Cuba is one of the United States’ closest neighbors by water—roughly 90 miles from the Florida coast—and an object of constant fascination and speculation. Though most Americans have a picture of the island country in their mind, few stateside Christians know how God is at work there. In January 2017 the In Touch Messenger Lab sent a team to Havana and Cienfuegos to teach groups of energetic pastors and lay people our Life Principles curriculum and distribute hard-to-come-by Christian resources. What we found was a church already alive with devotion to Christ and passion for spreading the gospel.
JOHN We land in Havana with luggage a little heavier than usual. In my bag, Spanish Bibles are nestled under my clothes along with electronic tablets, each filled with biblical content plus sermons and commentaries. We’re not smuggling, but whenever we bring a lot of resources into a country, there is prayerful concern for everything to make it through. And in this case, everything does.
Victor Gonzalez, a broad man with salt-and-pepper hair and a brush mustache, leads us from the airport to a waiting van for a short ride to our hotel. On the drive, I crane my head to get a first, long-anticipated look at Cuba. Everyone asks about the cars—1950s classics with tail fins, ragtops, and shiny chrome bumpers—and they are plentifully present, many in mint condition with exotic colors never dreamed up on the American assembly line. And there are government billboards in abundance, with messages that translate to things like “health for all,” and “ever onward to victory.” People walk languidly down modern streets, past palm trees and faded stone buildings.
After a few hours’ rest, Gonzalez, who is president of the Cuba Baptist Convention, takes us to Sunday night service at a small neighborhood church, brightly identified by a sign emblazoned with images of a cross and an open Bible. We ascend an exterior stairway to the sanctuary, where we worship in the company of about 50 well-dressed believers. José “Chema” Reinoso, an In Touch instructor, speaks with an open Bible in his hand.
The Life Principles Conference is a way of equipping local—and largely untrained—pastors around the world. Over the last few years, In Touch has taken the seminar to places like Chile, Dominican Republic, Honduras,
Kenya, and South Sudan. But on our first full day in Cuba, I wonder how our three instructors will adapt their teaching for men and women who are not just formally trained, but professors and teachers themselves. Before the conference begins, my colleague Joel Zaldumbide tells me, “They will keep us on our toes.”
STEFANI For this stop on our trip, women and men are receiving instruction separately. I follow the stream of women pouring into a narrow room adjacent to the sanctuary of Havana’s Baptist Seminary. Making their way around the small space, they greet one another with a hand on the shoulder and a kiss to the cheek. It appears that many of them have met before, thanks to the close-knit Baptist community in Cuba. From worship leaders and seminary professors to missionaries and pastors, these women have all gathered together as fellow ministers of the gospel in their nation’s capital.
In Touch instructor Jennifer Rosania introduces the Life Principles content. She explains that each woman will be presented with tools to use in her individual ministry. Two women, Marcia and Sabdy, tell me later that they have friends in the States who mail them the Spanish devotional En Contacto every month. “Before, when we got materials, we used to keep them to ourselves,” Marcia said, making a self-hugging motion, “but now, when we receive, we give and share with others.”
Fresh Christian content is hard to come by in Cuba. A few older books are shelved in local churches, but Marcia tells me most people in ministry earn only about $20 a month, which means buying new books is out of the question. She says most of these women have no personal computer—and for those who do, internet service is sparse and spotty. And since it’s expensive to download files and print copies, they will simply read and retain content the old-fashioned way—by memory.
JOHN The Seminario Teológico Bautista sits high above a sleepy Havana neighborhood, but it is buzzing with life. Theology students fill the classrooms on the lower floor, while dozens of men and women settle in upstairs for the two-day conference. Gonzalez stands in front, sifting through the contents of a backpack loaded with In Touch resources. As he describes the items available to each attendee, there is noticeable excitement in the room, particularly about the tablet.
During a break, I meet Carlos, who says his name is masculine in a way that means, “I can produce many children!” When we realize that I have one child more than he does, he jokes, “Then you are more Carlos than I!” For years, Carlos ignored God’s call on his life, unwilling to do the difficult work of pastoring. But Zaldumbide’s testimony—which is quite like his own—has encouraged him. If there was any mourning over lost time, he seems to be comforted. And this is one of the great benefits these pastors and leaders will gain from the conference.
I strike up a conversation with Rolando, who shows me the Messenger he carries in a little handmade pouch clipped to his belt. He listens to the Scriptures in the morning and Dr. Stanley’s messages in the afternoon, selecting the English tracks so he can improve his language skills. Like most of the men and women here, he wears multiple hats—not only is he a pastor and seminary professor, but together with his wife, he also runs the Baptist Convention’s family ministry.
STEFANI The women stop for a brief break with sweet espresso and sticky pastries before Rosania opens up the next session. “In the early church movement,” she explains from the front of the room, “the gospel spread far and wide without telephones and cars—by the power and will of God at work through His disciples.” I know that, much like the men in the next room, these women have made many sacrifices to work for the Lord instead of in a government-paid job. “Some of you have come in with great burdens on your soul and in your life,” Rosania says warmly, looking at the faces before her—“but most of the biblical characters did not have their eyes on the circumstances in front of them.”
The final slide shows the painting of Daniel crying out to the Lord from the pit—with the lions prowling behind him. I watch four of the women raise their small flip phones to snap a photo. “We’re going to face lions in our life,” says Rosania, “but we must obey God and leave the consequences to Him.”
JOHN Cienfuegos is a city 233 kilometers to the east, toward central Cuba. Men have traveled here from the mountains or distant towns for the 10 lessons that make up this conference. Raimon, one such man, has hitchhiked 43 kilometers from the outskirts of Santa Clara to Cienfuegos. This is how he prefers to travel. Every trip becomes a conversation with a new friend, and in this way, Raimon has come to understand “the heartbeat of the people.”
On foot or on bicycle, a man named Rojellio covers about seven kilometers of mountain terrain a day, planting and cultivating house churches—five to date. Seventy people have been baptized in 8 years. “They are few,” he says, “but very faithful.”
The hosts of the conference in Cienfuegos are Everardo Hernandez and his wife Andrea. Everardo says that the seminar’s content is “pure doctrine” and that the pastors of Cuba need events like this to strengthen them. Preachers and teachers must continually be challenged to live out the gospel, knowing that God’s grace is sufficient for the work.
But this begins at home. Reinoso is in the seminary chapel of Cienfuegos, moving purposefully up the aisle and between the men. “We were designed to be connected to God,” he tells them. “Our first ministry is to ourselves, then our family.”
STEFANI In both Havana and here in Cienfuegos, I’ve noticed that the pastors call themselves “misioneros”—missionaries. In English, the word is usually reserved for those who leave their homeland to travel abroad and share the gospel in a foreign tongue. But most of the pastors we spoke to had never even left the island. Instead, they walk up and down the streets, planting house churches in their own cities and traversing rural dirt roads between villages familiar since birth.
Whether in a vacant building at the base of a mountain, an ancient brick church in the middle of the city, or a small home nestled inside a neighborhood, each family of believers shines like a lighthouse across a vast sea. And every day, God is bringing the lost to their doorsteps.
In Havana, we met Aonarys while standing outside Iglesia Bautista El Calvario. He had no knowledge of Christ when he began walking down the street one day and—as if by an invisible force—stopped in front of a church. The Sunday service was in session, and a pastor standing outside asked, “What are you looking for?” Bewildered, Aonarys answered, “I don't know, but I'm here!” By the end of the service, he was on his face at the altar confessing Christ as Lord and Savior.
I can’t help but think of how many others there are, aimlessly wandering in search of the answer to a question they didn’t know they had. I wonder when they will wander past a house filled with faces uplifted to heaven, hands and voices elevated in unison. When they do, these missionary pastors will be there to receive them into God’s growing family.
Photography by Ben Rollins