About a year ago I visited Cuba with my husband, Larry Bos Sr., and a friend named Bill Boer. We represented the Cuba Committee of the Henry Beets Mission Society of LaGrave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich. Rev. Derk Oostendorp was also there.
I recall sitting on the front porch of the guest house of the Christian Reformed Church congregation in Jagüey Grande and watching the town wake up. Old trucks rattled down the street as the workday began. Adults on bicycles followed them. Horses ambled along, pulling carts.
Then came the schoolchildren, freshly scrubbed, smiles on their faces, and ready for the day. They wore their school uniforms and carried backpacks filled with books. They usually walk to school with a sibling or a mother, since most of them can’t afford the luxury of a bicycle.
When they reach the seventh and eighth grades, the kids are required to attend a government boarding school and are permitted to go home for only two days every other week. Those from Christian homes are in the minority and often get ridiculed for their beliefs.
Imagine the problems of parents trying to make sure their children have a solid foundation in Christian faith before they encounter this secular world. Thankfully, the Christian Reformed churches in Cuba are strong and faithful, teaching biblical principles through Sunday school, catechism, worship services, and summer camps.
It took many years to establish at least 15 CRC congregations in Cuba, but the denomination aims to double that number in a shorter time, says Rev. Enrique Alvarez, president of the executive committee of the CRC synod in Cuba.
“Each local church must start work in a new place with the goal of establishing a daughter church,” says Alvarez. “Some churches have already caught the vision.”
The Cuban CRC is highly organized, holding annual synod meetings at which church officials give a complete report on their finances, education criteria, visions, and goals for the churches. They insist that all churches adhere to the same format in all services.
Nonetheless, the economic needs are many. Pastors of the CRC churches receive the equivalent salary of about $25 (US) each month. That’s why LaGrave Avenue CRC has been active in sending support to the Cuban churches over the years.
During our visit we had the opportunity to visit the CRC church in Calimente. We were ushered to a seat up front and warmly welcomed by a full church. The Sunday school kids came in and sat in the pew in front of us.
Rev. Oostendorp began the service with prayer. As I bowed my head and closed my eyes, I was aware that someone was very close to my face. Slowly opening my eyes, I saw beautiful big brown eyes looking straight into mine. A young boy had his chin on the back of the pew and was staring at me.
He quickly ducked down when he realized that I had seen him, but I had the marvelous feeling that I had been looking into the eyes of the future of the CRC in Cuba.
What’s It Like to Be a Christian in Cuba?
Is it easy or hard to be a Christian in Cuba? If you hand out tracts and preach on the streets without permission, you will be arrested. If you want to hold public outdoor services, you apply for permission to use amphitheatres. Sometimes you get permission; sometimes you don’t. Christians may be harassed, but for years they haven’t been persecuted; there is a difference.
When I first went into Cuba in 1985, I took about 20 Spanish Bibles, together with other texts. I got in with no trouble, but my CRC hosts were dumbfounded. They hadn’t gotten anything for decades and a few of the earlier visitors from Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) had had things confiscated.
For many years, several church buildings that the CRC and others owned were expropriated by the government and used for housing the homeless or for warehouses. This drew bad press in the United States, but the government paid rent to all those churches until years later when they returned the properties.
Over the years, Cuban Christian leaders have shown commitment and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual muscle as they have kept pushing the edges of the envelope of rights for Christians, who have become more open and respected in the society.
Henry Beets Mission Society
The 63-year-old Henry Beets Mission Society is named after one of the first pastors of LaGrave Avenue CRC. “The purpose of the Henry Beets Society is to promote Christian mission activity at LaGrave,” says a history of the society.
Over the years, the society has supported many mission efforts with help from individual members of the church. It has worked in Central America and has helped to support mission work among the Navajo in New Mexico.
The CRCNA and Cuba
Although Back to God Ministries International is not allowed an official ministry presence in Cuba, listeners have received Spanish language broadcasts for years over short-wave radio. Today, BTGMI also sends about 3,000 copies of Cada Dia, a devotional booklet, to people in 54 locations. One reader wrote: “Dear brothers of Cada Dia. May God continue to bless you. We have just received the packages of Cada Dia and you just don’t know the great impact they generate among those to whom we give them. The churches here in Cuba are being strengthened in their faith and continue to grow.”
Christian Reformed World Missions is involved in leadership and evangelism training in Cuba. Joel Hogan, international ministries director for CRWM, says the CRCNA works carefully, but is committed to helping Christians in Cuba. Hogan and Rev. Luis Pellecer, Latin America regional director for CRWM, also sit on the Cuba committee at LaGrave CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., offering advice about how best to help Cuban churches.
The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee started working in Cuba in 2002, helping in disaster relief. CRWRC staff member Joel Zwier travels twice yearly to Cuba from his home in the Dominican Republic. Working with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of Cuba, CRWRC supports a supplemental income-generation program to help families compensate for the ever-increasing list of services and products not subsidized by the Cuban government.
A number of CRCNA congregations and classes also have relationships with churches in Cuba. These include Classis Alberta North, which has a Cuba Connection Committee, and All Nations CRC in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as LaGrave CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.