Enrique Manuel Alvarez was a Cuban guy in his mid-30s making a living as a gym teacher and, on the side, drawing caricatures for a humor magazine. To get ideas he’d listen to a humorous radio program out of Miami. But just before that show came on, an evangelist preached about Jesus.
Little by little, Alvarez paid more attention to the evangelist. “Sometimes the Spirit spoke to my heart and said, ‘I’m going to take you to church,’” Alvarez recalled through an interpreter. “He was talking about new life in Christ. I said, ‘I need that.’”
Alvarez got a new life indeed. He lost a couple of jobs in the process but the trade-off was worth it. Pretty soon he was riding his beat-up bicycle into the Cuban countryside, holding prayer meetings in the homes of sugar cane and rice farmers.
Alvarez eventually became the pastor of several churches; he now heads the Christian Reformed Church in Cuba, which brings the gospel and church-cooked food to thousands of hungry souls.
“Their faith is really strong,” Alvarez said during a recent visit to Grand Rapids, Mich. “It looks like the Spirit of God is really working in the people of Cuba.”
The Cuban church of about 1,500 members is supported by several West Michigan churches, including LaGrave Avenue CRC. The Grand Rapids church has maintained a mission in Cuba since it first sent a delegation in 1957 before Fidel Castro came to power. LaGrave provides funds for Christian education, church construction, and small-business loans. They regularly send mission teams to Cuba.
“The people (are) so warm, so generous, and so spiritual,” LaGrave member Dolores Bos said of the Christians she has met in Cuba. “The Spirit is just on fire there.”
Hillside Community CRC of Cutlerville helps stoke the fire with twice-yearly mission trips to teach English and train church musicians. And Plymouth Heights CRC of Grand Rapids fosters fellowship between its adults with disabilities and those in Cuban churches.
“It’s not easy to be a Christian in a country where it’s kind of put down, so that fellowship is very important,” said Plymouth member Derk Oostendorp, former director of Christian Reformed World Missions in Latin America.
As president of the CRC in Cuba, Alvarez faces the challenge of preaching Jesus in a communist country that is warming to religion but was officially atheist until the early 1990s. Nobody bothers you for carrying a Bible, he said, but some anti-religious residue remains.
“When you’ve been taught that God doesn’t exist for many years, your heart gets kind of hard. Many people are not willing to listen to the gospel.”
The Cuban CRC offers strong diaconal ministries, including services to children and to people who are elderly or disabled. A popular feeding ministry serves people in churches and in their homes. With such heart-softening services, Alvarez says, the church “has got under way and won’t be stopped.”
“The communists thought churches would be museums, but that didn’t happen,” he adds. “God did something different.”