(Written from outside Santiago de Cuba, with a 12-person team sponsored by Woodhaven Baptist Church in Apex, working through North Carolina Baptist Men’s partnership with the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba.)
Our team arrived in Cuba thinking that we had come to do construction work on a Senior Center being prepared for retired pastors. We soon learned that our hosts had other priorities, however. On Monday morning, they took us to the headquarters of the Eastern Baptist Convention in Santiago, where we were given a tour of the facilities before meeting with Joel Luis Dupont, the convention’s executive president. He wanted to meet with our team, he said, because it seemed the 10-year-old partnership had grown cold (recently, fewer churches have been coming each year), and he wanted to talk about needs and opportunities among the Baptists of Eastern Cuba.
The EBC, which started in 1898, has always had a strong missionary concern and a heart for social work, Dupont said. During the first 100 years, the EBC developed about 200 churches, but in the last 15 or so years, he said, there has been a great evangelistic movement that has resulted in 300 more churches, 800 house churches or missions, and thousands of cell groups called “houses of prayer.”
The term “house church,” as used in the EBC, describes a congregation that meets regularly in a building that’s also used for the pastor’s home: it’s easier to get government permission to use a building for church purposes if a family also lives there.
Later that evening, for example, we visited Tenth Baptist Church in Santiago, where the pastor’s family lives in a small three-room apartment behind a rickety sanctuary that can pack in 120-150 people. The church has 130 members, but is still called a “house church.”
Cuba was very closed to the gospel for many years, Dupont said, “but God has opened many doors through miracles.” Government approval for the senior center is one miracle, he said. The number of Cubans converting to Christianity is another. Raul Castro has asked Christians to pray for him and for the government, Dupont said, a miracle in itself
“We believe, like Esther, that God has prepared us for this time,” Dupont told us. He cited priority needs such as the completion of the Senior Center, and a continued emphasis in planting new churches. The government recently began allowing Cubans to sell property, and “we need to buy houses so we can start house churches in them,” he said: “To have a temple tomorrow, we need a house today.” Many houses can be bought for $6,000-12,000 U.S. dollars, but poverty, inflation and the low value of the Cuban peso make it very difficult for the churches to raise needed funds.
After lunch and a siesta, the team was finally given physical labor to do on the Senior Center. One crew of men started moving large piles of sand and gravel from outside the compound to a more secure spot inside gate. We did so using short-handled shovels and rickety wheelbarrows that Americans would have been considered worn out long ago. Another crew of men used heavy iron bars to break up a slag pile of concrete that had accumulated while forms were poured for rooftop cisterns. Women in the group painted wrought iron rails. Two-and-a-half hours in the tropical sun felt like a full day’s work.
That evening, we visited Tenth Baptist Church in Santiago. It’s just a few blocks from downtown, in a run down area known for prostitution and alcohol abuse. The pastor was not present, but a lay member named Ramon showed us around the high-ceilinged room where more than 100 people regularly pack inside for services. The “house” next door – actually part of the same building – is available for sale, and the church hopes to purchase it to use for Sunday School classrooms and other activities. The church has $3,000 of the $8,000 (U.S.) cost, and is trying to raise the rest, but it’s hard when the average salary is $15-20 per month.
We left with a determination to help them buy the house.
[For more on Cuba, see the two previous blogs, and stay tuned.]