“I saw the old guitar on a shelf on the second floor of the tiny Christian Reformed Church in downtown Havana, so I picked it up and started strumming, then quietly began to sing one of my favorite songs—'Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord.' Suddenly, I heard other voices in English and Spanish singing along. I looked up and the other people in the room—from Alberta and Toronto and Grand Rapids and Minnesota and Havana and Jaguey Grande, Cuba—we were all praising God and singing. And the eyes of my heart were opened. God’s presence was real in that upper room, in that tiny storefront church not two blocks from the Cuban capital buildings.”
These are the words of Dan VanKeeken, chair of Cuba Connection, a committee of Classis Alberta North (a regional group of churches). He was describing his experience in Cuba earlier this year with a number of people from the Christian Reformed Church in North America who have close ties with the Cuban CRC.
Having heard VanKeeken’s stories, I welcomed the opportunity to travel to Cuba for 10 days in December to witness firsthand the work of the Cuban CRC and to meet many of its pastors and church members.
I was surprised, as many people are, that there are Christian Reformed churches in Cuba, having assumed that churches disappeared after Cuba’s Revolution in 1959. In fact, today there are around 14 organized CRC congregations and numerous missions with a combined membership of 1,500 people.
Daniel Miller chronicled the beginnings of the Cuban CRC in 1941 (see Banner, Feb. 2010), with the arrival of a young Bessie Vander Valk from Bethel CRC in Paterson, N.J., and her subsequent marriage to a preacher by the name of Angel Vicente Izquierdo. Together they established La Mision Evangelica al Interior. In 1951, a church building was constructed in Jaguey Grande. By 1958, there were 12 organized congregations and a pressing need for money.
That was when the people of LaGrave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., were approached by Izquierdo and subsequently began to help the Cuban mission. In 1959, synod (the annual leadership meeting of the CRC) adopted the Cuban church as a mission of the CRCNA. That original church in Jaguey Grande just celebrated its 64th anniversary, and LaGrave Avenue has continued to support the Cuban CRC in many ways. Many of the house churches we visited are properties purchased through LaGrave’s Henry Beets Cuba Committee. The church has also been involved in providing education and materials to churches.
The years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution were very difficult. Christian schools were closed and many church buildings were confiscated, leading to the establishment of discreet house churches—literally a room for worship inside a pastor’s house. In 1962, the government even cancelled Christmas as a national holiday. “Many older Cuban Christians say their ‘Babylonian captivity’ began then,” said Jim Dekker, a retired pastor with a long history of ministry in Cuba.
Things improved slightly in the 1980s. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to Cuba, churches became important to the government as providers of social services and because of their ability to import medical supplies and other scarce goods from supporters abroad. As a consequence, the government relaxed its anti-religious policies somewhat. The number of Christians who worshiped openly on Sunday began to grow.
Today, the focus of the Cuban CRC is on planting churches in small cities rather than in rural areas. These churches are served by young pastors educated at the small CRC seminary that began in 2008 and is located in the CRC headquarters building in Jaguey Grande. Almost every Cuban CRC feeds dozens of seniors—twice a day, five days a week. The church in Amarillas runs a seniors’ ministry out of a nearby house.
Finances are always an issue, however, as are other resources. One wonders how the Cuban CRC could manage without the faithful support of its many sister churches across North America and Europe.
Plymouth Heights CRC in Grand Rapids fosters fellowship between its adults with disabilities and those in Cuban churches. Hillside Community CRC in Cutlerville, Mich., sends mission teams to teach English and train church musicians. Alberta’s Cuba Connection Committee is involved in a $30,000 parsonage project to replace the dangerous, dilapidated home of the pastor of the Torriente congregation. A container will soon leave Edmonton filled with donated medical supplies, bicycles, wheelchairs, sports equipment, clothing, and windows and doors for the Torriente parsonage.
Classis Minnkota regularly sends funds to Cuba. A team from Minnesota plans to travel to Cuba after Christmas to help construct the parsonage. These are just some examples of our denomination’s outreach to Cuba. Money for property, as well as for food, also comes from the Netherlands.
It is widely acknowledged that the December 2014 agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will take years to realize real benefits on the ground for most Cubans. As Miller wrote earlier this year, “Cuban Christians are probably somewhat ambivalent. . . . The conservative ones in particular may view it as a concession to the Cuban government without sufficient recognition of what the island’s religious community has suffered and still suffers in terms of discrimination and persecution. On the other hand, Cuban Christians of all stripes are eager to deepen their connections to theologically congenial churches in North America and elsewhere, and so they will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to travel to conferences and meet with other Christians for mutual encouragement and worship.”
But with greater access to the Internet, there is concern that Cuba will be flooded with morally objectionable media in a culture whose isolation has limited access to such things in the past, Miller wrote. He concluded, “I think that Cuba’s Christians can teach us North American Christians much more than we can teach them about what it means to be faithful followers of Christ.”
Everyone in the group I traveled with would agree with Miller. The pastors and church members we met, like most Cubans, live in small houses that look more like concrete bunkers, uncluttered with material possessions. Most pastors get around and make pastoral visits on old donated bicycles or by horse and cart. The government provides food ration cards that usually run out mid-month. The average income is around $20 a month. But from what little they have, they tithe and do much good work in the name of God—boldly preaching the gospel and worshiping, planting house churches, reaching out to youth through music, and feeding seniors.
“We want to see Jesus lifted high, a banner that flies across this land, that others might see the truth and know. . . .” Singing these words in a church in Havana was a poignant experience. We need to keep God’s people in Cuba in our hearts and prayers as they continue to lift the name of Jesus in this beleaguered country governed by Raul Castro’s Communist party. They have persevered through much, and it means a lot to them to know they are not forgotten.