Snapshots of Worship in Cuba: A witness to Christ breaking down walls

How do our sisters and brothers live and worship in Cuba, a land stereotyped for decades as hostile to Christian worship and witness? What can we learn from those members of Christ’s family? The story of their interwoven life and worship challenges and inspires far beyond their borders.

The Christian Reformed Church in Cuba—Iglesia Cristiana Reformada en Cuba—invited me to teach lay leadership in the fall of 2000. From September through November, my fifth and longest visit since 1985, my daughter Jessica, her friend Erica Mol, and I traveled, studied, prayed, and worshiped, marveling at God’s work in Cuba.

Fourteen organized congregations and 120-plus prayer cells and house churches provide spiritual anchors for around 3,500 people—about seven times the number of people in 1985. Most denominations with whom the CRC works in the Cuban Council of Churches have reaped similar harvests. Worship that connects historic biblical teaching to daily life has boldly fertilized God’s Cuban fields.

Growing a Public Witness

After years of dogged spadework, the three-month-long “Celebración Evangélica Cubana” in 1999 fanned throughout the country like Pentecost flames. Leaders of historical Protestant and younger Pentecostal churches won permission to worship in public for the first time in nearly forty years. Starting in April, small village churches celebrated Christ in parks or plazas. In larger cities, services with 1,000 or more praised Jesus in amphitheaters. In several provincial capitals, more than 5,000 Cubans hungry for the gospel of the Man who multiplied two loaves and five fish filled baseball stadia. Finally, on the third Sunday in June, 120,000 Cubans worshiped in Havana’s “Plaza de la Revolución.” President Fidel Castro was among them. Was foxy Fidel merely giving evangelicals equal time for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit? The more complex and compelling truth shows that God’s mysterious Spirit keeps blowing in Cuba more publicly than ever.

Youth Worship

Arriving at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, we ride with Pastor David Lee 130 kilometers to Jagüey Grande. By 8:30 p.m. we enter the weekly youth worship in Cuba’s largest CRC. “Youth” in Cuban churches means ages thirteen to thirty. Generations suffer fewer gaps than we accommodate in North America.

About fifty people gather, sing for a half-hour, divide into prayer groups, and then re-gather for another hour. Pastor Obed Martinez, his wife, Alina Aguila, or an older youth presents a biblically guided lesson on life-forged issues. In 2000 the group was studying Christian sexuality, a course developed by the Latin American Council of Churches. As Cuba’s representative to that body’s executive, Obed travels to South or Central America several times annually. He always returns with new songs or courses to share with the congregation, denomination, and other Cuban churches.

Cuban Christian youth know their villages or neighborhoods well. Most schoolmates never attend worship. Over the years, Christian students have quietly and with great determination gained respect from peers and teachers. About twelve Jagüey Grande CRC youth are university students or graduates. Others are high school students, office managers, barbers, sugar mill or citrus or agricultural workers, or soldiers. (Two years of military service are mandatory for male high school graduates). Ten years ago most did not know Christ. Now they do, because once a church member or worship service drew their attention to Christ’s Spirit in daily life.

Young Cuban Christians find quiet, daring ways to integrate life and worship in a climate once hostile to them. On my first visit in August 1985 to speak at a weeklong camp, thirty-five young people attended. Now the camps stretch over a month with 450-plus youth taking part. More and more unbelievers are feeding on the Bread of Life growing from Holy Spirit yeast. That’s all in preparation for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, for people from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Prayer Worship

Wednesday about 7:00 p.m. Nery Rodríguez enters the Jagüey Grande church to prepare in solitude for leading evening prayers. During our stay, worshipers were praying and meditating through Revelation. Around 8:00 p.m. fifty-some people arrive on foot or bicycle. Lasting more than two hours, the meetings mix community news with prayer and worship. After the gathering hubbub, people sit in wood-slat pews. Whenever possible, I take a solid-seated folding chair; at least I can stand after dismissal instead of painfully prying myself from the slats into which I end up woven.

When Nery stands, the worshipers quiet. After minutes of silence, splendid play-by-ear keyboardist Yosmany starts improvising softly. Soon a few people quietly sing or hum to melodies played on a new synthesizer (a gift from my Thunder Bay congregation). Presently Nery opens with prayer, then leads a number of songs. Among them we sing internationally familiar “Alabaré,” its text quoting Revelation 5.

After the singing, Nery reads and introduces that chapter for the small prayer groups. Embracing the text, she recommends that all prayers weep like John until they experience Christ’s worthiness and power. That power, she reminds us, was shown in his once-for-all sacrifice. It lives still in his weeping and believing people. “Faith shines in our willingness to live enthusiastically for the good of the nation, to praise God. Now go, pray through Revelation 5.”

For the next forty-five minutes, Nery’s reflections help our group weave prayer into daily life. As prayers take off from Revelation 5, some people weep. Parents beg Christ to lead their children who attend state-run residential schools. Two university students pray that Christians in Cuba and in the United States will sacrifice boldly to end the economic blockade. One deaf member signs thanks to God for the recent sign language course taken by more than thirty people from different churches—a course that was jointly funded by the Cuban government and several international ecumenical bodies. Ten years ago, such a project would have been unimaginable. Church and state are strictly separated in Cuba, but Christ sneaks in like a bold thief anyway.

Along Comes Sunday

As in many churches, Sunday school starts at 10:30 a.m. and evening worship at 8:00 p.m. The Jagüey Grande church, built in the 1950s with help from local congregations in Grand Rapids, Michigan, holds 150 worshipers on those dreadful slatted benches. But from 1960 until the mid ’70s, fewer than fifty attended. Now the place overflows twice a Sunday. Persistent prayer, work, and worship, in approximately equal measures—all wrapped in mysterious grace—produced changes that were decades in the making.

By 10:30 a.m., between 170 and 250 people squeeze into the Jagüey Grande church; often another 50 mill outside. Loudspeakers at a farmers’ market next door belt out salsa. (Some believe that is deliberate harassment—not that they much mind; many Christians thrive on salsa and merengue.) Lay leaders teach songs in pre-class worship, take attendance, make announcements. Attenders are asked to hold up Bibles. More than half own Bibles now; twenty-five years ago the congregation owned only five or six tattered Bibles. Canadian tourists started bringing gift Bibles in the 1980s. In the 1990s European Bible societies cooperated to ship more than 500,000 Scriptures and other Christian books. Similar shipments continue.

Before classes begin, offerings are gathered for benevolence and missions. Classes head to side rooms and the third floor of CRC headquarters a block away. An hour later they re-gather to hear tallies of attendance, Bibles, and offerings. Totals in Cuban pesos are announced, plus foreign currencies donated by frequent guests. After they close Sunday school with prayer, members go home for an afternoon of rest, choir practice, baseball games, or visits to hospitals and outlying missions.

By 8:00 p.m. it’s dark, the afternoon heat slowly moderating. As church doors open, people again gather for worship a la cubana. A combo of drums, keyboard, acoustic and electric bass guitars, trumpet—and flute, if we’re lucky—starts jamming. I recognize some hymns, rhythms Latinized, harmonies improvised. Usually 150 people attend, sometimes up to a hip-squeezing 225. As a worship team mounts the elevated platform, the congregation focuses, their din muffling slowly.

A suddenly announced prayer of preparation quiets us. That familiar rite reminds us that the source and goal of worship is Christ, who crosses borders and breaks down walls. Pastor Obed greets us in God’s name, urging us to greet each other. So we do—all of us, for fifteen minutes. As the worship team starts singing, worshipers find their places. Most songs come from the Cuban songbook Cántale a Dios, published in Matanzas, Cuba, in cooperation with Christ for All Nations in 1996. We sing “O Jehová, Omnipotente Dios” to the same melody as “God of All Ages, Whose Almighty Hand.” If songs aren’t in the book, I feel right at home, as eager young overhead operators do their best to focus the projector and—after several hilarious tries—place the text right side up. Some things are the same all over the world.

My daughter Jessica took the sign language course mentioned earlier. Several students were deaf members of the Jagüey Grande CRC. Tonight Jessica leads the fifteen-person deaf choir silently signing “Grande y Fuerte es el Señor Mi Dios” (“Great and Mighty Is the Lord Our God”). The congregation sings two stanzas as the choir keeps signing. On one stanza, only the keyboardist accompanies the signing choir. The church echoes in deafening, awe-filled silence and thanks to God for barriers broken between the hearing and deaf worshipers. God’s healing power strikes us dumb. Christ the Word urges us to hear with new ears, through many tears.

Soon we recite (and some sign) the Apostles’ Creed. Obed reminds us that this symbol of faith ties us in Cuba to people we were separated from for years. Shivers shoot up my spine; I was one of those separated persons. When we respond with “Gloria demos al Padre,” I’m so rattled I can’t decide whether to sing “Glory Be to the Father” in Spanish or English. I mix it up hopelessly; no one notices.

After Marely prays for the Spirit’s leading, she reads Hebrews 11. Pastor Obed has been preaching through Hebrews for two months. He introduces the “heroes of faith” as vessels of grace, not flawless exemplars. “Still today, we’re nomads like Abraham, laughing doubters like Sarah, cheats like Jacob, outcasts and foreigners like the prostitute Rahab. Yet all belong to Christ’s sinful and saved family. God in Christ rescued us, urging and provoking faith in twisted, now forgiven, hearts.” Obed’s message resonates with the Heidelberg Catechism’s themes of sin, salvation, and service.

Obed lingers on Hebrews 11:30. “Israel’s God-forged belief tumbled Jericho’s walls. Our nation’s thirty-five-year-old walls have only started to tumble by faith.” He names walls, some tumbled, others cracking, others still rock solid: “We worship freely here—but outside? We still need written permission. Pray in faith. Governmental agencies have justly permitted us to rebuild several churches and parsonages—but others are falling apart. We only dream vaguely of Christian broadcasting and publishing. It took years to obtain permission for a seniors lunch program in [nearby] Agramonte—but many more there and elsewhere need both lunch and the Bread of Life. Keep praying. Amen.”

This is worship in Cuba—often familiar, yet startlingly new, daringly engaged in society and always grounded in Christ’s gentle lordship over persons, church, state, and world. Faithful worship everywhere points us to and beyond walls Christ breaks down, so God’s people can stand up for Jesus with joy, beauty, and courage until he returns.

For over forty-two years of living in the Cuban Revolution, lay leaders and the few ordained pastors in Cuban churches have mined Christian tradition with creative and daring contextualization. Worship engages daily life, even—or especially—when risky. As a result, many Cuban churches have managed to redeem significant parts of a society that some had declared outside of God’s embrace. Through prayer and work and bold, imaginative thinking, Cuban Christians have poured hearts, minds, and bodies enthusiastically into every nook and cranny of their lives, churches, and nation.

Though it’s impossible and foolish for us on the mainland to import wholesale orders of worship, practices, and techniques, I offer two whimsical “recipes” (see below) that attempt to show the heart of Cuban worship. Some of the songs I’ve mentioned in the article are available both in Spanish and English. Yet week after week in Cuban worship I heard new Bible songs—simple, singable, most probably not long-lasting, but all fitting the day’s need.

May worship committees all over God’s kingdom freely claim God’s space in our world and keep worship hand in hand with daily living.

Excerpt

Christ Gives Guille a Home

Although babyhood meningitis left Guille (gui-zhay) mentally undamaged, he suffers severe spasticity. Until he attended a school for handicapped children at age eleven, he couldn’t walk or talk—only lie in bed and howl. He told me, now laughing, “Jim, I was such a dope back then.” (“Mira, Jaime, era un bobo completo.”)

Back home three years later, Guille still had a tough life. Kids cruelly imitated his lurch. They wouldn’t help him eat or drink, just so they could watch him jam the spoon or cup he couldn’t control into his nose or eyes. Then they’d howl. When Guille was eighteen, he started hanging around nearby resorts, cadging drinks and a few dollars. Returning home, Guille found mean-spirited peer acceptance. Friends thought it great fun to get Guille drunk.

Once, when his family ran out of food, he lurched to CRC offices. Christians in Cuba’s controlled society may not invite people to worship or programs unless first asked; Guille was asking. Families welcomed him; deacons helped his family with food. Soon Guille started attending Saturday’s youth worship, hearing about Jesus for the first time. Months later he was baptized and made profession of faith. I’ll never forget hearing Guille sing “Demos Gracias al Señor” (“Let’s Give Thanks to the Lord”) in church. Now he works for the CRC, cleaning offices, running errands on his heavy-duty tricycle. Long ago once-mocking friends quit laughing. Several attend the youth worship.

 

Weeping Like John

Nery Rodríguez knows weeping. Her mother was twelve years old, living in the Bay of Pigs town Playa Giron, forty miles from Jagüey Grande, at the time of the CIA-sponsored invasion in 1961. As she fled, she was wounded in both feet by an attacking fighter plane. Her bloodstained white shoes are now on display in Playa Giron’s Bay of Pigs Invasion Museum. Like many Cubans, Nery was raised hostile to the gospel (Christians often suffered guilt by association with churches in the invaders’ land). Eight years ago, Nery and her mother sought medical help at a small government-run hospital in Playa Giron. There Nery heard that the Cuban church had donated to the hospital basic medical supplies and medications given by Christian visitors to Cuba.

Nery’s curiosity awoke. These Christians are Cubans too—they care about soul and body, she thought. Like Guille earlier, Nery asked in need and received what she asked for through Christ’s church—just as Jesus promised. Weeping led Nery to worship and a new life.

 

Christ Crossing Borders

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. Cuban Christians had not died out; they were on eternal life support. Many heard The Back to God Hour’s radio program “Hora de la Reforma,” with preaching by the late Rev. Juan Boonstra, on a signal from Quito, Ecuador. Christ walks on wavy water; radio waves filled with his name jump iron curtains.

The Cuban Council of Churches never opposed the government, but transparently looked for ways to present Christ. Church leaders nursed regular, obligatory meetings with officials from municipal, provincial, and national Ministries of Religious Affairs. Preachers insisted on constitutionally guaranteed rights of assembly and worship, also claiming equal work and education opportunities for Christians. “Christians were never persecuted,” declares Rev. Erelio Martínez. “Some officials harassed and discriminated against us. But the constitution was on our side. Church leaders organized, crossing denominational boundaries for the first time in my life. Now we are loyal Cubans, uncomfortable friends of government.” Such courage shows in the harvest of Cuban worship. Christians are no longer isolated, nor is their worship politically compromised jingoism. It presents Christ in Cuban clothes.

 

Recipes for Worship

Weekly Cuban Prayer Worship

Ingredients

1 or 2 leaders who pray with eyes open—one eye on the Bible, the other on what’s happening around them
A Bible book to work through, chapter by chapter, week by week (The New Testament letters to the churches are splendid, though don’t forget Ezra, Esther, Nehemiah or the minor prophets. All these have fed God’s people in times of crisis.)
A weekly time dedicated to communal prayer—morning, noon, or evening
A musician who knows the Bible and many different hymns and Bible songs, someone who thinks prayerfully about her community’s daily life and can select or write music to fit Scripture passages and themes
As many or as few who wish to gather—from 2-3 to 30-50
Belief that there is no magic ingredient for worship; faith sees God everywhere

Cooking Instructions

Mix together in one room; provide a time of silence.
Sing songs of praise, prayer, lament, or petition, according to local needs.
Read the selected Scripture, drawing life events into brief subsequent reflections. For groups of more than 10 people, split into smaller groups, mixing ages and gender, giving instructions to pray through the passage, and personalizing prayer for church, community, nation.

Cooking Time

You figure it out. When prayers are well-done—and it’s OK if they sometimes overheat—gather all together in one room again for parting songs and blessing.

Weekly Cuban Education Worship

Ingredients

People of all ages
Worship team with variety of instruments and singers
Space to gather everybody—works best when jammed
Teachers and aids for ten or more age groups
Integrated theme and materials for all classes, provided by Christian Education Committee
Songbooks, overhead projector, good memories—or any combination thereof
Young, enthusiastic overhead operators—preferably no more than three at a time . . .

Cooking Instructions

Gather for 30 minutes.

Let worship team teach new songs, rehearse well-known songs. Provide time for community announcements.

Count Bibles and gather offerings for missions, community crisis-pregnancy center, or other needy cause.

Don’t worry too much about noise.

Divide into small class groups; scatter around sanctuary, side rooms, or nearby homes.

Work through lesson, including all members if possible.

Determine who is absent and assign two members to visit.

Return to church for brief reports from classes, singing, and dismissal.

Cooking Time

At least 2 hours.