, the CBCO continues to see dramatic growth, with 62 new churches planted during the past three years. Of the more than 580 churches in the CBCO, about 400 started in the past two decades.
CBCO President Osbel GutiÃ©rrez Pila, who is pastor at Cuarta Iglesia Bautista (Fourth Baptist Church) of Santiago de Cuba, said Cuban Baptists look forward to more open relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
He noted the “worst times are already gone,” adding his gladness that relations between Christians in the two nations remained strong.
“Even in the tough times, the relations between the brothers in Cuba and the U.S. never ceased,” he said. “The government may have differences but the brothers and sisters don’t.”
The Baptist work in the eastern part of Cuba started in 1898 with assistance from the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches, USA).
The CBCO started in 1905 with 12 churches and continued through multiple governments and various social and economic shifts.
Pastor Samuel Regalado Matos at 1ra Iglesia Bautista (1st Baptist Church) in El Caney, said there is a “flourishing church in Cuba.”
He noted Baptists have “stayed faithful for over 100 years through very difficult times but with many people seeking the Lord.”
“In the midst of hardships, God has allowed many blessings,” he explained. “We are very happy and we know we have God’s blessing. Almost all of the evangelical denominations are growing.”
He added, however, that “finances are always a problem in Cuba for doing any project.”
While he expressed his hopefulness for changes that appear to be coming, he remains concerned Cuba will become a “society of consumption.”
He added churches are working to disciple people so that “when capitalism comes, churches don’t suffer with people leaving.”
In December 2014, U.S. and Cuban officials announced they would start the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations.
This still ongoing process brought the reopening of embassies in 2015 after more than 50 years and the loosening of some travel restrictions – though the U.S. embargo of Cuba remains in place until Congress acts.
President Barack Obama visited Havana in March, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years.
Regalado noted one challenge confronting the work right now is that they mostly have “very young pastors” since “a generation of pastors was lost.”
Speaking about the CBCO’s seminary, he added that “an entire generation of thinkers are being trained here” who “will be shaping the nation” in a time of change.
Leaders at the Seminario TeolÃ³gico Bautista de Cuba Oriental (Baptist Theological Seminary of Eastern Cuba) also talked about the unique challenges and opportunities of pastors serving in the Cuban context and what future changes might bring.
Speaking of the students, the seminary’s chaplain said, “Cuba needs them.” Standing next to him, the school’s academic dean agreed that Cuban Baptists are at an important moment.
“When God opens doors, no one can tear them down,” Gabriel Ocariz Goodrich said as he stood outside the seminary with the mountains of eastern Cuba rising behind him. “Pray for our country, please. Pray a lot in your churches.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.