But will it affect the Church in a positive way?
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
HAVANA, CUBA (ANS – March 21, 2016) — President Barack Obama arrived in Cuba on Sunday, March 20, 2016, for a historic visit to the island and talks with its communist leader, Raul Castro.
He is the first sitting US president to visit since the 1959 revolution, which heralded decades of hostility between the two countries.
Mr. Obama said that “change would happen in Cuba” and that Cuban President Raul Castro “understood that.”
The BBC said that for a US president to touch down at Jose Marti airport in Havana and be warmly greeted by Cuban’s foreign minister was until recently “unthinkable,” adding, “For decades, the US and Cuba were engaged in a bitter stand-off, triggered by the overthrow of US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista by Communist leader Fidel Castro in 1959. The US broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo.
“But President Obama undertook two years of secret talks which led to the announcement in December 2014 that the two countries would restore diplomatic relations.”
However, one Cuban that President Obama will not be meeting with during his two and half day visit to Cuba, is Raul Castro’s older brother Fidel Castro.
“Neither we nor the Cubans have pursued such a meeting,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on a call previewing the president’s trip last week.
Watching the television coverage of the visit has brought memories flooding back to the times I have visited the island, and how I was eventually banned from returning there because of my reporting on the persecution of believers there.
For many, Cuba is an island of mystery and for some Christians, a place of persecution.
My first visit to the communist island took place in 1981 when I was still living in the UK, and I had taken Bibles into Havana along with a team of Christians.
After a night’s rest in a government hotel, we set off to take our “precious cargo” to a downtown Havana church to hand over to the pastor so he could distribute them across the island.
As we were doing this, a little old Cuban man came running towards me. I was startled as he was the image of my father, the Rev. Alfred Wooding, back in England; small and wiry.
“You’re the one,” he said rapidly. “I knew you would come and pray for me!”
My father’s gray-haired double, his eyes moist with tears, continued, “Yes, I had a dream that some visitors would come from abroad and that one of them — you— would pray for me so that I would receive a special blessing. It was your face I saw in the dream.”
I put my arm around his frail shoulders and began praying for him. As I did, I spared a thought for my father, who was some 4,000 miles away. At the time, he was retired and living outside of Liverpool with my mother, Ann. Sadly, since that time, they have both passed away.
Now here I was in Cuba, at the beginning of a new chapter in my life after many years in journalism in London. The year before, I had walked out on my career with Britain’s tabloids, to begin to serve the Lord through my writing.
Suddenly the old man was sobbing deeply. Several other believers joined with our team of Bible couriers for a time of prayer. Soon another Cuban began weeping and for thirty minutes the two cried like babies.
At the end of this moving prayer time, the elderly man wiped his tears and then thrust his arms around me and hugged me tight. I don’t usually make people cry, and I was quite taken aback by what had just happened.
“Why are you so unhappy?” I asked him as he continued to hold me tight.
“I’m not unhappy,” he said as he loosened his grip, “These are tears of joy. You are the first believer from England to come here in the past twenty years to encourage us. You don’t know what it means to us to realize that we are not forgotten!”
It was at that moment, that I realized that God had put a new call on my life – to help persecuted Christians, like those living in Cuba.
Some years later, after my family had moved to Southern California, and Norma and I had started ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times), the first country we visited was Cuba where we began a Sister Church program by linking Cuban churches with those in the United States. (Unfortunately, we no longer have this program.)
During the first visit, I fell in love with the Christians of Cuba and I went back two more times to bring more encouragement and Bibles.
Then I went on my third trip, and when I returned home, I received a huge shock that I had been banned by the government to ever visit the island again.
A friend of mine had been arrested during a trip to the island and was eerily shown my business card by a member of the secret police who asked him if he knew “this person.” My friend didn’t answer the question, but was then told, “If you ever meet him, tell him that if he tries to come back to Cuba, he will be immediately arrested because of the bad stories he has been writing about us.” I guess in some ways that was a badge of honor as it seemed my stories had got under their skin.
Still, I am comforted with the news that the church in Cuba, especially the Protestants, is still growing despite persecution.
Last year, my ANS colleague, Jeremy Reynalds, wrote a story for us called, “How Suffering Made Cuba’s Church Grow.”
In it Reynalds wrote, “As Cuba transitions to a new relationship with the United States, Americans have a renewed interest in learning how the church there has fared for the last 50 plus years.”
He then quoted from a story by Heather Sells for CBN News, in which she said, “The short answer is: amazingly well. In fact, many believe the hardships and suffering have paved the way for an explosion of church planting.
Comfort Not a Concern
“On a typical Sunday morning in Cuba, CBN News reported, you can find churches across the island overflowing with worshippers. Many meet in homes and others meet in churches that look more North American, but operate in a very different political climate.
“Space is the biggest challenge for many churches. Under current government rules they typically cannot buy land or expand. One church CBN News visited responded to the rules by building several stories up. Others cram into homes and multiply when they become too big.”
Pastor “Miguel” leads a church that used to meet in an apartment, but now meets in the yard next to his apartment building.
“When you have 80 to 100 people (meeting) in an apartment it’s hard, very hard,” he told CBN News. “And neighbors get upset.”
Reynalds went on to say that it’s a common theme in Cuban churches, but it seems to have also helped to encourage church growth. In the past 20 years, more than 16,000 evangelical churches have opened their doors.
Pastor “Nestor” and his wife “Rosa” live in one room above their tiny house church. He told CBN News, “One of the things that has made us grow in faith has been the limitations and the difficulties.”
On Sunday mornings and during weeknight services, only a few will have a real seat.
“People here don’t care how comfortable they are,” CBN News reported Rosa said. “They could be exhausted from working all day and they will sit on a bag of rocks, a stitched up chair, or stand the whole service, and they’re okay with that.”
Home Church Explosion
Cuban church leaders say events led by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s sparked the current church planting explosion.
“When the Russian government collapsed Cuba went through a lot, and people started looking to churches for hope,” Pastor “Julio” told CBN News.
“At the same time, the government ended its atheistic philosophy that denied the existence of God and instead declared itself a secular state, prompting an entire generation to question what it believed,” wrote Reynalds, who is also the founder of Joy Junction, New Mexico’s largest homeless shelter, based in Albuquerque.
During that period, CBN News reported, a government official told Cuban Baptists that the government could not authorize the construction of new buildings but suggested that believers meet in homes.
The casual suggestion sparked a house church movement that many have compared to church history recorded in the book of Acts.
Pastor “Francisco” is one of thousands of Cuban house church pastors who follow the Gospel with tremendous passion. He came to the Lord after having dreams about Jesus for three years. Now he leads a small neighborhood church that meets three times a week.
“We have evangelized everyone who lives in this area, a New Testament Bible to each home,” he told CBN News. “We can’t stop — we won’t stop — because even if they won’t accept the Lord the first, second, third or fourth time, even so — we can’t stop until they come to the Lord.”
Victory through Challenge
CBN News said the growth of the church in Cuba is even more miraculous given the country’s poverty. The average monthly government salary is $20, and professionals typically make less than $50.
Still, Cuban churches are known for their generosity and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel.
“What we have we want to share with others,” Francisco said. “What we have, not what we have left over.”
Reynalds stated that another obstacle facing Cuban churches is spiritual warfare in the form of Santeria. It’s a system of beliefs influenced by West African religions and Catholicism. Santeria is known for its rituals and ceremonies.
CBN News said Pastor Nestor has faced resistance right in the neighborhood. During one Sunday morning worship service, a group of Santeria followers stood just outside the church and began beating their drums.
“It was kind of like a spiritual face-off,” Nestor recalled. “The church just started praying and then we prayed for rain and all of a sudden there was thunder so they had to leave.”
Church leaders in Cuba say they’re enjoying a new season of relaxed restrictions. It’s easier to evangelize outside the church and they receive more permits to hold special events.
Still, CBN News said, most churches cannot expand or buy land. They cannot produce Christian radio or television shows.
They must also work around a dysfunctional economy. At Pastor Nestor’s church, remodeling plans for the sanctuary are on hold indefinitely until the church can obtain much-needed cement.
“Sometime without suffering there’s no challenge,” Pastor Nestor told CBN News. “And without that challenge, there’s no victory.”
One report said, “In recent years, violations of freedom of religion or belief have increased in number and severity in Cuba. All religious activities and institutions are strictly regulated by the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
“Leaders of registered religious groups regularly complain that official requests to carry out building repairs, for example, or to register a house church are refused or go unanswered. Cubans associated with unregistered religious groups are routinely harassed and threatened by government officials.
“Cuban authorities attempt to dictate which individuals may or may not attend religious services. Religious leaders who refuse to accede to these demands are frequent targets of the government and some have been victims of violence and arbitrary detention. Cubans associated with independent civil society, including human rights and pro-democracy groups, are physically stopped, and often arbitrarily detained, to prevent them from participating in religious services.”
So now, I, like many other Cuba watchers wonder if President Obama’s visit, will bring more freedom to the Christians of Cuba, and also if my travel ban to the island will be lifted. I can only watch and pray.
Photo captions: 1) Raul Castro and Barack Obama shake hands in Havana. 2) Norma and Dan Wooding in Cuba. 3) A Cuban dissident arrested before Obama arrived on the island. 4) Worship in a Cuban church. 5) A disgruntled Fidel Castro. 6) Dan Wooding.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of some 45 books. He has visited Cuba on three occasions and is currently banned from visit the island because of his reporting activities.
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