Bessie Vander Valk was 20 years old when she became convinced that God was calling her to go to Cuba to share the gospel.
Her family and home congregation, Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Paterson, N.J., were dubious, but Vander Valk went anyway. She arrived in the town of Jagüey Grande, southeast of Havana, in 1941.
Soon after, a charismatic young preacher named Angel Vicente Izquierdo came to Jagüey Grande to establish a church. The two began to work together. Vander Valk taught the women and children, and Izquierdo taught the men.
Within five months, they married—a development that proved crucial to the formation of the Christian Reformed Church in Cuba.
Their burgeoning ministry had no formal affiliation with any of the other Protestant denominations on the island. Izquierdo called it La Misión Evangélica al Interior. The mission reached a milestone in 1951 when a church building was constructed in Jagüey Grande.
During the next few years, Izquierdo recruited six workers to extend the mission to new places. At the end of 1958, 12 organized congregations existed, and the Jagüey Grande church was supporting a day school with 75 students and two teachers.
As the work expanded, the most pressing need was for money. Izquierdo and Vander Valk received irregular contributions from two churches in Paterson, but their six full-time evangelists had almost no support. Most of the new believers were people of limited means. Vander Valk had heard that LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., was a financially healthy, mission-minded church, so she asked her husband to contact them.
The late Rev. Jacob Eppinga, LaGrave’s pastor, forwarded the request to the congregation’s missions committee, which immediately commissioned four members, including Eppinga, to explore the situation.
After a three-week visit, which included nightly outdoor preaching before hundreds of believers and warnings of the approach of Fidel Castro’s rebel army, the delegation recommended that LaGrave sponsor the Cuban mission, at least until the needs could be presented to Synod 1959 of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Synod agreed to help, spurring the Misión Evangelica al Interior to become the Interior Gospel Mission of the CRC.
The next decade was hard. Many Cuban CRC members and several pastors left the island because of the many roadblocks to ministry under Castro’s rule. Contacts between the Cuban Christians and supporters in North America grew difficult, owing to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Eventually, a new generation of church leaders arose, combining a fervent evangelical spirit with support for some of the social goals of the Cuban revolution. Chief among these leaders was Erelio Martínez.
A teenager during the revolution, Martínez was ordained in 1963 and became head of the Cuban CRC in 1967.
Under his leadership and that of two other young pastors, David Lee Chang and Pedro Suárez, the Cuban CRC developed a progressive theological emphasis attuned to the contemporary situation. For example, they dedicated the year 1979 to a study of the Old Testament prophets because of their focus on issues of justice and concern for the poor.
The Cuban CRC demonstrated that it had something to offer the new society the government was promoting. With the aid of foreign donors in the United States, Canada, and Europe, the denomination developed an array of social programs, including interest-free loans to homeowners, free meals for homebound seniors, transportation for people with medical appointments in distant cities, and distribution of relief supplies for victims of hurricanes.
While cooperating with the government on social issues, the church also defended the rights of believers. Martínez refused to participate in a public ceremony with a local official who had labeled him a “parasite” until the official apologized. Martinez and other leaders protested strongly when members of their churches were prevented from enrolling in the university because of their Christian beliefs.
A Growing Church
The Cuban CRC has grown considerably in the past two decades. Formal membership has increased from 600 to more than 1,200. The number of fully organized congregations increased from 12 in 1980 to 20 in 2000. The proliferation of house churches permitted an increase in participation by non-members, bringing the number of people connected to the denomination to about 5,000. This period of growth coincided with the restoration of closer ties with the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
In an article in Reformed Worship, Rev. James Dekker, a former CRC missionary, wrote:
“Following the 1959 revolution, Cuban Christians were tough and faithful, but isolated. Sometimes they feared they were dying out, just as the government claimed they would. No single event turned the tide, but accumulated efforts brought changes.”
In 1974 Rev. Erelio Martínez of the Cuban Christian Reformed Church managed to phone Dr. Roger Greenway, Christian Reformed World Missions Secretary for Latin America. That first personal contact in thirteen years was emblematic of a new opening of Cuban churches to Christ’s worldwide ministry.
Members of North American Christian Reformed churches began visiting the island in the 1980s to offer Bible training and bring medical supplies. The Cuba Committee of La Grave CRC provided funds for the repair of old buildings and the construction of new ones.
Although Erelio Martínez died in 2005, evangelists remain active on the island and the church continues to grow, striving to be “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16).