The Republic of Cuba
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The largest island in the Caribbean is the island of Cuba. Christopher Columbus visited the island in 1492 at which time it was occupied by Arawak and Ciboney Indians and soon came under Spanish colonial rule. Sugar plantations were developed with labor from African slaves and sugar became the basis for the island economy. Sugar still accounts for a full half of the county’s exports and is the third-largest sugar producing nation in the world. The slave industry was finally abolished in 1878 and island became independent in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. Though not allowed to annex the island the U.S. installed a governor, established a military base at Guantanamo Bay and began to promote tourism. Soon two-thirds of the island’s farmland was owned by Americans. In mid-1930s Depression led to civil unrest and the corrupt regime of Dictator Fulgencio Batista took control of the island from President Morales. In 1958 an army led by Fidel Castro captured Havana and led to the establishment of a Communist monopoly which has maintained power to this day. However with the collapse of Soviet communism, upon which Cuba was highly dependent, times have been difficult.
Within two decades of Columbus’ visit to Cuba Dominican missionaries had brought Catholicism to the island and it flourished under Spanish rule. However, with the establishment of the Castro government and the advent of communism the religious liberties of the Cuban people were sharply curtailed. Today half of the people of the island have no religious affiliation. The Roman Catholic tradition accounts for 40% of the population while the remaining ten percent are Protestant and African Spiritist faiths.
The history of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Cuba can be traced back over one hundred years, to the earliest days of Cuban independence. The Spanish-American War piqued the interest of the American people in the island neighbor to the south and the Foreign Christian Missionary Society capitalized upon that interest by sending Mr. and Mrs. Lowell C. McPherson and Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Menges to Havana in the fall of 1899. Upon arrival in the city the missionaries began renting quarters and were soon making friend among the Americans and Cubans. Initially attendance was small but interest was good enough that soon a number of baptisms were reported. A Sunday school was opened and a day school teaching English was not far behind. One difficulty encountered was the high turn over in American soldiers which meant an unstable English speaking congregation. Also the effects of the war were particularly felt by the native peoples. Opposition from the Catholic clergy was also strong.
By 1902 the Menges moved a distance of fifty miles to Matanzas to open a second work. A very fine stone and concrete building was soon constructed. At least two local young men were trained to carry out the work looking toward the eventual departure of the missionaries; they were Julio Fuentes and Jacobo Gonzalez. With the addition of several more missionaries over the next few years a building was engaged in one of the best sections of Havana for a school with the hope of it someday becoming a college. This work proved to be quite expensive and was discontinued by 1907. In addition to the expense of running the Cuba station it was difficult to secure workers who would commit to a long-term work on the island. From 1899 until the work was closed in about 1916 a dozen missionaries were sent to Cuba by the Foreign Society. In the end the work was turned over to the Presbyterian Board of Missions and the buildings were sold to them for $18,000. Despite the difficulties associated with the work in Cuba there were those who for the next several years advocated continued efforts in Cuba.
In 1937 two Cubans who had been living in Florida –Ernesto Estevez and Jose Ricardo Jimenez- returned to their island and established a cappella congregations modeled after those they had witnessed un the United States. This indigenous work grew rapidly in pre-Communist Cuba soon reaching 5,000 members in 161 congregations, many meeting in homes. But with the advent of Castro’s Communist regime some church buildings were destroyed, home meetings were forbidden, and Christians were persecuted. Within ten years that number was reduced to only seven legally approved groups. In 1990 the membership of these seven legal (and one illegal group) numbered about 400 with nine native preachers serving the needs of the body. In addition a military congregation met at the military base at Guantanamo Bay.
With the fall of communism elsewhere in the world the religious climate in Cuba also began to change. Soon American and Canadian evangelists began making trips into Cuba, campaigns began to be conducted, students were being enrolled in Bible correspondence courses, receptivity to the Gospel began to grow and several hundred, if not thousands, were baptized in the 1990s. The Church of Christ became officially registered in Cuba and Basilio Roberto Flores is listed as president. Though there are still many restrictions the government did recently allow a new building to be built in Matanzas. The May 2000 census of Churches of Christ shows 105 active congregations with a membership of 3500. In March of 2001 550 people attended the Third Annual Cuban Churches of Christ Lectureship which had the historic precedent of being conducted in the Cuban national capital building.
In about 1996 the American Christian Churches and Churches of Christ agencies Hasten International (under the direction of Dr. Dennis Pruett) and White Fields Evangelism (under the direction of Reggie Thomas) began a cooperative effort in order to secure a foothold in Cuba. These efforts were soon augmented by the addition of Peace on Earth Ministries (POEM under the direction of Victor Knowles). The combined efforts have produced a bible school, Be Ye Reconciled to God Bible Institute, in Havana and the establishment of the Christian Churches in Cuba, though not officially registered by the government. During the first year of the church’s existence in Cuba 163 people were baptized and nine house churches were established. In the next six years the combined efforts of the three ministries mentioned above plus additional efforts by Team Expansion and A.R.M. Outreach International (under the direction of Joe Garman) has seen more than thirty evangelistic trips made into Cuba and the establishment of at least thirty-five house churches.
Despite all of these trips and the growth of the house churches Christians in Cuba are still not free to worship as they please. The Vice President of the Consul of Churches in Cuba still warns that Christian activity is being closely monitored, as is travel into the country. Preaching, even with a Religious Visa, is yet illegal in Cuba, however, teaching is permitted.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) financially support work in Cuba through the Pentecostal Church in Cuba and the Ecumenical Council of Cuba and were recently recognized for their ecumenical activity in Cuba.
Clinton J. Holloway
National Profiles Editor
For further historical reference:
Churches of Christ Around the World, Lynn, Mac, 21st Century Christian Publications, Nashville, TN, 2003.
The History of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, Archibald McLean, Fleming Revell Company, 1919.
See the indices of the Christian Standard and the Christian-Evangelist for references to the early missionary activity in Cuba. Also see the biographical files for these missionaries at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee.
Contact information for the registered Churches of Christ in Cuba, Iglesia De Christo En Cuba, in Havana, is unavailable.
A cappella Churches of Christ
Web site: http://www.churches-of-christ.net
Be Ye Reconciled to God Bible Institute, Havana (For information contact White Fields Evangelism listed below.)
Hasten International, Dr. Dennis Pruett
Web site: http://www.missionsalive.org/hasten
Peace on Earth Ministries, Victor Knowles